Sex Workers Lives Matter, Why Doesn’t Congress Think So?
United States (Greed) – Alexandria Brown is a philosophy student, writer, painter, and a sex worker. Greed Correspondent Ava Rice reached out to her to explore her experiences and impressions of SESTA/FOSTA, two pieces of legislation that have been widely condemned for the potential and real negative impact on sex workers.
Ava Rice: Can you tell me a little about yourself and the work you do?
Alexandria: My name is Alexandria Brown. I’ve been a sex worker since the age of 19 when I began sugaring on the website Seeking Arrangement (SA). I’m 30 now. SA will tell you it’s not sex work, but since sugar babies are compensated with a monthly allowance, I consider it to be a form of sex work, even if it is in a legal grey area. I have also stripped briefly. With stripping it was fun to dance, but I ultimately disliked it because customers would try to get away with groping me in prohibited ways (without even the decency to pay extra!). Right now, I mainly do webcam modeling and phone sex as a dominatrix, although I have been considering getting back into sugaring/escorting, which has been really ironic considering the timing of the passage of these new laws.
I am many things besides a sex worker. I am also an activist. I keep a blog specifically geared towards sex work issues, and I work with a sex workers’ rights organization called the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP). SWOP is a really wonderful national organization which seeks to protect the human rights of sex workers through advocacy and education, supporting decriminalization and harm-reduction measures. Right now, our local chapter is working on getting media attention to new local laws affecting the Tampa Bay sex worker community, doing street outreach to provide resources to at-risk sex workers, and traveling to DC to protest FOSTA/SESTA. We have a national hotline for sex workers, including incarcerated sex workers, which people can call for resources or support (meaning legal support and other kinds of support). We additionally run a subprogram called SWOP Behind Bars which specifically focuses on outreach to incarcerated sex workers and helping them to get reintegrated into the community upon release so that they don’t remain in potentially vulnerable situations.
I also do non-sex work-related things! I am a writer and philosophy student, a filmmaker, and an oil painter.
Ava Rice: What is SESTA/FOSTA?
Alexandria: The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are the U.S. Senate and House bills that as the FOSTA-SESTA package and became law on April 11, 2018. They seek to “clarify” the country’s sex-trafficking law to make it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking. They amend the Section 230 safe harbors of the Communications Decency Act (which itself made online services immune from civil liability for the actions of their users) to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from its immunity. In plain English, that means SESTA/FOSTA enables prosecutors to charge websites who host ads for prostitution with sex trafficking, which is a federal offense which can carry up to 25 years in prison time. There are many problems with this law. Even the Department of Justice has stated that it is a bad idea and could violate the Constitution. The primary thing to note about it is that the law makes no distinction between voluntary sex work and literal sexual slavery. So merely posting an ad for voluntary sex work on a website could cause these laws to be enforced, even if no one is being trafficked at all.
As a result, the major website Backpage has been seized by the FBI. Which first of all, is the only source of income for many, many sex workers. But even Reddit threads discussing sugar daddies have been shut down as website hosters try to immunize themselves from liability.
Sugaring, having a sugar daddy, is not even considered illegal sex work, and it’s still being shut down. So that’s really an important thing about this legislation—its sweeping nature and how it can have a chilling effect on speech far beyond the alleged goal of preventing sex trafficking. Reddit has been affected, as I mentioned. but even more concerning things are happening. Skype has taken the prerogative to investigate all private calls which have nudity in them until they can determine if the user is a sex worker, at which point the user will be banned from using Skype. That’s an incredible invasion of privacy, if you think about it—to watch an interaction in enough detail to learn whether a Skype user is a sex worker, it just legalizes close surveillance.
It’s all very interesting because simultaneously, we’re also seeing things happen which appear related but are not officially a result of the legislation passing. Paypal has a long-standing policy of banning sex workers (even those who work legally in the adult industry). We see Wal-Mart taking Cosmopolitan off its checkout aisles for sexual content, Google mysteriously removing porn from users’ Google drives, not even to yet get into the effect that this has on voluntary sex workers. Voluntary sex workers are censored by all this too—just as if they were sex slaves. What this means is that websites that sex workers use to keep themselves safe: databases of blacklists for dangerous clients, forms of online advertising that keep people off the street—all these are being limited in functionality or have to stop operating entirely. Sex workers who would normally be able to find clients online and screen them safely may have to accept a client without knowing if he is safe, or they may even have to go on the streets to find a client.
Ava Rice: In the wake of the government shutting down sites like Backpage, have you seen an increase in predatory clients or offers to “protect” (pimp) you?
