“I describe myself as a thotful thot—meaning I work in the sex industry, and I strongly believe we need to navigate the world with empathy. Working at the intersection of sex work and sex tech, I’ve seen how the effects of the pandemic, and the legislation conceived by white men in America has ignited a war on sex in digital space and inflicted violence on sex workers—physically, emotionally and economically.
On Valentine’s Day of 2020, I launched ‘Thot Leader Pod’ —a podcast about the intersections of sex and tech, dating, privacy and security. Scarcely a month later, the entire world changed. Not for the first time in human history, but for the first time in many of our lifetimes, we were being told to not meet in person. We were told to stay home, to get onto digital spaces and connect with not only our families, but our co-workers and clients. With that came a new level of ethics and rules in the digital space. Accounts and posts were being repeatedly shadowbanned, and sex workers were being disproportionately affected. All of a sudden my girl’s Instagram is gone—her account’s been deleted, her Cash App is banned, her Venmo is banned. And that’s devastating, because that’s how we are all exchanging finances right now. There’s been an increase in violence on sex—period.
The fourth wall is breaking. It’s no secret that Artificial Intelligence is being used to collect data and monitor our movements—it’s been that way for a long time. But, there were incredible policy changes around virtual spaces during 2020’s Black Lives Matter moment, and Ai is being used to attack the marginalised. It’s used to track emojis, to track that little scribble through that graphic that you thought you were disguising somehow—no, it still says sex. It’s going through your DMs, your Instagram posts, your archives. Artificial intelligence is being used everyday to fight sex in the digital space.
Of course, shadow-banning has existed since the invention of the internet: When Instagram came about, pornstars were shadowbanned, and hashtags—#love, #sex—were censored. The irony is that sex culture is what often makes these platforms—skinny girls with big boobs and gyrating hips have made TikTok the sensation it is today. Social media platforms invite people to their space to build it up, and then actively create policies that kick them out. It’s a pattern that we’re seeing over and over and over again in digital space. But what we’re seeing now—as sex workers are disproportionately shadowbanned (70% compared to 35% of civilians)—is active targeting. That’s what we’re addressing. Sex workers have become the scapegoat for negative censorship online.
In December, following the discovery of child abuse imagery on the platform, Mastercard, Visa and Discover announced that they were blocking payments to PornHub. When big financial companies block payments to a platform like PornHub, they ignite a war on sex in digital space. They actively say that if you are a labour worker in the sex industry—if you are a sex worker—then you are not allowed to participate in the virtual economy via fintech. This is violence, plain and simple. It’s social violence, it’s emotional violence, and financial violence against those who navigate the sex industry. Credit card companies are simply acting under the guise of morality. PornHub had 118 cases of child exploited material. Facebook had millions. Yes, PornHub has a lot to answer for, but to strip sex workers of their income so suddenly—in the middle of a pandemic—is an act of warfare.
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But the PornHub ban and the introduction of the EARN IT Act in March—a bill attempting to regulate sex on the internet by ending encryption, and the right to truly ‘private’ messages—is only the latest crime in the war against sex workers. America has a history of legislation like this, and the trickle down effects are massive—it impacts innovation, community and our livelihood. In 2018, the controversial FOSTA—SESTA—a bill conceived to prohibit online sex trafficking—was passed. The grand idea was that platforms like Backpage were sponsoring or hosting content which was exploiting children. In essence, it made site owners responsible for the content hosted on their website. Historically, that responsibility had previously laid with the individual user—the platform reserved the rights to delete an account or remove content that infringed its policies—but FOSTA—SESTA meant the site itself could be prosecuted for what someone else uploaded to it. It used the psychological manipulation of trafficking, sex-trafficking, and child abuse as a way to impede on free speech. It sent a ripple effect through the internet, shutting down platforms and removing sex-positive policies, so they became stringent—if not straight up violent—towards anyone navigating sexual exploration. It attacked sex workers economically, socially and emotionally, not only making it more difficult for them to find clients, but also community.
Offline, the situation is critical. It takes certain privileges to navigate online sex work—from access to tech, to knowledge of online advertising and many street-based workers do not have that option. Less people on the streets has meant more policing of bodies, so not only are street-based workers having to deal with health-related concerns of the pandemic—the fear of knowing that a client could easily be infected or infect them with COVID-19—but they’re being increasingly targeted by authorities. Sex workers are having their access to work restricted, but they’re not being given access to the same funding as other taxpayers. They’re relying on initiatives like Ourfood.nyc, which gives away thousands of pounds of food each week at Myrtle-Wyckoff—a New York intersection where solicitation charges for BIPOC sex workers have been particularly high during the pandemic.
It seems that now, in the throws of a global pandemic, civilians are finally understating the plight of sex workers. They’re looking at sex workers and they’re able to relate—because now they’re needing resources they’ve never needed before. They’ve suddenly lost their jobs, they’re struggling to access healthcare. People have been brought to their knees by the pandemic, and they’re understanding what it means to have upward mobility. These previously unfathomable situations have always been the reality for sex workers. Sex workers have been here, they’ve been trading sex, they’ve been using it as a way to navigate difficult times and—because of this fact—it’s often marginalised people who are navigating the sex trade, trying to survive under capitalism.
In 2021, abuse and lives and harms daily in the digital space, and we don’t even think twice about it. I want to see more empathy within sex tech and more empathy with sex workers. We need to defund big tech, and start investing in private, nicher internet platforms that do away with addictive scrolls and the Las Vegas jackpot feel—like Ethel Club-owned BIPOC safe space Somewhere Good. With sites like OnlyFans, we can buy directly from the creator. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as ethical porn. I don’t believe that the word ethics should ever be involved with any marketing concept or pitch deck. Ethics is a journey, not a destination, and it’s our responsibility to consume consciously. We need to be more open to the way we are navigating digital space. That’s where I see the future: smaller, better and with more empathy.