Good morning lovers. This interview may be on one of the most controversial and talked about topics - the censorship of the sex industry! With SISEA/FOSTA/SESTA, Pornhub at war with VISA/Mastercard and Instagram freaking out at the very sight of a pube, internet censorship is a subject that's kinda hard to avoid right now. I'm delighted that our very own @Phaedrus agreed to sharing his thoughts on it all. Enjoy and please like and comment to carry on the conversation! ❤️
Q: Hey Phaedrus! Happy New Year to you. How was your holiday season?
A: Happy New Year to you too, and hopefully 2021 will be an improvement on its predecessor. Holidays were... quiet - same as everyone else, I guess.
Q: So tell me a bit about your experience in this industry. Have you been seeing Companions for long?
A: <checks Lyla profile to see when I joined> Holy crap, it's been almost a decade! Time flies, eh?
I had had an interest in the sex industry for quite a long time before that, but it was purely curiosity back then as I wasn't in a position to take it any further. Blogging was a big thing at the time, and there were some fascinating people writing about different aspects of the sex industry, and sexuality more generally. Once I was in a position to start dipping my toes in the pool I found CERB (as this board was called then) and discovered a wealth of information there. And I guess it just continued from there...
Q: In that time, have you noticed an increase of censorship of the industry online? Can you give me some examples?
To some extent things have always been the same - the sex industry has always been there (it's called the Oldest Profession for a reason...) but has always been a little underground - not so far underground that you have to work very hard to find it if you want to, but just far enough that you're unlikely to stumble across it if you're not. A consequence of that is that it has been a very innovative industry when it comes to the adoption and leverage of new technologies - newly-invented ways of distributing content and meeting people are by definition not well known when they begin, and the sex industry is often an enthusiastic early adopter. But eventually one of those technologies gets big enough that it gets noticed by the population at large, and at that point our Self-Appointed Moral Guardians campaign against it relentlessly and eventually that one platform gets crushed.
What has changed over the last few years is that this cycle has started running faster and faster. If you want an example - how long was it between when you first heard of OnlyFans and when Bella Thorne ensured *everyone* knew about it? How long do we have before someone tries to shut it down? These things used to take years. Now it takes months.
Q: It’s a bit different for us here in Canada, but when FOSTA/SESTA happened in the US, a lot of sites got taken down. What do you know about the implications of that?
A: The core problem here is that the people driving all this aren't remotely interested in helping anybody. What they seem to want is for sex to be something that is done only between a man and a woman who are married, only as often as necessary to reproduce, and never talked about. And for them, SESTA/FOSTA has done exactly what they wanted! It has, alas, been an unmitigated disaster for everyone else... and not just sex workers and their clients.
First, let's talk about the sex industry. I'm not the best person for this - you'd really need a US-based provider to give you the full story - but I'll do what I can, and hopefully I won't screw it up too badly. Short version: it has made life harder and more dangerous for legitimate sex workers, made things easier for traffickers and made them even worse for their victims.
It is a general truth that the further underground you push an industry, the more problems such as exploitation become more ingrained and harder to combat (look at the War on Drugs, for example). In order for sex workers to work safely they need to be able to advertise, and screen clients who contact them. If you can't advertise, you have far fewer potential clients to choose from, and therefore less leeway to reject the potentially bad ones when the rent is due and you really need the money. And the illegality of everything means that clients are much less willing to divulge any information about themselves, and so screening gets harder too.
A big problem here is the conflation of sex work with trafficking, which SWAN talked about here recently. Ironically things like SESTA/FOSTA make life much *easier* for the traffickers and harder for their victims because it makes it much more difficult for victims to get any kind of help. They can't reach out to anyone; they're far more likely to be prosecuted for doing sex work (and deported, if their paperwork isn't in order) than given the assistance they need if they try. The US has always been bad on this front, but FOSTA/SESTA made it worse.
The second thing that has to be talked about is the impact of FOSTA/SESTA on the internet as a whole. One of the foundation-stones of the Internet as we know it is Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act - and if that sounds familiar, then yes, it has been in the news a lot recently because apparently FOSTA/SESTA didn't do enough damage. What this does is it makes content hosts immune from legal responsibility for content created by their users - so, for example, if I post something libellous on Twitter you can sue me, but you can't sue Twitter itself. Without that much of the Internet as we know it wouldn't exist. There would be no Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or Youtube. Blogs would never have happened. There would be no commenting on anything. There would be no user-generated content at all, because anyone providing a hosting service for that would be sued into oblivion as soon as anyone posted anything of dubious legality. Or even if it was legal - being sued in the US is horribly expensive, even if the person suing you has no valid case at all.
