Across all fifty states, except for eleven counties in Nevada, prostitution is illegal. Due to the criminalization of sex work, those working in the industry are vulnerable to financial exploitation by strip club management, pimps, or corporate administrative powers on platforms like Onlyfans. Compounding the issue, sex workers have no legal protection against violence. The problem of legal support and mutual aid for sex workers has been a topic of increasing importance as sex workers are speaking out against violence committed by customers, managers, and the police. However, lawmakers often fail to center or even include sex workers in conversations about policies purportedly created in their interests.
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, many sex workers have moved their businesses from strip clubs and other in-person venues to online platformーmaking social media the primary drivers for sex workers to promote themselves and their fan sites to continue generating income in spite of stay at home orders.
However, in December 2020, Instagram changed its terms of service and has been purging its platform of sex workers by shadow banning, deleting sex worker accounts, and removing posts and hashtags containing words like “Onlyfans,” “promotion,” “sex work,” and “stripper.” Although social media platforms are private companies that withhold the right to allow or censor content, sex workers have been voicing their frustrations on platforms like Twitter, which is considered more friendly to sex workers.
The growing use of social media and fan sites has garnered increased attention towards sex workers. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the industry to shift greatly, and because of growing attention, some celebrities have decided to engage in sex work themselves for financial benefits.
In a post on social media, Bella Thorne informed her fans that she would be making an Onlyfans account where she would be selling nude photographs of herself for $200 in the form of a “pay per view” direct message to all of the purchasers. However, paying customers received a $200 “nude photo” that contained no nudity, causing many angry customers to complain to the Onlyfans headquarters. In her first 24 hours on the site, Bella Thorne made $1 million, but she also received hundreds of thousands of dollars of chargebacks from angry clients who claimed they were cheated. Miss Thorne broke the internet with her sensationalization of sex work, but due to the amount of charge backs, Onlyfans changed their policies.
Sex workers who had been on the site long before Bella Thorne now face less frequent payouts, decreased maximum tip amount, and lower maximum “pay per view” direct message price. Onlyfans changed its terms and conditions because of Bella Thorne’s experiment, resulting in a decline of financial feasibility for sex workers who rely on this platform for income. However, the problem of censorship, abuse by the rich and powerful, and constant interference run much deeper than this. Laws built to keep individuals in a state of stigmatized second class citizenship are passed all the time.
Although sex work has become more mainstream in recent years, laws like SESTA/FOSTA (2017) that are currently in place leave sex workers in legal limbo with little to no legal protection. The illegal status of sex work allows individuals and large corporations to steal nude content and manipulate female sexuality by producing watered down movies about the plight of a prostitute. As vice squads utilize “hoe-logics”—a form of viewing sex workers as inferior beings that are ‘wild,’ lawless, and potentially dangerous—they project a historically-rooted image of gender norms that stigmatizes female sexuality.
Areas of legislation that need further attention are the protection from theft of intellectual property (e.g., Dollskill stealing original outfit designs from strippers or an online patron copying nude content from a cam girl’s website to redistribute on Pornhub for free); safety measures that protect sex workers’ physical bodies from harm inflicted by violent clients; and access to safe preventative health care.
Many of the legal issues stem directly from the stigma attached to purchasing sexual services. Male clients in particular often become angry after the service has concluded, taking their insecurities out on working people—as was the case for Alisha Walker, a 25 year-old prostitute who was threatened with a knife after setting a firm boundary about the extent of services she was willing to provide to a client. In self defense, she managed to wrestle the knife from the client’s hand and stabbed him, ultimately resulting in his death. Unfortunately for Alisha Walker, she is currently serving a fifteen year sentence in an Ohio state prison for refusing to be killed by a client. Instead of referring to her as a person who fought for her life in a dire situation, they demonized her in the media while portraying her attacker as a “popular teacher” and “community member,” rather than someone who felt entitled to a woman’s body. This is a manifestation of male entitlement and the belief that sex workers are sexually available under any and all conditions.
