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Ineffective Laws Have Made Sex Workers and Visual Artists Uncanny Bedfellows

Ineffective Laws Have Made Sex Workers and Visual Artists Uncanny Bedfellows

Emma Shapiro body-equality activist


(An image by artist Tiffany Cole which was removed by Instagram for “sexual solicitation”)
(An image by artist Tiffany Cole which was removed by Instagram for “sexual solicitation”)

“Vienna Strips on OnlyFans” was the cheeky and odd title for a protest exhibition by the Vienna Tourism Board. After Instagram removed posts from several art museums in Vienna for “nudity,” the Vienna Tourism Board joined the pay-for-play website OnlyFans, featuring artworks from their collections. The dauntless stunt quickly gained international recognition, calling attention to the absurdity of contemporary social media regulations.

This move came only weeks after OnlyFans announced that they would no longer allow “sexually explicit” imagery on their site, provoking a tsunami of criticism. Creators and users, namely the sex workers who are credited with the success of the platform, protested vociferously. Soon after, OnlyFans reversed their decision.

While these events may seem only circumstantially related, they both belie an increasingly worrisome thread of conservatism regarding freedom of expression and bodily autonomy online. While Vienna’s move from Instagram to OnlyFans was a stunt, it also stemmed from Instagram’s draconian guidelines. OnlyFans’ decision was similarly caused by payment platforms threatening to abandon the site if they failed to change their guidelines. These events, alongside Instagram’s increasing removal of imagery from artist’s accounts, has confirmed a long-held suspicion of many artists and activists censored on Instagram: that they are being marched off the platform.

Instagram’s decisions are greatly informed by the 2018 laws known as SESTA/FOSTA, intended to curb sex trafficking and child pornography. SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were passed to modify the existing Section 230 protections of the Communications Decency Act. The modification meant that websites — once protected from prosecution under Section 230 — are now liable for the content posted by users.

While these laws were intended to inhibit sex trafficking and sex abuse imagery of children online, it appears they have had the opposite effect, making abuse harder to track and pushing sex workers back into unsafe environments. In the years following SESTA/FOSTA’s passage, the number of dead and missing sex workers substantially increased. Though the bills were supposed to help prosecute sex traffickers, a report from the Government Accountability Office reveals that they have been used to prosecute only once as of June 2021.

Despite the low risk of litigation, platforms have been spooked enough to purge content far outside the borders of the laws’ original intentions. Platforms like Instagram, whose ability to discern guideline-abiding imagery to begin with was weak, are now squashing artists and creators with impunity. Unsurprisingly, this has had the greatest impact on women, BIPOC, and other marginalized creators.

A major player supporting these efforts is the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), formerly Morality in Media, a litigious organization opposing pornography, intent on “expos[ing] the links between all forms of sexual exploitation.” They were integral to the passing of SESTA/FOSTA , the reintroduction of the EARN IT act, and pressuring payment providers like Visa and Mastercard to take a hard line on sites hosting sexual imagery. According to Hacking/Hustling’s “Erased” report, most sex workers believe that these efforts represent “a moralist fight against sex work in general,” a fight that seems to target not only sex work but also any kind of imagery which could be considered obscene.

Danna Wexler is the founder of Please Knock, an erotic art and dark humor newsletter and online shop. After she ran afoul of the restrictions placed on her by banking institutions, her site was labeled “high risk,” causing her to pay fines to keep her business online. A lover of vintage and contemporary erotic illustration, the restrictions she faces came as a surprise to her and have required months of added labor and concern. While she has now found a way to keep her shop open, she admits “I’m always afraid of being blocked or shut down,” adding that she doesn’t feel comfortable that payment platforms can “censor me on my own website when I’m not doing anything illegal.”

(Examples of the Sex Worker and related communities organizing and educating about censorship online)

While the sex work and fine art communities don’t often visibly overlap, the growing threat to both became clear when artists began receiving accusations from Instagram that their images were guilty of “sexual solicitation.” Artists who perhaps had previously run afoul of Instagram’s notorious guidelines were understandably confused and offended to have their work not only overtly sexualized, but accused of breaking the law. First widely noticed by artists beginning in March 2022 and then hopefully attributed to an AI glitch, it has become obvious that the accusations are real and not stopping.

Rather than rectifying the harms of SESTA/FOSTA, the EARN IT act threatens to further erode freedom of speech and privacy rights. Sex workers have been organized and vocal in their opposition to the EARN IT act, which was first introduced in 2020, failed, and re-introduced in 2022. Should it pass, the EARN IT act will expand SESTA/FOSTA, specifically targeting end-to-end encryption and creating a commission to recommend further and possibly more extreme “best practices” to target child sex abuse material. Sex workers worry it will make their work more dangerous: loss of encryption and increased surveillance will lessen their ability to vet clients, negotiate, and create safe spaces among peers.

The Vienna Tourism Board’s protest was savvy in that it effectively drew attention to the slippery slope of art censorship and its widespread ramifications. Other art institutions failed us when they did not follow Vienna’s lead to stand up for art, artists, and creators who are suffering. The missing protest from the broader art community has only bolstered the façade that SESTA/FOSTA and EARN IT protect the most vulnerable, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out, “justifies the continuing concentration of free speech chokepoints—chokepoints that have always been used against LGBTQ speech, and women’s and minority rights—whenever a moral crusade needs an undemocratic hand.”


(Examples of artists, sex workers, and activists speaking out about censorship of their images online) SESTA/FOSTA
Examples of artists, sex workers, and activists speaking out about censorship of their images online.

This moment of discrimination against both artists and sex workers shows us how vulnerable we all are to prejudicial policies and legal missteps. What is happening to sex workers and artists online is one and the same, fostered by ignorance and judgment, and bolstered by a lack of nuance. Artists ought to take a cue from sex workers, who have often gathered strength through community, peer education, and protest. Even better, artists (and the art institutions who ought to be supporting us) should recognize that our communities are inextricably linked in this rising moral crusade against us. Laws designed to fight against sex trafficking and child sex abuse imagery should not be what limits the success of countless creators who have a right to bodily autonomy and expression.

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