Alexandria: I haven’t experienced this in a literal sense from pimps but predatory clients, for sure. Potential clients have been aggressive and explicit in their language and have expected me to forego normal screening processes. I am lucky and have never been “pimped” out in any sense of the word. However, I know through multiple anecdotes within the sex worker community that this is happening: many sex workers are facing incredibly hard times. They are being re-contacted by former pimps offering to “help” them. How does that fight sex trafficking? Further, on major hobbyist message boards, customers are celebrating the passage of these laws because they view them as likely to make sex workers more desperate. They expect that the new laws mean sex workers who could formerly be picky with clients will no longer turn them away, that sex workers will be more willing to do certain acts they wouldn’t otherwise want to, and that prices will be driven down. It’s despicable and I urge people to be brave and resist giving in to this alleged desperation in any way.
Ava Rice: How are you vetting or what measures are you taking to promote your own safety?
Alexandria: I can’t share all of the vetting measures I use publicly, unfortunately, since they are spread by word-of-mouth within the sex worker community. They need to be kept confidential to prevent predatory clients or entrapping law enforcement from infiltrating the networks and blacklists. But beyond that, what I would require before seeing a client in person, which I think is common for escorts considered to be more “high-end,” is a full legal name, phone number. Then, proof of legal name, in the form of a link to some sort of LinkedIn profile or other social media, or in the form of an e-mail from a verifiable work e-mail address. You can also ask for a copy of their Driver’s License or to see the License upon meeting. Many people also ask for references from other established providers, but this can be problematic as it could conceivably be faked. Of course, no screening method is 100% foolproof. That is just a risk one takes.
I should note here that I have a partner who helps to support me by covering my medical expenses and I also have disability and Medicaid. Further, I can make good money just doing webcam modeling and phone sex, which are not directly affected by this legislation. I am in a more privileged position than many people who may not be able to afford to be as stringent about their screening guidelines or may face other hardships I don’t.
Ava Rice: We are hearing that over a dozen sex workers have died and even more have gone missing since SESTA/FOSTA was passed. Have you experienced any trauma as a result of SESTA/FOSTA?
Alexandria: Yes, I have heard that too. It’s inexcusable and tragic. For me personally, it’s strange, but I have even found it difficult to do my webcam modeling work which isn’t directly affected by the legislation. I’m really broke. I can’t even pay rent. This is because of the overall attitude and message which the legislation’s passage projects—it is so dispiriting. Even Bernie Sanders voted in favor of it. Which, man, really? I kind of liked you, Bernie. It’s very demoralizing. The hypocrisy is exhausting: people say that this bill is to fight sex trafficking, and so if you oppose it, people accuse you of indifference to sexual slavery. Congresspeople didn’t really look into it I don’t think—they just knew it would look bad if they voted against saving sex slaves from slavery. Of course, we have to confront the elephant in the room, which is that this legislation lies. it is a huge lie. Their goal is not to end sex slavery. How is silencing sex workers who could otherwise cooperate with police to report sex trafficking, going to help end sex trafficking? Legislators are making it so that the industry is driven further underground, and that is going to increase criminal activity associated with sex work and sex trafficking—not decrease it.
Their real goal is a religious control and restriction of sexual expression.
In any case, yes, I’ve experienced the trauma, of the message this legislation sends, that one is reviled by society. So I absolutely cannot imagine what my friends who, for example, relied primarily on Backpage for their income, feel.
Ava Rice: Has the mainstream media covered the impact of SESTA/FOSTA appropriately?
Alexandria: The media needs to be clearer that this legislation is not “intended” to curb online sex work in general. Theoretically, it’s “intended” to curb sex trafficking. But they conflate the distinction between sex work which is voluntary and sex work which is coerced. This is a huge problem. In one sense all of us are coerced into working because we must work to make a living, but this does not mean sex work is essentially coerced and should be abolished, any more than the existence of labor trafficking means that all work itself should be abolished. (Maybe work itself should be abolished, of course, but that’s a different conversation. . .Hahaha).
A second quibble is that it’s not enough to call the legislation “controversial,” as very many media outlets do. It’s hypocritical. It’s patently dishonest. We really need to be calling out the Evangelicals in this moment, when they are pushing a distinct religious agenda on the populace at large. We have freedom of religion in this country, and we should have freedom of sexual expression. They are trying to completely end that with this.
My last problem with media coverage is that the articles shouldn’t need to prove that FOSTA/SESTA will be bad for non-sex workers in order to get people to care. Talk about pandering. Coverage needs to focus first and foremost on the immediate material danger these laws put sex workers in. We need to combat the narrative that sex workers’ lives are of lesser value than the lives of other human beings. Imagine if media coverage of the killing of an unarmed black man was written in such a way as to say, “we should care about the death of Eric Garner because at some point the police might shoot white people too!” That would be outrageous, right? It’s like, no, we should care about Eric Garner because Eric Garner got shot, full stop. Yet most articles about FOSTA/SESTA put the effect on “average citizens” forefront rather than sex workers as a centerpiece of their writing.