What FOSTA/SESTA did is to create a loophole in Section 230 so that those protections are removed for "sex trafficking". Remember what I said about the conflation of sex work and trafficking? Yeah, they weaponized that bullshit... again. And the law is explicitly worded in a vague manner to create fear and uncertainty in hosting services (this was deliberate and intentional; it wasn't just a badly-written law). So *any* sex worker's ad will likely be removed, for fear that they might possibly be a trafficking victim. Even if they aren't, getting sued is ruinously expensive. This stuff went into FOSTA/SESTA specifically because a prior attempt to shut down Backpage had failed because the courts ruled that Backpage was protected by Section 230.
The success of this has led to the more general assault on Section 230 that we're seeing in the US today. As Martin Niemoller might have said: First they came for the sex workers...
Q: Such a comprehensive answer! Exactly why you're a great person to speak to about this topic. 😉 In your opinion, how much online censorship is needed?
A: As little as possible! I almost said "None" but you do have to have some laws to keep some things shut down (e.g. anything non-consensual). But if it's not a crime, then the state should butt out - there's absolutely no need for censorship based on mere disapproval.
One thing I feel I should call out here is the difference between censorship and moderation. Censorship is the government dictating what we can or can't say, in any forum, and it's typically aimed at suppressing particular viewpoints; moderation is the owner/operator of a forum or service deciding what they're OK with having, and it's typically aimed at undesirable behaviour (trolling, spamming, abuse). The government really ought to stay out of things unless it's absolutely necessary, but moderation is essential if you're trying to build any sort of community.
Moderation is necessary because without it, most users will be driven away. If you have none at all, then the spambots run riot and drive the humans away. If you keep the bots out, then the biggest assholes will drive the decent people away and you get left with a cesspit containing the dregs of humanity, and so you have to deal with them too. So anyone running a website where users can contribute has to decide what sort of community/environment they want to have, and tailor their moderation policies accordingly. This will always provoke complaints, like the periodic threads we get here from people complaining they can't write bad reviews of providers, but that's something we have to live with.
And for the folks who complain that moderation infringes on their free speech, and yell about being censored: no, it doesn't, and it isn't. You're still free to say what you like, but your right to express yourself doesn't mean anyone else is obliged to publish what you have to say. You want unmoderated speech... set up your own website, and say what you please there, and the rest of us will give you as much attention as we think you deserve. Or more realistically: there's always a space somewhere that you can go to say what you want to like-minded folks.
Another thing on censorship vs moderation: the line gets *very* blurred when you're talking about the social media giants. According to the definition I've given above, what the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter etc do is moderation - and yet they're so powerful that when they drive you out there's really nowhere viable to go. Sure, there are technically alternatives... but what's the point of an alternative with no audience? This is a really big issue for anyone who really needs the audience, e.g. a business (even a small business, like an independent sex worker) trying to advertise, or people involved in politics who need to reach an audience to make their case. The fundamental problem here is that some corporations are just too powerful, but that's a separate and bigger issue.
Finally... I think we also need to consider "Cancel Culture". I'm *very* conflicted on this. On the one hand, nobody has a right to an audience and nobody should be free from consequences, so it's absolutely fine for someone to stand up and say, "This person is not worth listening to, so nobody should". And it's fine for a lot of other folks to agree with that. We're all free to make our own decisions about who we listen to and who we don't, and those decisions are inevitably influenced by the society around us. But... I really don't like the inevitable conclusion to that path, which is censorship by mob rule. That's even worse than governments doing it; because the mob is inconsistent, capricious and utterly unaccountable to anyone. That scares me.
Q: What dangers are there of over censorship?
A: As with what I was saying about moderation above: the over-zealous censor drives people away. But when the government is doing it, as with censorship, where does that leave you? You can't just go to another country in this case - we're stuck with the government we have, like it or not. If you're censored, you get driven out of society. And that's what we see happening over and over again with sex workers: they get forced to the margins, forced out, forced underground, and that's when the more nefarious elements like organized crime start to benefit from and control the situation. That's bad for everyone, except the crime bosses.
