Free speech conversations in the media over the last few years have centered not on sexual content, but on the dangers of supposed left intolerance of right-wing views, especially on campus. New York Times op-ed columnists have written essay after essay chastising college students for protesting conservative speakers. Before and after the August of 2017 fascist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a marcher killed a counter-protester, we even saw an extended debate about whether the American Civil Liberties Union and other supporters of free expression should champion free speech for fascists. In contrast, another long-time battlefield for free speech has been largely abandoned: More and more, the speech of adult content providers and sex workers is being quietly, but forcefully, policed.
"Adult content used to be the free speech issue. Now it's fucking Nazis," Nix 66, a cam sex worker and domme, tells me by email. "I have no idea why Nazis are defensible, and I'm not."
As free speech debates in major media outlets have largely centered on the defense of right-wing speech, other free speech causes have faded into the background. As Nix observes, these causes include the free speech defense of adult content. While pundits have been hotly debating whether it's OK to criticize New York Times columnists, Congress has voted to severely restrict the presence and expression of sex workers online. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which is moving toward final passage, makes websites liable for hosting content deemed to contribute to sex trafficking. Since "trafficking" is often defined in a way that includes consensual sex work, the bill will effectively force sex workers offline—making it harder for them to screen clients, and putting them at greater risk for abuse and violence.
SESTA didn't come out of nowhere. Without much mainstream attention, online platforms have long been working to silence sex workers. Phone sex and cam sex worker Dulcinea, for example, tells me she'd been banned at various times by Instagram, Twitter, and OkCupid. She's also been "shadow-banned" on Twitter, which means that her name and tweets don't show up in search results. These platforms rarely explain why they're banning users, which makes the censorship difficult to document or protest. "I'm careful to censor my photos on Instagram and never post anything too explicit, and yet I am repeatedly suspended and have to start all over again," Dulcinea tells me.
Even more insidious is the way in which payment platforms often refuse to work with sex workers, according to Liara Roux, a sex worker, organizer, and independent porn producer. "Most payment processors (notably PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.) do not allow sex work or adult content of any sort. Payment processors that do allow sex work have higher fees, do not accept as many types of cards, and require much more work to implement," Roux tells me. "I've set up non-adult businesses before, and it's amazing how complicated launching your own site-based porn business is if you intend on maintaining control over the whole thing." Patreon, which has grown in part by supporting adult content, has also recently cracked down, leaving sex workers scrambling to make ends meet or find other platforms.
Clearly, most pundits see censoring political speech as more noteworthy, and more dangerous, than censoring adult content. But the truth is that political speech and the rights of sex workers are often inseparable. Roux points out that, when sex workers are shadow-banned on Twitter, they can't use hashtags to advocate for changing laws, or to talk about sexism in tech, or to catalog sex abuse in their industry. Silencing sex workers and pushing them offline doesn't just mean fewer adult images online; it also means a marginalized group can't use online resources to support each other, or to demand rights and respect.
A striking case in point is Holly, a sex worker and former escort agency manager. Holly lives in Sydney, Australia, where sex work is legal. She created a YouTube channel to "talk to the general population, to show that sex workers are normal people. I also wanted to give other sex workers information about working safely, how to get back into civvie [civilian] work, how to do resumes. It was never sexualized," she says. "I would talk about normal boring stuff as well non-sex-work-related [stuff]: my pets, my garden, things that could make me relatable to the normies." Holly also talks about her frustration with the feminist movement, which she says often fails to support sex workers.
Holly's channel includes no sexual content; she designed it as a political tool to advocate for sex workers, and as a way to disseminate helpful information among a marginalized population. It ran for three years. "Then one day, I get an email saying that one of my videos, 'So ... You Wanna Be a Private Escort,' had been flagged," she says. YouTube banned the video, claiming that it promoted "violent or dangerous acts." In fact, the video—again, posted by a legal sex worker—was providing information so sex workers could keep themselves safe. (Imagine if YouTube chose to censor videos showing people how to fasten seat belts on the grounds that driving a car is dangerous.)
The U.S. government, along with various important online platforms, have decided that it's dangerous to let sex workers speak or organize publicly. But the truth is, speaking isn't dangerous for sex workers. Censorship is. When sex workers can't use online resources to screen clients and share information, they are forced onto the street, where they are assaulted and murdered with terrifying frequency. A recent study found that overall homicide rates for women dropped by 17 percent when sex workers got access to online advertising like Craigslist erotic services. If SESTA succeeds in banning sex workers from the Internet, so many sex workers will be killed that we'll probably see a significant rise in the overall female murder rate.
The censorship of sex workers demonstrates two failures in our current discussion of free speech. First, free speech is often framed as an issue of protecting controversial subject matter. That is, pundits tend to worry that certain opinions, or certain ideas, will be silenced.
But sex workers aren't silenced for saying controversial things: Holly's YouTube channel deliberately avoided sexual content, and Dulcinea conscientiously stayed within Instagram's terms of service. These women were silenced not because of what they said but rather because of who they were. The speech of marginalized people is often seen as innately dangerous or worthless, regardless of the content of that speech. If you're the right sort of person, you can say outrageous things and face few consequences. If you're the wrong kind of person—like a sex worker—you can talk about your pets and lose your YouTube channel.
The second failure is the idea that defending free speech for controversial speakers—like fascists—automatically helps marginalized people. Defending Nazis is supposed to protect disadvantaged people, because if the speech of Nazis isn't defended, then, supposedly, the rights of marginalized people will be next to go.
But the truth is that defending conservative speech hasn't helped sex workers at all. If anything, the mania over protecting the free speech of conservative speakers has created a climate in which—despite valiant efforts by some sex workers and allies—the harms caused by SESTA don't even register as a problem related to free speech. If you want to protect the free speech of marginalized people, you need to focus on and fight for the free speech of marginalized people—not of the people working to marginalize them.
Nix has been looking for a venue online to do nude, sexual, political performance art for the past year, but she hasn't found any platform that will accommodate her. "I don't feel I can truly use my body politically at all, and I absolutely should be able to. It's my body," she says. Congress, Twitter, Patreon, YouTube, and payment processors have decided that sex workers' bodies should be invisible, and that sex workers' voices should fall silent. "Free speech" may protect the worst opinions, but we seem to be reluctant to let it protect those who need it most.