Ava Rice: Are there any champions or organizations working to mitigate or overturn SESTA/FOSTA that we should be following?
Alexandria: Caty Simon, the editor of Tits and Sass, is incredible. She really got me into sex work activism by offering to let me write an essay for her website, and is lowkey my personal sex worker activist hero in general. Before I even knew what FOSTA/SESTA was, she was putting together a council of street-based sex workers in Massachusetts. She provided these sex workers with paying jobs working as an advisory board to her organization—advising the organization about the needs of the street-based sex worker community and how to best reach this community and help them. You can donate to the stipends for MA street-based sex workers here. Caty also runs the website Tits and Sass, which I think is producing hands-down the best content out there written by sex workers, for a sex worker audience.
Alex Andrews of the Orlando chapter of the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project that I work with is very proactive right now about what is happening as well, she is incredibly passionate, and I admire her greatly. Jill McCracken is a wonderful USF professor and activist who is knowledgeable and engaged with SWOP. Amber DiPietra is a fantastic poet, performance artist, and bodyworker who also happens to be the absolute lifeblood of my local Tampa chapter of SWOP. Cris Sardina, a director of the Desiree Alliance, recently did a great interview on NPR with 1A. These are all incredible women I know off the top of my head who are working to ensure that those who are homeless or otherwise displaced by FOSTA/SESTA are okay (if you’re reading this and in need, they will help you too!). I am sure there are more people like these fierce, dedicated women out there. Oh, for example, I know Lysistrata is fundraising to provide resources as well.
Ava Rice: What is the most important thing about SESTA/FOSTA that average Americans should know?
Alexandria: I think the two most important things to take away from this are that
a) sex workers’ lives matter, and
b) the legislators are lying to you for the sake of their own religious agenda.
Regarding the first point—sex workers’ lives matter—this seems like a platitude, but it’s not. “Dead hooker” jokes are so commonplace in a way I don’t think you really understand unless you’re a sex worker yourself, and I want people to really think about that phenomenon. The entire punchline of the joke is that a woman is a sex worker, and she’s dead, but she’s a whore so it doesn’t matter that she is dead. That’s the joke. That should be the equivalent of any other rabidly discriminatory and offensive joke, but for some reason, people don’t really stand up in social settings when these jokes are made. And this doesn’t just “trigger” and offend me on a personal level, it affects people’s lives. In the 90’s Southern Californian police officers used the designation “No Human Involved” to classify the homicides of sex workers and gang members. The implication here was that there was “no human involved” in the homicide because sex workers and gang members were literally not considered by police to be human beings. As an aside, No Human Involved is also the name of a documentary I really need to see about Marcia Powell, a sex worker in Arizona who was serving time for a prostitution charge. She got locked by COs outdoors, in a metal cage in 100+ degree weather, was denied water, and ridiculed until she died. No one has ever been held accountable for her death.
So when I say sex workers lives aren’t seen as mattering and sex workers aren’t considered human beings, I mean that literally. Sex work is the single most dangerous profession for women ever studied and sex workers are 100 times more likely to be murdered than the average citizen. But it’s not dangerous because sex work is inherently wrong or inherently dangerous. Decriminalizing sex work will not increase sex trafficking, nor does supporting it require supporting sex slavery. Instead, sex work is dangerous because it’s criminalized and stigmatized. The religious agenda being pushed by the backers of FOSTA/SESTA are not only perpetuating but actively worsening that stigma and criminalization.
Ava Rice: Do you have any advice for other sex workers out there who may be reading this article?
Alexandria: I think sex workers as a community know what is best for them already for the most part and it’s not my place to provide advice per se. But for the sake of it rhetorically I will say:
• Amp up cybersecurity. Get a VPN, and use Protonmail or SafeOffice to communicate with clients.
• I know it’s not always possible, but please try to screen thoroughly and be selective with clients.
• Please reach out to organizations like SWOP, SWOP Behind Bars, or Desiree Alliance if you need help. We will help you. We will always find a way. Please avoid anti-trafficking “charities” which may end up criminalizing or otherwise imprisoning you.
• I want to preface my last piece of advice by saying I don’t say it because I view sex work as doomed. I think sex workers are among the most resilient, empathetic, influential—yes, influential!—people in the universe. However, I do think it is prudent for people involved in sex work to begin preparing for a Plan B in employment terms, in case sex work becomes unsustainable for some reason. I am definitely going back to school. We are going to fight, but we don’t know the future. Please expect the best but prepare for the worst.
I think that’s it. Thank you so much for interviewing me!