The other problem with censorship, is: where does it stop? It frequently just escalates. Even if you approve of someone you don't like being shut down today, what happens when the censors decide they don't like you tomorrow? You'd be amazed how likely that is, given that most of us hold views about something that are at odds with what's approved of by mainstream society. The only way you can guarantee your safety is if you're the one making the decisions, but there's only room for one at the top.
Q: Speaking from experience I know it’s pretty hard to advertise anything related to adult work. For example for paid advertising you can’t bid on certain phrases like “escort” or “porn”. Even when you type in “porn” in Google, the only things that come up organically seem to be porn sites; there’s no content there about ethical porn or content directly from sex workers/the community. What do you think this will look like in the future? Can you see voices being censored more or less?
A: Well, I don't know a lot about advertising sex work, having never done any - I've always been on the consumer's end of things.
I think the first point you raise is much broader than sex work; it's more about the world in general. When you search for porn you'll get the big sites, and you definitely won't find your local escort who's branched out into selling a few videos to get through the pandemic. But it's the same with everything. Search for "books" and you'll get Amazon links, not the bookshop down the road. No matter what you look for, there's a large company or two that are slowly squeezing the life out of everyone else. There are movements against this sort of thing (e.g. https://www.not-amazon.ca/) but other than that, I'm not sure what you do about it. Traditionally you might argue that anti-trust/monopoly/cartel laws would do the job, but unfortunately we're at the point where large corporations are at least as powerful as governments - and more-or-less own a lot of the people who write the laws - so who can hold them accountable? Going back to our local escort who's started doing porn, how do they advertise against the behemoths that already exist? And how do they competitively price their offerings against the mass of free content that's out there? Their existing advertising channels may work to reach people who are already engaged with the sex industry but how do they reach the wider market? I have no idea.
As for what the future brings... predictions always come with a risk of looking stupid, but anyways, here goes... I'm partly optimistic, and partly not.
On the optimistic side: I think we're slowly moving in the right direction. Obviously it's not a smooth process and there's almost as many steps back as forward, but society in general seems to be moving towards more toleration, and less control of things by the traditional minority. There's still a long way to go, but we're hearing more and more from women, BIPOC folks, LBGTQ+ folks, and many others who have historically been ignored. And society in general seems to be moving towards acknowledging people's rights to be heard, and to make a living in whatever way they choose provided it does no harm to others.
Of course, there will never be progress without a backlash. And that's what we're seeing with a lot of the censorship: the white/male/conservative folks who always used to run the show have realized that power and control are slipping away, and they don't like it. Women who can forge their own careers and control their own destinies aren't going to be content with just staying at home and doing as they're told. Sex work is an important target for them because the people working in it are overwhelmingly women, and increasingly making their own rules about how to do it - and if it can't be controlled, it must be shut down.
It's not just about censorship via the government and things like FOSTA/SESTA, unfortunately. One serious problem we have is the money bottleneck: most online payments go via just two companies, Visa and Mastercard. And so if you can pressure them into it, they can cripple an online business. Pornhub is only the most recent example of that; those who have been around a while may remember Craigslist, which was where most of the sex work ads were back when I first got started in this. Craigslist caved almost overnight when Visa and Mastercard threatened to cut them off if they didn't get rid of the sex work ads, and they did that as a result of political pressure. Backpage took over, and was destroyed by other means. Now LeoList seems to have the lion's share of that market, and... well, I hate to say it, but they're probably quite high on the hit-list. If I was an ambitious type I'd probably be looking at setting up PhaedrusList to step in when that happens 🙂
This will happen, but I think we'll get by. As I said early on, the sex industry has always been innovative, and that won't change. If we get shut out entirely by the credit card companies, other forms of payment will suddenly become popular; Paypal has already proven itself hostile, but perhaps Bitcoin will become standard. Or maybe something else - just this morning I saw providers talking about SpankPay in my Twitter feed, so people are clearly working on this. When advertising venues get shut down others will pop up; it'll be chaos for a while but things will work out, as they have before, because there will always be someone who wants sex workers' advertising dollars in their own pocket. If Twitter becomes hostile then we'll take our conversations elsewhere; perhaps boards will have a renaissance, or maybe Mastodon will finally take off. That almost happened when Twitter looked like it might go bad on us and Switter was set up by a couple of sex workers; it only took them a couple of days to get it launched.
