How the War on Sex Work Crushes Underprivileged Women

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That prohibitionist laws are always, always, enforced more heavily upon the poor, the disadvantaged, and minorities is not, I think, controversial. One would have to contort one’s brain in a manner worthy of a Cirque du Soleil performance to ignore the facts that cops more heavily patrol poor and minority neighborhoods and actively look for people to arrest; that judges and juries have less sympathy for those they perceive as “others”; and that, because poor people overwhelmingly lack the resources to mount an adequate criminal defense (or even bail), they are far more likely to plead guilty to whatever a prosecutor offers, just so they can get it over with and at least try to get back to their lives. Protectionist laws (including occupational licensing) similarly harm those who are not yet established in a field, since nonincumbents are less likely to be consulted about the content of those laws and far less likely to be able to afford compliance costs after the regulations take effect.

These are among the reasons sex workers almost universally prefer prostitution “decriminalization” to the regulatory systems characteristic of what is called “legalization.” The former—unlike so-called drug decriminalization—takes sex work out of the hands of the police altogether, while the latter plants a thicket of special sex-work-specific rules, regulations, laws, licenses, permits, codes, and prohibitions that invariably creates a two-tiered system: one for those who have the money, knowhow, political or business connections, and other resources to comply and thus function “legally,” and one for those who do not. In every country with a “legalized” system, we see the same pattern: Well-connected businesspeople who have never themselves done sex work buy up all the brothel licenses, while racial or gender minorities, migrants, and other disadvantaged groups are far more likely to be arrested for working illegally within that “legal” system—often for violating the same kinds of ridiculous and unnecessary rules that governments love foisting upon industries to which politicians or the cartels who own them have taken a dislike.

Even within the fully criminalized systems typical in the United States, there are glaring disparities of enforcement. Most of y’all reading this probably already know that while white and nonwhite Americans use recreational drugs at roughly equal rates, minorities are arrested more frequently, charged more heavily, and more frequently caged (and for longer terms). And most of y’all can probably guess that it’s the same with sex work: While there are sex workers and clients of every description, sex workers of color, trans sex workers, and street workers are dramatically more likely to be hassled, arrested, and even robbed or raped by police than their white, cisgender, and indoor-working counterparts. Black trans street workers, falling into all of these groups, practically have targets painted on their backs; they’re often arrested merely for daring to show their faces outdoors, a phenomenon that activists call “walking while trans.” The same is true for their clients: Poor minority men who can only afford the (generally lower-priced) services of street workers are far more likely to be ensnared by policewomen looking to entrap them into committing a crime than are affluent white men who visit “high-end” escorts who discreetly do business in apartments or houses in “nice” neighborhoods. In one raid a few years ago, nearly every surname of the men arrested in a “john sting” in Seattle was Hispanic, despite the fact that Seattle is, to put it politely, much less ethnically diverse than most U.S. cities.

Just as poverty, minority status, and other disadvantages make people more vulnerable to the predations of police and prosecutors, so too do such attributes expose them to a greater likelihood of exploitation by criminals and unscrupulous businesspeople who don’t quite qualify as criminals (but are bad enough). Disadvantaged sex workers face a greater likelihood of violence from people—whether law enforcement or civilian sexual predators—posing as clients. And they usually lack the resources to set themselves up as indoor escorts, which requires things like professional photos, quality lingerie, a professional-looking website, advertising, beauty treatments, the rent for an “incall” location in a neighborhood wealthier men won’t be afraid to visit, the cost of a dependable car for doing “outcalls”—I could go on, but I suspect you get the picture.

It shouldn’t be surprising that, in desperation, some women will become involved with smooth-talking boyfriends or other middlemen who promise to help them access those things and thereby move off the street into a safer mode of work. But often, the boyfriend is a liar, or the middleman wants more money or more control than the sex worker anticipated, and before she knows it she finds herself in an exploitative or abusive situation. Both the frequency and the severity of such situations have been outrageously exaggerated by moralists, who liberally bandy about the label “sex trafficking,” who characterize the workers involved as passive victims rather than rational actors trying to do the best they can with very limited options, and who pretend that exploitation is the norm in our trade rather than an outlier (and an occurrence that would be even less common in the absence of prohibition). Nonetheless, as you can imagine, these situations are more common among poor women, migrants, underage sex workers, and so on.