Power dynamics are further agitated by the fact that many sex workers identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC). The perpetual struggle for autonomy, coupled with ambiguous legalities, and the backwards racial hierarchy in America allows police to enforce and uphold the current power structure and simultaneously project their beliefs about the superiority of the white elite which grants the ruling class eternal objectivity (Belesio-De Jesús 2020: 3). Police involvement via sting operations often end with married white men going home to their families and BIPOC sex workers in jail—they project a historically-rooted image of gender norms that stigmatizes female sexuality as they harass and even assault sex workers.
The Secondary Effects for Sex Workers Study Act (SESTA/FOSTA) is a bill that was introduced to congress in 2017 by Kamala Harris and her ragtag team of neoliberal capitalists (S.3165 — 116th Congress 2019-2020). Harris’ legislation was directly related to halting sex trafficking opperations in the US by surveiling internet platforms for information to prosecute individuals and corporations for operating illegal sex trafficking rings. However, SESTA/FOSTA lumped all sex workers—including voluntary and/or survivalist sex workers—into the same category of victims and/or survivors of human trafficking (S.3165 — 116th Congress 2019–2020). By employing the new law, police and federal agents target voluntary sex workers and indiscriminantly treat them as criminals rather than victims, when in reality they are neither.
These new laws fail to address online human trafficking and instead set out to incriminate sex workers on platfoms like Twitter and Onlyfans. Additionally, SESTA/FOSTA removed the option to work in strip clubs as independent contractors, which further exacerbated the economic abuse that many dancers and sex workers already experience in California at the hands of their managers. Although on paper SESTA/FOSTA appears harmless, and if anything promotes job safety and wage regulation, the law has arguably created a more dangerous atmosphere within strip clubs and has disrupted the flow of business. SESTA/FOSTA has been met with a wave of backlash from sex workers from every sphere of sex work who ultimately agree that it has negatively impacted our preffered working conditions and has created barriers between sex workers and the ease of their payment methods.
Historically, the question has been how to get rid of the sex work industry all together. However, with thousands of years of global prostitution, it seems that its erradication is a hopeless cause. Attempts to rid the streets of prostitutes—who are framed by the media as either agents of infection, criminals, or victims in need of saving—have ended with the so-called victims in jail and those who enact violence on them are free to do so with impunity.
In Norway, the problem of violence against sex workers has been met with policies aimed at deterring consensual sex work by penalizing the clients rather than those engaging in prostitution. However, restrictions of any kind force the industry to be conducted underground where violence against sex workers becomes more severe as a result. The prohibitionist approach employed by Norway has not improved working conditions for sex workers, rather it has increased stigma and discrimination against sex workers as well as violence and coercion from both clients and management to keeping sex workers safe.
In the state of New York, Manhattan DA Candidate, Eliza Orlins has stated that if elected, she will not prosecute prostitution cases. Although many would consider this policy dangerous, as there could be an increase in sex trafficking, this is a puritanical fantasy. The only way to protect sex workers and keep victims of trafficking safe from violence (under the current legal conditions, and until sex work is federally decriminalized) is to grant sex workers amnesty when reporting violence to law enforcement. When sex workers and victims of trafficking can approach law enforcement without fear of arrest or sexual harassment, then maybe the problem of sex trafficking in New York City will slow down.
The terms trafficking and work are not the same, and it is dangerous to conflate them. Although opinions differ on the morality of prostitution, the safety of sex workers—of human beings—should never be a topic of political contention. All human beings are worthy of the basic respect of being able to report violence or trafficking to the police without fear of further violence and the threat of being incarcerated. The sex work industry is not going anywhere. Current legislation does not consider the nuances and power dynamics of the industry, making it pertinent that U.S. decriminalize the industry in order to promote safer working environments and decrease police brutality against sex workers.
for more information on Alisha Walker’s case, click here.