SESTA, Sex Work, and Art in the Age of Trump
My experience of learning about SESTA was one of reluctant understanding, like the moment you finally hit the water when you’ve fallen into a pool with your clothes on. There’s this knowledge that something bad is coming, but you don’t really confront the new reality until your shoes are soaking wet.
The difference, of course, was that my clothes were still wet from the last bad political news I’d received and I thought that we were done for a moment. I had realized that the only way to dry out was to focus on #selfcare, ok? This boomerang effect of denial, shock, deppression, and then a sort of self-righteous apathy had been cycling for some time. I felt fully saturated with unpleasantness and had finally started taking my vitamins again and running around the lake, thank you! So it was a bad time, for me personally, to deal with yet another political travesty.
So in the background as I hunkered down and focused on #me, I heard the phrase “SESTA” muttered. I saw as sex workers that I follow posted about how they needed help and support. I would think to myself, “I gotta sit down and read about this soon” and I just. kept. not. doing that. I mean, I was journaling again! I was back! Reading bad news in a clumsy way could seriously affect my well-being so I had to do it deliberately and thoughtfully, which required some planning, and I just didn’t have the time for that right now. Also, maybe this wasn’t like, a HUGE deal. It wasn’t like anybody died or anything. I’d get to it eventually. I’d do something. It would be “fine.” Or at least, as fine as anything else in this fucked up world.
By the time I finally got my shit together to read about what was going on, the law had already passed and was set to be signed into law by Trump. I had failed to do anything at all to stop it. I hadn’t called any senators. I hadn’t posted any petitions. I hadn’t reached out to my followers and subscribers and told them to do anything. I hadn’t checked in with sex workers I knew to see if there was any organizing they needed help with. I felt awful — and angry.
I read about the law and the metaphorical water hit my face. Here’s what I learned:
- SESTA stands for (Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) and it’s basically a law that is aimed at shutting down this one particular website that sex traffickers used to sell their victims. That website is called Backpage.
- Backpage.com was a website used by sex workers and sex traffickers to post adult industry ads. They irresponsibly and immorally allowed ads to be posted that clearly advertised children and there’s some evidence that they coached users on how to clean up their ads that were advertising children rather than take the ads down or report the users. Backpage did some fucked up shit.
- SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) was written ostensibly to target Backpage and websites like it that knowingly allowed child sex trafficking to happen on their site. The idea was, essentially, to make websites legally liable for what their users post so that they can’t allow horrible things like child sex trafficking to happen on their platform.
But there’s a few problems here:
- Problem #1: Backpage was already in violation of several federal laws, and could have been shut down without SESTA. In fact, it was. Backpage was raided the day BEFORE the law was signed.
- Problem #2: There is no evidence that shutting down this online venue for advertising will in any way slow down sex trafficking or help the underage or adult victims of sex trafficking. Many believe this will make children and teens even more vulnerable to traffickers because they will have no choice but to go through a pimp and the gate keepers to this illegal market will have even more power.
- Problem #3: The implications for adult sex workers affected by this law are scary and serious. A widely reported study from West Virginia University found that the introduction of the Craigslist erotic services platform resulted in a 17.4% drop in female homicide. The researchers propose that this is because fewer sex workers were on the street, they had more ability to screen their clients and share information among themselves, and in general, they had more autonomy and security.
- Problem #4: The law officially conflates sex work with sex trafficking. Scott Cunningham, one of the authors of the Craigslist study, shows that this characterization is false, and that the majority of sex workers are doing so voluntarily and are not victims of sex trafficking
- Problem #5: The implications for free speech on the internet are also serious and scary. Basically, SESTA reverses the protection of the Community Decency Act, which says that websites cannot be held liable for the actions of their users. The way it’s written is so broad that many free speech activists maintain that only the biggest websites will be able to afford the litigation risks to host potentially risky content. These websites (like Facebook and Twitter) are also, fittingly, the ones who are already censoring their users. Social media and crowdfunding sites have been notoriously kicking sex workers and sex-positive activists off of their sites routinely for years. So we’ve essentially consolidated the power of deciding who gets to say what on the internet further into corporate hands.
So back to me. As the “starting to dry off” feeling descended into the “I’m soaking wet and I will always be soaking wet” feeling, I found the special shortcut to dryness that exists for some of us. It’s the artistic inspiration loophole, and it’s a magical thing. For me, the entrance to this loophole usually requires another shortcut — a deadline. I had an upcoming performance at Bawdy Storytelling for which I was supposed to write a song for the theme “Naughty Bits.” Suddenly, the puzzle pieces came together and my rage at this new law crystallized around the concept of punishment and banishment of sexuality that our society seems obsessed with — the naughty bits.
I felt strongly that this law was, like so many other things going on right now, fucking bullshit. But this law had this other insulting layer to it. The idea that our president (who has assaulted and raped women, who has paid for sex work, who has cheated on his wife, and who knows what else) had the authority to make moral judgments about what was considered decent, was just a particularly hard pill for me to swallow.
It is precisely the sex worker & kink communities that have done so much to raise our standards of what sexual integrity can look like that are damaged by the misguided moralism of this bill. They deserve credit for centering conversations about consent, communication, and self-love. We have them to thank for the #MeToo movement, which too often gets attributed only to feminists. As someone who identifies as a sex-positive activist AND a feminist activist, I recognize that the nuance and practical knowledge of HOW to understand and utilize consent is absolutely a gift from these communities, and the fact that they are going to get targeted by this supposedly morally fueled legislation really cuts deep and pisses me off.
The song was written quickly; about two days. I played it for some friends and the consensus was that releasing this ASAP was important. I asked my roommates to help. They agreed. I borrowed some film equipment. I went onstage at Bawdy Storytelling and asked for… lots of stuff.
Then this crazy thing happened: Everything came together. People showed up. People rallied. Sex workers who weren’t working because of SESTA came to help out. We filmed in two days and we made something that felt really cathartic and good and we dried the fuck out, ya know? It was this really powerful “fuck you” moment to these politicians who have so much power and so little regard for their own sexual subconscious and, by extension, the people who feel completely fine with theirs. The video was meant to show that. And I hope it has. If you haven’t watched it, here it is:
Ok so now what? First off, June 2nd is International Sex Workers’ Day or International Whores’ Day and there will undoubtedly be lots of protests going on around SESTA and other legal issues facing sex workers, so if you care, please mark your calendars right now and try to stay informed and get involved in what your local sex worker communities are doing.
For me as an artist, this saga highlighted some serious process issues that I’ve been having in this age of Trump. Shit’s moving too quickly and it encourages not only an insane release schedule but an insane schedule of even understanding the whole picture. In my mind, this video is too little too late. I wish I had been able to write and produce it even sooner. But what I did manage to produce happened so much quicker than what I expected of myself in the pre-Trump days. The world has sped up so much.
At the same time that artists like myself are feeling pressure to release their ideas immediately, we’re also being held more accountable than ever for what we got wrong. So on the one hand, I have to write and publish as quickly as possible, while on the other hand, I’m vulnerable to being remembered and hated for the part where I made a joke that doesn’t work for some people, or was politically sloppy about an issue that wasn’t as simple as I made it out to be. Making political art these days is a gamble, but I hope when I make art like this that I’ve articulated a political point that feels right for the people most affected. But there’s no way around the fact that there’s also a risk that I won’t get it right.
To me, this risk is worth it, because what is at stake is ultimately much bigger than me. I hope that this video has done more than make me feel better about my relationship to the news. I feel grateful to everyone in my community who rallied to make this possible, and I hope it was as powerful and cathartic for them as it was for me.