Just last week, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner was reelected for his second term. Krasner has branded himself as a "progressive," originally running on a campaign of criminal justice reform. Recently, one of his policies has received more attention—both positive and negative: his decision not to prosecute cases against sex workers for solicitation.
Certainly, this policy is a step in the right direction—criminalization is widely regarded as one of the biggest dangers to sex workers—but there are criticisms of the rather intense diversion program that Krasner has implemented as an alternative. Focusing solely on prosecutorial decisions obscures the scope of the problem. Many sex workers have also grown to rely on social media sites like TikTok and Instagram to find clients or audiences in the first place, but since the passage of FOSTA–SESTA (which stands for Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act)in 2018, these sites have become increasingly hostile towards them.
If you were religiously on TikTok anytime last fall, you probably know exactly what the line “I’m an accountant” means. For those who’ve been a bit more disconnected—no, it has nothing to do with actual accounting. This trend was one of the more popular examples of sex workers using social media to boost their visibility and to reach new clients virtually.
Following the rise of COVID–19 restrictions, many sex workers have been forced to rely on virtual outlets for their income to avoid working in a club or meeting clients in person. As such, many have turned to sites like OnlyFans, which skyrocketed in popularity during 2020, to post and monetize sexually explicit content.
At the same time, sites like TikTok and Instagram have become important avenues for creators without existing fan bases to build audiences for their OnlyFans accounts. Posting previews of pornographic content or short clips of pole routines have become a way for sex workers to advertise their work, and linking to monetized pages in their bios has served as a way to earn a steady income.
But TikTok and Instagram quickly caught on to this informal advertising and updated their guidelines to prohibit not only posting content with nudity but also linking to external sites where such content is hosted. As user @inaproprororo explains, "we are at risk of being deplatformed and having all the work we've put in thrown away, thus putting [sex work] back in the dark."
But these new policies aren’t just the result of a few prudish tech CEOs. A combination of two bills passed in 2018, called FOSTA–SESTA, changed the laws surrounding the sites’ criminal liability for content related to sex trafficking.
The problem? Sex trafficking is defined in the law as the intent “to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person”—an incredibly vague definition which criminalizes any ad for sexual services, regardless of whether it was posted consensually.
While this might seem like a mere crackdown on the hosting of illegal content, this law has had disastrous effects on sex workers’ lives—most notably the closure of sites like Backpage, Craigslist’s ‘Personals’ section, and VerifyHim’s database of clients, all of which played key roles in mitigating the risks of sex work. One study from a team at Baylor University found that Craigslist’s erotic services section, which was active from 2002 to 2010, “reduced the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent.”
In an interview with The Movements podcast, Janis Luna, a stripper in California, even noted that within a week of FOSTA–SESTA’s passage 12 women had gone missing from her local community. In response, many networks of sex workers had begun circulating digital and paper documents to alert their peers of who was missing and which clients they were last seen with.
It’s not difficult to understand why this happened. Many sex workers who meet clients in person rely on online advertisements and digital communication to pre–screen clients for safety reasons—which means that shutting them down removes one of the few tools they have to mitigate these risks. Rather than having the ability to reject a potential client if something seems sketchy, without sites like Craigslist or Backpage, they might have only a few seconds as they’re leaning into a car window to gauge the level of danger.
Even setting aside the removal of ads for sexual services, many websites have become so afraid of FOSTA–SESTA’s ability to hold them criminally responsible for trafficking that they have begun removing all kinds of sexual content that don’t even violate the law, like images of women in lingerie or even links to OnlyFans profiles.
Last December, Pornhub made the decision to purge over 80% of its content overnight, leaving only “verified” content (which is primarily content produced by big agencies who have the resources to verify the ages and identities of all actors) available. There are multiple catalysts that led to this decision, among them a recent New York Times investigation finding that child pornography, depictions of rape, and nonconsensual pornography were being hosted on the site, but the most powerful was Visa and Mastercard refusing to allow payments to Pornhub to be processed.
Although this may seem like a victory for those whose images were hosted non–consensually, many sex workers who rely on income from the content they post on Pornhub were incredibly frustrated. One content creator, who produces niche pornography by commission, even noted that Pornhub’s freeze on payments would cost her half of her monthly income.
Other online platforms have similarly begun shadow–banning and restricting content that has been flagged as sexually explicit. When Instagram and TikTok ban sex workers’ accounts for merely linking to an OnlyFans (or even linking to a Linktree with an OnlyFans page attached) or mentioning their pornographic content in passing, it becomes incredibly difficult for sex workers without an agency backing them to build a client base.
Even for those who are able to retain a loyal following, their ability to receive money is severely limited by a variety of monetary institutions’ fears of legal reprisal due to FOSTA–SESTA. Much like Visa and Mastercard refusing to process payments to Pornhub, other online payment processors (Paypal, Square, Google Wallet) and banks (Bank of America, Capital One, Chase) began restricting all sorts of payments to accounts affiliated with sexual content at the time of the act’s passage. Some content creators were locked out of their bank accounts with no notice that their bank suspected that their money was obtained illegally.
One popular TikTok lawyer @adamjthelawyer explained that this is a form of suspicious activity report—a way for banks to insulate themselves from liability by preemptively flagging anything that they could be held criminally responsible for.
While the banks and money processors are technically within their legal rights to act in many of these cases, that doesn’t alleviate the severe financial hardship that these actions cause. It also doesn’t account for the fact that the laws themselves discriminate against sex workers, and being within the letter of the law doesn't always mean they're doing the right thing.
It is frustrating that the simplest solution—decriminalizing sex work entirely—is the least likely. Sex work is already stigmatized by most of society, and the fact that many sex workers are women, disabled, LGBTQ, and people of color means that finding a lawmaker willing to take seriously the concerns and needs of sex workers is difficult. Add on that there are so many different sides of the sex industry—a college student being a sugar baby, a single parent working at a strip club, or a writer with an OnlyFans side hustle—and finding a solution feels virtually impossible.
Instead, laws like FOSTA–SESTA cloak blatant disregard for these marginalized communities under the guise of stopping trafficking. It's clear that this new wave of censorship isn't a minor inconvenience or a temporary side effect of a misguided law. If anything, it's getting worse as time goes on—putting more sex workers' lives and livelihoods at risk—and it's something we should all think about more often when we go online, whether it's on TikTok or OnlyFans.