Q: Only recently there have been reports of Instagram cracking down on sex worker content - I’ve seen a few people lose their accounts because of it. I think it’s a shame that because of this powerful, important voices are being shut down. What do you think are some ways to fight against that?
A: Keep talking. More. Louder. Insist on the right to be heard. Call out the cowards who try to silence those voices because they're unable to argue against them. Amplify those voices; repost, retweet, link, like (I have to admit that I'm terrible at this). But this is unfortunately very hard because deplatforming *works*; there are quite a few far-right people who have been effectively silenced by this technique. And while I don't mourn the loss of a few Nazi-wannabes... they could do the same to sex work advocates.
I think the really key issue here is stigma. A slogan you see sometimes on Twitter is "Someone you love is a sex worker"; the problem is that while that's often true, most folks probably don't know that person is a sex worker, because they keep it hidden. What we really need is an environment where people can freely admit to being sex workers, or using their services, without massive social consequence.
The irony is that almost all guys have used the services of sex workers in the past - strippers are sex workers, and how many guys do you know who have never had a lapdance? Porn is sex work, and how many guys have never watched porn? Perhaps if more guys admitted to having gone to a massage parlour or seen an escort, those things would be more normalized too. Obviously many people can't be completely open about it because their wife/girlfriend/SO would be severely unimpressed if they knew what really went down last time they "worked late", but perhaps it could be acknowledged on a "but it was before I met you" basis where that's possible?
Coming back to the original question: the point of all this is that if it were truly known just how many people are involved in the sex industry as either providers or consumers of services, it would be *much* harder to shut down the voices of those who advocate for better working conditions, safety, basic rights, etc.
Q: I know a big reason behind censorship of sex on the internet is to protect young people. In your opinion, what are some alternative options to do this?
A: I don't think that's the reason they do it. It's just a good excuse. There's a difference. The *reason* they do it is because they don't like sex on the internet where they can't control it.
It should perhaps be noted that this "protecting the children" thing is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, families were much larger and lived in much closer proximity to each other than today - and you can be sure that the older kids would have had a pretty good idea where their younger siblings came from! And that's before you consider that once you hit puberty your parents would be looking to get you married off. There was *never* some golden age of childhood innocence.
Having said that... I agree that this is nevertheless important, and we need to do it. I think the important thing here is to ensure that nobody stumbles on things accidentally. That means flagging things as being adults-only, and being conscientious about that (which I think most folks in the sex industry are already pretty good with). But perhaps we need a finer rating system, perhaps more along the lines of how movies are rated; at the moment everything seems to be in a binary state of kid-friendly or 18+... and if you open the floodgates, everything comes at you. Maybe we need a better way to say "There will be nudity here, but you're not going to see someone with a dick or two in each orifice". But I have no idea how to set that up.
Of course, the really big problem here is largely insoluble: kids grow up, and get curious about things, and they do that far faster than their parents would like. I have no clue what to do about that, and it's a far broader issue than just the sex industry; we live in a world where many schools can't teach anything other than abstinence-only sex education, and that far too late... as the teenage pregnancy rates show.
Q: Thanks for your time - I’m glad we were able to hear your thoughts on this fairly complicated topic! You were the perfect interviewee for it, so thank you. Have you got anything else you’d like to share?
A: I guess I should start by apologizing for that bout of verbal diarrhoea - if you're still reading, thanks for sticking with me! In the best patriarchal tradition I'll refuse to take responsibility and blame a woman instead... so Lydia, it's your fault for asking such thought-provoking questions 🙂 But seriously, thanks for the opportunity; these are important and complex topics, and they simply don't lend themselves to tweet-length replies.
I also wanted to thank you and the other folks running Lyla these days for your efforts to make the place interesting and rebuild the community here; it's a long, slow process, but I'm optimistic that you'll succeed. I know boards aren't exactly popular in the industry at the moment, but I think you're building something worthwhile; things like Twitter don't have the same community that we do here, and you just can't have a conversation like this in that format.