Sex workers are shadow-banned, locked out of our accounts, and even banned from the platforms that we helped bring to prominence simply for daring to exist.
This essay contains mentions of r/pe threats, suicide, whorephobic rhetoric, and child abuse.
By Adrie Rose
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an audience of 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee on 3 April 1968. “Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”
That’s a fantastic sentiment. It really is, but I’m tired. I’m tired of being an “activist”. I’m tired of being a freelancer. I’m tired of being Black, and I’m definitely tired of being a Black woman. I’m tired of being quoted as a “blogger” in articles that use my research and words to tell narratives of sex workers. But at this moment, I am most tired of being a Black woman in close proximity to sex work. I don’t feel particularly empowered by this one of many jobs I hold, because having to keep an unending rotation of projects in motion just to buy my cat food is so bleak it makes me consider dropping out. It doesn’t spark joy to wake up to DMs calling me a “stupid whore,” emails from people trying desperately to track down what school I attend, or the fear of finding that my social media accounts have been locked or suspended, yet again.
Maybe I’m just a masochist in denial. That would certainly explain why I keep my DMs open when an offhand thread about academics being hostile and unwelcoming to sex work(ers) yields slur-laden missives riddled with disproven statistics. In every sense, in every medium, in every space, sex workers are the butt of vile joke and the first line of defence against misogyny and misogynoir. And yet sex workers are holding attention, weight, and space. The world is obsessed. Fetish and kink-friendly sex workers have influenced fashion so much that bondage wear is incorporated in everyday fashion. Pleasers, the iconic brand put on the map by strippers, have made it into the cultural consciousness as must-have items. Sex workers are so influential that we have influenced film, theatre, and political discussions despite its detractors.
In June 2019, the account that I spent a year building—the one with just under 1,000 followers, countless DM conversations with editors and academics, threads with research I can no longer access, and bookmarked tweets with documents, links, and books—was unceremoniously suspended because I had attracted the attention of an unstable woman that targets sex workers and people of colour. I had begged Twitter for weeks to take action after October Evans stole pictures of me and my cat, impersonated me and sent death threats and homophobic and transphobic hate to people while masquerading as me, and eventually hacked into my account to threaten other people. For months, this woman sent me emails calling me a filthy whore, a dirty Jamaican monkey, and a failed abortion. She reported me to ICE and attempted to have my teaching license revoked by reporting me to the state board as a pedophile.
Just after my birthday, Evans began sending me emails threatening suicide because I had chosen to out her as a stalker. I had leveraged my platform and my reach to protect other sex workers and people of colour by giving what little information I could so they could protect themselves from Evans. She’s done this before—threatened suicide, blamed her victims for her emotional distress, doctored photos to look like a hospital room, and gone right back to harassing whoever caught her attention. What about my emotional distress? What about the emotional rollercoaster I have to ride, knowing that this woman has no intention of committing suicide and knowing the hell she’s put me through, but still choosing to inflict this violence on me?
I did everything that I was supposed to do. I reported the abuse and impersonation to Twitter. Repeatedly. I reported it to Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, and Pinterest when she used my email address to create puppet accounts to further harass me. Facebook told me there was nothing they could do and I should just ignore it, even after she posted my picture and name on a school district page accusing me of molesting children. Reddit apologised for my distress and never followed up with decisive action. Tumblr told me there was nothing they could do unless I could provide a link to a specific post impersonating or defaming me—useless since the account was blank except for my picture and the url dirtybitchblack.tumblr.com. Pinterest was the only site to respond quickly and decisively, deleting the account and locking my email address from being used to create new accounts. Twitter suspended my account without ceremony for hateful conduct and their automated system continues to deny my appeals despite intervention from university police when I explained that my account held a year of research critical to my academic work.
Eventually, I accepted the loss, but I was despondent for weeks. Months, honestly. How was I supposed to draft a thesis and graduate on time when I had lost a year of research, goodwill, and networking? I spent the entire summer literally grieving. So you can understand when I say that I didn’t actually want to write this. Talking about my own proximity to sex work on social media, or in any public forum, gives me immense anxiety. Even now, I’m hesitant to put her name on anything tied to me because the thought of being subject to further harassment sends me spiraling. I don’t think I’d say that I have PTSD or anything quite so severe, but it is a fact that prolonged contact with or exposure to a stalker can cause PTSD or similar symptoms.
