A Sex Worker's Perspective on FOSTA-SESTA

The impacts of shoddily-written legislation on sex workers runs deep.

As if the deck wasn’t already stacked against sex workers, the advent of FOSTA-SESTA made already what was a tricky maze to navigate an almost insolvable one. After two years of enactment, it’s clear that this set of legislation was a mistake–not only because it exacerbated the very problems it sought to solve, but the groups it had an obligation to improve the lives of have only had it worse since.

Lillitha, a sex worker, watched as avenues for promoting sex work were getting shut down in real time. “It definitely got harder, things got taken down every once in a while, but I remember after [FOSTA-SESTA] got enacted, it went under my radar for a minute until one of my other friends was talking about it,” she says. “But then it clicked into me because about a month after that happened, I had my Instagram deleted for soliciting sex and prostitution. […] It’s made advertising for the most part, especially if you’re online, a lot harder.”

That online sex work was going to be heavily affected was a forgone conclusion–what wasn’t immediately obvious is how that transcended into offline work as well. “I do a lot of cosplay in anime conventions because I do [it] for camming, and I have to be very careful about how I talk about things because we’re not allowed to solicit in-person meetups or tokens for in-person activities whether it’s sexual or not,” Lillitha says. “I have to [carefully] tiptoe around my language. […] A lot of websites now like Chaturbate — when I got back on there — the language was very different. […] I can’t even tell my followers to come talk to me on Twitter.”

To further complicate things, FOSTA-SESTA shifts liability onto sex workers themselves, creating a complex relationship with sex work platforms that’s not-so-different from indentured servitude. “It gets a little unnerving because of how much information these websites require you to give now,” Lillitha says. “I have to sign a waiver if I want to use any type of mechanical things on cam, or any remote stuff that may be controlled by a follower. Also, I have to go through a whole process if I want to have somebody else in there with me. Essentially a lot of these websites at this point, if they don’t have you in their system registered with your photo ID or your state ID, your date of birth, and all this kind of stuff, they’re going to assume you’re a minor. A sixty year old woman could be on-screen and they’re going to assume “Nope, you’re not allowed to be on here”.”

The widespread collection of personal information on sex workers represents an obvious security hazard. “If this website were to be hacked because of all the information they’re required to [give], there are so many girls, guys, couples, that would be screwed,” Lillitha says. “Because I had to give my full name, my date of birth, a picture of my state ID from my home state and my current location when I signed up.”

All of this sounds like introduced friction to dissuade sex workers from pursuing their profession, which is why it’s all-the-more-puzzling that when it came time to provide welfare, they were excluded. “We don’t even qualify for the stimulus check that was supposed to go out to Americans after the Coronavirus outbreak,” Lillitha says. “There were stipulations that essentially said sex workers cannot get a stimulus check. […] It also looks like we can’t file for a self-employment stimulus check either.”

This digs at the core of what FOSTA-SESTA seeks to accomplish. It isn’t so much about preventing sex trafficking, diverting sex workers away from a dangerous trade, or even providing for them so that they may no longer sell forbidden goods–it is first and foremost an active effort to disenfranchise sex workers. “A representative from Virginia was tweeting out that he was happy that it was shutting down sites advertising prostitution–not sex trafficking. The big problem with [what’s] going on is these advocacy groups that are advocating for [FOSTA-SESTA] — a lot of the time — not all of them are sex workers, or they are only talking to people who come from sex trafficking,” Lillitha says. “They’re cutting out the fact that people do do this, because they want to. Most of us, nobody twisted our arm into doing this. […] They [just] assume all of us that do it are doing it because we’re in a bad financial situation.”

A lack of understanding of the online sex work ecosystem tends to be the precedent for such bad legislation. “I feel like it’s more dangerous to pull sex trafficked people off the internet because you’re just shoving them into the streets,” Lillitha says. “And they’re a lot harder to track down that way [as opposed to] when we still had places like Backpage and Craigslist. The FBI could go in with underground cops on sting missions, and find these minors and these women who were kidnapped on there. […] But since these shut down, those poor girls and boys are forced out onto the streets.”

Subsequent reporting to the law’s enactment corroborates much of Lillitha’s theory–now that registries for sex work online are practically a non-entity, law enforcement are having a much harder time knowing who to hold accountable.

Running even deeper than legislative incompetence is America’s inability to conceive of sexuality as an integral component of its culture–depictions of sex in media are as old as the medium itself, but it’s always brushed off as if it didn’t exist. “A lot of it also, is there is such a stigma in our country about sex work,” says Lillitha. “It seems like some places like OnlyFans are kind of breaking that stigma a little bit with the younger generations. Even college students will joke “Oh, you’re selling foot pics on the internet. You go girl! Shake that butt for money on cam!”. So I’m hoping that this is going to change as we slowly vote out and decease a lot of these older people in our government.”

