Friday’s Supreme Courtdecision to overturn Roe v. Wade is one of the most devastating rulings to come out of Washington. It’s also the next step in a larger campaign to expand state surveillance and erode the right to privacy—a campaign that sex workers have been fighting for decades.
It’s not a stretch to connect abortion to sex work; Justice Samuel Alito even writes in the majority opinion for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the right to terminate a pregnancy “could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.” As a result of our criminalization and the concurrent stigma that makes our work “illicit,” sex workers often refer to ourselves as the “canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to matters of state violence. It’s a chilling analogy; the metaphorical miner’s survival depends not only on the canary’s death, but also on the miner’s perception of the canary’s death. The metaphor ultimately fails, for unlike miners taking heed of the canary’s abrupt silence, the general population treats sex workers with indifference at best. We’re more like the low-battery beep of a carbon monoxide detector, a sound somehow more irritating than the poison.
A dim silver lining is that sex workers, fully aware that the general public is unconcerned with our well-being, have already been forced to develop strategies and guides on how to evade detection despite the heightened scrutiny, strategies that can help abortion seekers and more as the carceral state expands.
Consider this, then, a canary’s song.
In March of 2018, President Trump signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Acts, more commonly known as FOSTA/SESTA, into law. While ostensibly designed to curb human trafficking, the practical measures outlined in the bills focus exclusively on amending Section 230, a provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Section 230 was intended to protect internet service providers, as well as online platforms that host third-party content, from liability for that content. FOSTA amended Section 230 by adding an exception: It would no longer protect platforms hosting any content that can be interpreted as “promotion or facilitation of prostitution.” This means if a sex worker uses an application like Instagram to advertise their services, both the worker and Instagram are liable: the worker is held to whatever laws apply in their jurisdiction, while the platform becomes responsible for what the legislation terms “reckless disregard of sex trafficking,” a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
For sex workers, Section 230 had provided a foothold, however fragile, to exist on the internet. FOSTA’s incision into the act was the first crack in a foundation that supported not only sex workers but also other marginalized, criminalized, and otherwise disenfranchised demographics. The effects of FOSTA have intensified during the past four years, rippling beyond social media and payment processors to the most quotidian of technologies. “Facilitating” sex work—language in later bills revised to “aiding and abetting”—could also implicate landlords renting to sex workers, ISPs that we use to advertise, and even, apparently, gig workers who deliver our food. (Earlier this year, even my DoorDash account fell victim to an algorithmic sweep of high-risk users.) By casting such a broad net around “facilitation,” the bill essentially outlaws sex workers’ presence on the internet by criminalizing proximity to sex work. Under this level of scrutiny, talking about sex work at all is a risk.