But I do it so that I have credibility when I pitch these kinds of articles, petition elected officials to support decriminalisation, and ask other sex workers to participate in this process. But I hate doing it because Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, and every other social media hellsite absolutely despises sex workers. They hate us. They hate me. They’ve always hated us but in this post-SESTA/FOSTA era, that hatred has become more exaggerated and hostile than ever before. It would be comical if it was so fucking Dickensian and bleak. Sex workers are shadow-banned, locked out of our accounts, and even banned from the platforms that we helped bring to prominence simply for daring to exist.
Sites like OnlyFans have become indistinguishable from independent pornography creators, but their Terms of Service (TOS) have been quietly updated to explicitly forbid the sale of “adult content”. Porn tube sites (largely owned by one company) that make their names and fortunes on stolen content and revenge porn use verified accounts to tweet about “saving the earth” and post pictures of the genitals of adult actors while small content creators can’t be found via Twitter or Instagram’s search function because of shadowbanning. Influencers, actors, models, and the famous-adjacent, insulated from suspension via a small checkmark, are able to post all manner of provocative photos hinting at—or even baring—nipples, breasts, labia, ass cheeks and holes without compunction while we lesser whores are left to strategically blur and c*ns*r keywords.
Brandon McCartney, or Lil B “The Based God” has been preying on sex workers and children for almost a decade, sending unsolicited DMs to minors and sex workers with small followings on Twitter and Instagram and asking them to write his name across their feet and send photographs to him. When called out for this predatory and disturbing behaviour, McCartney sics his legions of devoted Stans on those few willing to speak up. Given Twitter’s automated reporting feature, mass reports of innocuous tweets are immediately flagged and the accounts are usually suspended without fanfare. You can understand then why sex workers are hesitant to speak out regarding his abuses when it results in a concerted effort to silence, subdue, and/or de-platform critics.
Asa Akira, one of the most recognizable names in the adult film industry, regularly posts videos of her sexual exploits with her husband on Snapchat, while personal friends have their completely vanilla Snapchat accounts suspended without notice because of associations with a “Premium” account. This is not to say that I want Asa Akira’s Snapchat account taken down, because I think it’s amazing that she uses her platform to advocate for sexual freedom for women, especially pregnant women, in such an unabashed way. Reddit is overrun with subreddits dedicated to “upskirt” shots and unmoderated “gone wild” posts that may or may not be stolen/revenge porn, but sex workers are frequently banned from the same subreddits—and even the site as a whole—for linking to their own accounts or referencing sales or membership sites.
Seeking Arrangement, a sugar baby dating site, has always prohibited explicit mention of exchanging sex for money in its TOS, but now, particularly hateful or vindictive men can report women as suspected escorts and have their accounts purged without warning. The irony is overwhelming considering Seeking Arrangement’s frequent and recurring problem with the impersonation of public figures. This specific trend is not limited to sugar baby dating sites either. “Vanilla” dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish shadowban or suspend accounts for swiping left too often, putting pay app handles in the bio, having too many “suggestive” photos, or violating any number of arbitrary guidelines aimed at combating whatever nebulous definition of trafficking they’ve trotted out for that update cycle.
Speaking of pay apps, they’re notorious for their disenfranchisement of sex workers, closing accounts and literally stealing money they’ve earned from clients, justifying their actions with draconian policies that prohibit the vaguely outlined “sale of adult content.” Cash App is especially averse to sex workers, despite sex workers being largely responsible for the app’s meteoric rise to mainstream consciousness. PayPal has long been lambasted for its infamous “buyer first” policies that often leave freelancers and small business owners out of money and product after intentionally malicious and fraudulent chargebacks. If a sex worker manages to keep their account open and a chargeback is requested, PayPal will honour the request and leave an account balance in the negative, even after acknowledging the request is fraudulent, according to prodomme Yevgeniya. If you’ve ever had a negative balance in PayPal, you know that your bank account will be eventually be debited the amount owed without warning, forcing users to remove all accounts from PayPal and rendering their email address useless.