What offers a small reprieve, is the online community that has come to form around the consumption of sex work. “People who are into anime and video games, they’re already very accustomed to nudity, sexually-exploitative images, nude women and very sexual content. So they’re very open to this,” Lillitha says. “A lot of my clientele is from that kind of community, and they are very positive about it.”

When your profession is a target for social ostracization, it can get pretty lonely–it’s why Lillitha thinks it’s important to maintain a sense of community within. “I think it’s very important when you’re doing this kind of stuff to have a community around you,” she says. “I have girls that I’m close with who are in Tennessee, Alabama, California, Hawaii, Alaska–all over the place.”

That sense of camaraderie is common in sex work spaces, as the collective strife naturally elicits solidarity:

I had a very bad client ask for a private show back in 2019, who was even before trying to communicate prices and get payments through, very abusive [and] very rude, tried to gaslight me, and it was very upsetting. Because I had never dealt with such a bad client before. I couldn’t just go talk to my best friend in class the next day about it. […] But I was able to go to my other friends who are Twitch girls, who do photo sets and prostitution and they understood. […] It’s also very helpful when learning about what websites are good, and who’s not a good person to talk to. There’s whole pages for sex workers and people who do photo sets online, of just who not to follow and who not to talk to. […] Knowing that there’s people in my sphere that know me is somewhat comforting. Even if it’s somebody I’ve never met in real life, it’s comforting to know that there’s other people who understand what I’m doing.

Looking forward to a future without this law, and potentially devoid of sex work taboo, Lillitha wishes to see radical change. “What I’d like to see is decriminalizing it–legalizing it can come with a lot of weird little stipulations in it. That can maybe make it legal for a bunch of rich people to hire escorts, but a woman on the corner would still not be able to do it,” she cautions. “I personally would want to see the criminalization heavier of people who are forcibly pimping out women and sex trafficking girls, young girls and boys. […] I would much rather see anybody who was arrested for sex work or prostitution be let out and have some sort of help transitioning back into the real world, and people who are forcing those into this to be put in prison.”

Before a dent could ever be made into the sex trafficking pipeline, Lillitha reckons that the language of the law has to completely be changed. “I’d very much like to see FOSTA-SESTA get fixed–the language is too watery, it’s way too easy to manipulate and use as leverage against social media companies because even people who advocated for it don’t always understand the language,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m having conversations with people about this, I try to go back and read it and I still barely understand what it’s supposed to mean.”

Pointedness and specificity seem to be two desirable characteristics for any reform of the law, as Lillitha sees it. “It more so needs to specifically be targeting trafficking not sex work, but trafficking of people,” she says. “This whole thing just seems to be like “Oh, you can’t have people promoting sex work on your site” no matter what it is.”

Sidestepping the issue of legal thorniness altogether, the incentives for being a sex worker are already unappealing as it is–so to Lillitha, it doesn’t make sense that the law is de facto treating them as a privileged class in need of reprimand, when the opposite is more-often-than-not the case. “I’m blessed to have a partner who fully supports me with this, and they don’t try to control what I do. Their only thing is: “Please make sure people don’t recognize you so you don’t get fired from your job.” Unfortunately, I’m in a field that’s very internet heavy, so if I got seen, they could reject me,” she says. “With everything that was passed and how the internet changed, it’s a lot harder to [keep a low profile]. […] It’s a whole mess since you can’t build a following as easily anymore because everything is so public. “

In her concluding remarks, Lillitha urged outside participation and coalescing around the sex work community–according to her, without public support, nothing of substance can realistically be achieved. “It is helpful to be able to talk to people who aren’t necessarily in our community, but want to help and are open to hearing us without biases already in place, because a lot of us will get shut down for talking about this or might get in legal trouble because we’re doing things on the internet we’re not supposed to be doing,” she says. “Having people on the outside who can go and talk about this and use our exact words, use our quotes, use what we’re saying. […] A big problem we’ve been having is a lot of people who want to do interviews about this are going in with biases, or they’re not going to use our exact experiences or what we’re saying and twist [them] or just ignore [them].”

As actors in media, we’re supposed to do our due diligence in covering these issues, which is why conveying Lillitha’s account of her experiences with sex work — as unique and unrepresentative of the full spectrum as they are — and the ramifications of FOSTA-SESTA is crucial–the mainstream has been skewing towards far too sympathetic a reading into lawmakers’ intent, when it was clear that the precedent for so many of sex work-limiting laws isn’t to prevent mischievous behavior, but rather to assign shame to what is otherwise an honorable profession. Sex work is real work, and it’s about time unyielding legal establishments start to think of protecting workers within as such, not outlaws to be coaxed into walking a straighter path.