The internet, despite famously being for porn, seems to be losing its horniness. Increasingly, the newly dour internet is cracking down on sex work.
This week, Tumblr, which had long been a haven for the horny internet (especially for women and queer folks), announced it would ban adult content in a ham-fisted attempt to crack down on a child exploitation bot-net problem that had been plaguing the platform:
Another Tumblr user, Luke Healy, told NBC News that the microblogging site was his safe space before he came out to people offline, and the explicit content allowed him room for self-discovery. “It gave me a way to watch and view things and allowed me to explore my sexuality without being scared of someone in my school finding out,” Healy said. “Even now, seven years later, it still feels like that place. I’m scared young people in the closet today won’t have that.” (NBC)
[The] ability to curate and tag search — Chase calls Tumblr “Pinterest for sex” — was instrumental. Sex could be ruled by sensibility, allowing vulnerable and underprivileged communities to connect and start exchanging real information along with nudes. To this day, the top-reviewed and most-followed porn Tumblrs include not just explicit-content curators, but blogs like Orgasmic Tips for Girls,which teaches women how to masturbate, or xxuntilweod, which mixes relatively vanilla clips of women kissing and holding hands with more graphic images of lesbian sex, letting women explore a whole range of queer intimacy without either sensationalizing or censoring it. (Elle)
Separately, a group of incels (far-right violent misogynists) has started filing complaints with payment processors to silence critics and cut off female independent adult content creators/pornographers’ livelihoods:
When Lily Adams, an actor and model who sells access to her pornographic photos and videos, first noticed the ThotAudit movement gaining traction Saturday evening, she took to Twitter, calling it a witch hunt. Within one minute, a ThotAuditor flagged her account and tweeted that she had been added “to the review list for Monday morning.” By Monday, Adams’ PayPal account had been terminated. Wired
In July, Patreon, a platform for independent creators (podcasters, youtubers, artists, etc.) to get paid by their fans announced it would suspend the accounts of anyone posting adult content.
Patreon updated its content policy to limit the sale of adult content including images, video, and other services. The company started preventing creators from advertising adult content on their public-facing page and limited mature content to posts only visible to backers. It also put restrictions on what could be offered through its platform […] The policy change resulted in a ton of backlash, as sex workers and others in the adult industry that rely on Patreon as a primary source of income expressed fear for their livelihoods. (Gizmodo)
Over the summer the the federal government seized and shut down Backpage, a marketplace for prostitution, after finding the site site to be no longer protected by safe harbor laws (the rules that say Facebook isn’t liable for everything that gets posted) under the terms of new anti-human-trafficking legislation (SESTA):
In the aftermath of the new law, sex workers have claimed that efforts to control sex work in the name of public safety are forcing them into riskier situations—working with unknown clients, who they can no longer screen, or on the streets, where the risk of violence is greater. An oft-cited study by researchers from Baylor University and West Virginia University found that, from 2002 to 2010, when Craigslist’s erotic-services site was active and solicitation moved indoors, the female homicide rate fell by seventeen per cent. (New Yorker)
Each of these enforcement actions is bad enough on its own. Tumblr is showing that it doesn’t have a real interest in solving the real problem (child porn) while hurting its users, many of whom are women and LGBTQ. Incels filing complaints with payment processing shows how tactics developed by groups like Sleeping Giants are fair game for anyone to weaponize. Patreon is making it harder to earn a living in sex work independently. And by killing Backpage, the government has risked the lives of sex workers and may have permanently weakened safe harbor laws. And nevermind that attempts to censor “adult” content historically tend to unduly target/affect marginalized groups generally.
Taken together, this all says something insidious about the state of the internet and our social/sexual mores. Sex workers are being banned from vital infrastructure not because they’ve broken any laws but because we find them and their lives distasteful, icky. Because that infrastructure is owned by so few companies, there’s not a damn thing we can do.
So accept that trying to police sex work winds up as harassment and bad faith attempts to control people’s (women's) bodies/limit autonomy. Accept that sex work will never go away, despite how uncomfortable it may make you. Even if you think it’s a mortal sin, focus on harm reduction. Remember that exclusion from the mainstream economy makes sex workers vulnerable. If you can’t/won’t/don’t believe that sex work could be fulfilling to anyone or just under any circumstance, then at least focus on minimizing exploitation.
Without safe harbor and access to infrastructure to monetize their work, sex workers have to rely on centralized, powerful institutions (the studio system and pimps, of one shape or another). Porn is an powerful example of the core features of the internet: the expansion of options and cultivation of sub-groups and the dangers of ceding moral judgement to a few private actors. (Revisit my post “Free Speech and Fuckery” for more). The internet has led to a massive flourishing (in the long tail) of human sexuality and has allowed individuals in the grey and black market sex economies to operate independently for the first time. Now the clock is turning backwards.
Porn might be the most obvious use case for cryptocurrency generally and an ICO specifically (incentivize adoption on a two sided market). If transactions happen in cryptocurrency and are processed over a decentralized network, PayPal, Stripe, and the rest can GFTO with their puritanical rules. There’s been some traction on this front and different groups have tried to launch a “vice coin” but none have taken off in any meaningful way. Still, the truism that porn is the first mover for any new consumer tech looks like it could really hold water here if the right team took it up.
As sex workers are increasingly being kicked off mainstream internet infrastructure/service providers, there would seem to be an opportunity to create a publishing platform focused entirely on independant sex workers. Go indy, focus on underserved groups/demographics/fetishes, and build some cross of Medium and Patreon.
Prostitution will be legal eventually. That will make life a lot safer for sex workers and create obvious opportunities for both marketplaces and brands. Until then, I’d imagine there’s an opportunity to recreate something like Backpage with a more careful eye towards DMCA Safe Harbor and SESTA compliance.