Combined with PayPal’s hardline policies of using a legal name—verified by government ID—and refusing to allow personal accounts to have separate display names, this makes the platform a breeding ground for harassment, stalking, and flat-out theft. Venmo (owned by PayPal) and Square (owner of Cash App) are the same virtual minefields. The problem is only exacerbated if a sex worker is required to use one of the platforms to collect payment for “legitimate occupations” such as freelancing or running a small business (as I do). Given the historically antagonistic relationship that banks have with sex workers, only exaggerated by the policies of politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio, pay apps are the only viable means of collecting payment for sex workers and existing in an increasingly cashless society, especially now that many have begun issuing debit cards.
It’s not entirely honest to claim that this antagonism for sex workers is the direct result of that ominous pairing of acronyms that (rightfully) has the internet in a tizzy, SESTA/FOSTA. These sites have always pitted marginal groups against the ideologically opposed masses. And I guess I can understand why these sites hate us from a purely capitalist, “TOS agreements are a legal and logistical nightmare” point of view. Sex workers, people of colour, women, and LGBTQ+ people attract the worst kinds of trolls and all the misapplied first amendment related screeching that follows them. Reddit, a known haven for the dregs of humanity has taken years to acknowledge and make a minimal effort to weed out vile subreddits like r/incels, r/beatingwomen, r/creepshots, r/cringeanarchy, and r/the_donald which literally exist(ed) to name, shame, and mock the least protected of us. Twitter has doubled down on policies that leave women, sex workers, POC, and trans people vulnerable to the worst the internet has to offer. Facebook has rampant internal problems with anti-Black racism so one can only imagine how reporting of online racism is handled. Instagram has aggressively targeted sex workers for even daring to mention their occupations in bios and refuses to allow promotion of content that promotes sexual freedom and positivity for women and LGBT+ people. This brand of limp-wristed, largely ineffective “moderation” is a side effect of technofrat culture that was born and bred in white-male dominated venture capitalist and innovative technology circles.
But now, the insulated rulers of Silicon Valley have a state-sponsored, bulletproof excuse for their whorephobic and misogynist policies. Not that they needed one, because women (especially Black women), sex workers, and trans people are always at the bottom and punching down is the uniting pastime of social media. The language of the dual SESTA/FOSTA legislation explicitly places the responsibility of weeding out trafficking on sites without the capacity or the knowledge to accurately identify actual exploitation, leaving tens if not hundreds of thousands of adult workers out of luck. And even though the passage of this legislation and subsequent seizure of Backpage, a known haven for poor sex workers unable to pay membership fees for escort sites like Slixa and Eros, was predicated on largely exaggerated and fabricated evidence, sites like Instagram and Twitter have enacted widespread, sweeping policies that leave their already struggling users without any recourse. In so many ways, SESTA/FOSTA has been a resounding failure, and yet there is no acknowledgment or apology for the increased harm to our communities.
Without clear guidelines for use, artists on Instagram find themselves locked out of their accounts for posting nudity, implicit or explicit. And now, Facebook and Instagram have further tightened their Draconian policies to forbid the use of “suggestive emojis”, sexually suggestive posts, and linking to content sites like OnlyFans and ManyVids. Custom content creators for The Sims and aesthetic micro-blogs on Tumblr are swept up in automated content filters that target posts with excessive “flesh-tones.” On SnapChat, users are allowed to screenshot and record the content of sex workers without consent and the creators are left without recourse, short of community-run block/blacklists, because they aren’t technically allowed on the app. On Twitter, inconsistently enforced guidelines get small accounts suspended for using “terf” in response to actual terfs with thousands of followers or showing a bared thigh in a profile or header image. Across the internet, particularly vile users (usually cis men) are allowed to threaten rape, kidnapping, and murder, send unsolicited pictures of their disgusting penises to anyone they want, and brigade the mentions of anyone they disagree with for days without consequence. Meanwhile, women and trans people are summarily booted for making hyperbolic statements about hating men or entirely factual statements about suffering repeated abuses from men.
Pro-femme, pro-woman, and pro-sex positive brands like Salty and Lips Zine have begun crowdfunding for separate, independently-hosted platforms to escape repeated reporting and account locks. Backup accounts have become de rigeur as users anticipate being suspended for the smallest infraction. Targeted users have attempted to use the automated reporting features to their own advantage, asking their followers to mass report egregious rule-breaking with little success. Almost every day, there is a new thinkpiece or op-ed about the increasingly Orwellian use of censorship to suppress the minoritised masses. And yet, the group at the forefront of this censorship—sex workers—are consistently left out of the discussion.