The artificial hysteria around “sex trafficking” has made it an effective excuse for any oppressive law the government wants to pass, beginning with more money for cops and expanding into mass surveillance, greater restrictions on women’s movement in public, and—perhaps most pernicious of all—internet censorship.

In March 2018, Congress passed a legislative package colloquially known as FOSTA-SESTA and formally known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. Even before President Donald Trump signed it into law a few weeks later, it had done tremendous damage to the sex work ecosystem.

The law makes a web platform liable for “facilitating prostitution” and “sex trafficking” (neither of which it defines adequately) if someone uses it to advertise illegal services. The chilling effect was dramatic; the majority of sites frequented by sex workers immediately shut down, closed themselves off to U.S. visitors, enacted draconian censorship policies, or—if the site’s entire business model was based in sex work advertising, as with industry leader—established a series of continually changing, increasingly incomprehensible, and confusingly silly rules about the types of pictures, links, and words that would be allowed. At about the same time, the feds shut down Backpage, the colossus of inexpensive sex work ads; its former owners have been subjected to a campaign of persecution that has not yet run its course.

Almost overnight, the industry was thrown into chaos worldwide. Although it was founded by Americans, Backpage was popular in Australia and many other places where prostitution is legal to one degree or another. Sex workers in those countries were forced to scramble for new ways to advertise their services. In some cases, they opted to build their own websites, domiciled and hosted in countries beyond the reach of American puritanism.

In the United States, the consequences have been nothing less than catastrophic. Many disadvantaged sex workers were forced to return to street work. Some younger women who had never worked without online ads were pushed to the street for the first time, placing them in far greater danger than either their indoor-working sisters or the older outdoor workers who at least knew what to expect. Naturally, “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) interests reacted badly to the increasing number of street workers, and many police departments have responded with more raids and arrests on popular strolls.

Other U.S. sex workers were able to scrape together the resources to move to more expensive ad sites, such as the aforementioned Eros. But the personal information that platform now demands that advertisers share—scans of a photo ID with legal name clearly displayed, full-face photos in the same outfits used in face-blurred ad shots, etc.—have become so terrifyingly invasive that many established escorts, myself included, have abandoned it on the theory that the company may be amassing data to offer as a bargaining chip when the feds come after it, as the Department of Justice has already indicated it will.

Even those who have succeeded in moving into more “upscale” forms of work have a big problem: In recent years, U.S. law enforcement agencies have been adopting the faux-feminist “end demand” model of prohibition, which involves prosecuting clients more heavily than sex workers. A goal of this strategy is to win the support of carceral feminists who can’t or won’t comprehend that attacking a business’s clients is an attack on the business, regardless of rhetoric.

The shift has understandably made potential clients much warier that the “escort” behind an ad might actually be a gang of cops out to ruin their lives—and that in turn has made many men more reluctant to provide the personal information that sex workers use to screen potential customers. Of course, established providers will generally have a considerable online footprint (ratings and reviews, a blog or Twitter account, a personal website, videos, searchable pictures—even articles in libertarian magazines!) that would-be clients can examine to help them be sure a sex worker is the real McCoy and not a trap. More mature ladies also generally have a healthy number of regular clients built up over years. I’ll be just fine, for example—and every time I’m quoted in an interview or appear in a documentary, I get more requests for dates.

You know who isn’t likely to have such an unmistakably real internet presence? Those who are trying to move indoors from the street. Those who used to take out cheap Backpage ads and don’t have their own professional websites. Part-timers who can’t be too conspicuous about their side hustle for fear of losing their day jobs (or their kids). Those who were new to the industry when FOSTA-SESTA hit. 

In short, the disadvantaged. And so, as is always the case, the effects of prohibition and policing fall most heavily on those members of society who already suffer far more than their share of misfortune and violence.

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