Salty, which after having ads denied by Instagram for “promoting escort services”, posted a survey asking for responses from those affected in the same or similar ways and notably left off a specific category for sex workers. When called out on their clearly exclusive behavior, Salty blocked me on Twitter for asking why they excluded sex workers (in a tweet I’ve since deleted). When community workspace, The Wing, hosted a talkback for the film Hustlers, no sex workers were present on the panel, despite the bold pronouncement that they will “always work to ensure that the Sex Worker community feels supported, seen, and empowered at The Wing.” This is after claims that The Wing management shared the legal name of a sex worker and hosted known SWERF (sex-work exclusionary radical feminist), Ashley Judd.
While this aggressive policing of (largely) femme and feminine sexuality is not the result of SESTA/FOSTA legislation, the dual bill has forced us to a cultural crossroads. A reckoning of sorts. Sex workers are at the frontlines of this virtual war. Sex workers are women, trans people, LGBT+ people, single mothers, drug users, homeless people, formerly incarcerated people, immigrants, and people of colour. Not only are sex workers all of these things, but they are also these things in great number. The most marginalised and fringe members of our society are forced to straddle the bounds of legality and social acceptability to enjoy marginal participation in the same capitalist, patriarchal communities that other them so violently. It’s the work of a moment to rally support for a white-helmed publication losing visibility for being inaccurately labeled as promoting sex work, yet there is silence for actual sex workers being stripped of the same platforms.
A momentary outcry for sex workers being forced to relinquish phone numbers, their last measure of anonymity, just after the CEO of Twitter’s account was hacked using his phone number. There was no acknowledgment when those phone numbers were “inadvertently” used to target ads. Dehumanising jokes and brief coverage in trashy tabloids after a woman known for pornographic films was found dead of an apparent overdose. A #ThotAudit campaign appeared to report sex workers to the IRS for tax evasion even though most sex workers rarely clear enough income throughout the year to catch the IRS’ attention. Outing sex workers as revenge or as a joke when child welfare organisations regularly target them and vindictive ex-partners defame sex working parents in custody cases without cause. This is the bloody ink we’re using to tell this tale. These are tear-stained pages our treatment of sex workers is being etched on. And while this moment in our history is no more important than any other prolonged period of injustice against, say, Black people or LGBTQ+ people, it cannot become a footnote. It’s irresponsible and unacceptable when so many sex workers are facing violence and aggression for the other intersections of marginality at which they reside.
So yes, I’m tired. I’m almost constantly fucking exhausted when I look at an ever-mounting pile of schoolwork while I choke down imposter syndrome and anxiety that threatens to send me running from the same ivory tower that legitimises me. I’m exhausted when I see the banner reminding me that I owe $5,000 to the institution that forces me to trade my trauma for access daily while I weigh the cost of outing myself as evidence of my need. I’m exhausted when I look at my therapist and weigh the benefits and risks of telling him too much even though it’s been almost two years and it’s his job to listen without judgment. But even though I’m exhausted and anxious and absolutely terrified, I’m so far past the point of return, I can’t see it anymore.
October Evans cannot be allowed to continue stalking and harassing sex workers, outing them, and reporting them to immigration while weaponising her own mental instability when called on the behaviour. Brandon McCartney cannot be allowed to continue preying on sex workers and children while his legion of fans harass anyone in their sights. Social media sites cannot be allowed to rout us out and silence us while our “allies” stand by and do nothing but leave disgusting comments and messages while clutching their purses ever tighter because we don’t deserve help. Cops cannot keep raping and murdering and soliciting us during “investigations” with impunity while insisting that we come to them to help us. This war on our bodies and our presence has to end and if I’ve planted myself firmly at the front alongside other brilliant, powerful, and equally deserving sex workers, then so be it. Someone has to be willing to do something because once we’re gone, there won’t be anyone left.
Adrie, Sociology student, book hoarder, and mother to Oscar (5) and Misty (15). I believe in the power of the glitter accent nail, sex workers, and black people.