Opinion | What A Sex Worker and Anti-Trafficker Want You To Know About Porn Bans


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jane coaston

Today on “The Argument,” what we don’t talk about when we talk about the online sex industry.

This past August, the social media platform OnlyFans, which has about 130 million users, announced that they would ban all videos featuring sexually explicit content. There was some major user backlash. Which makes sense, since many of the site’s most popular creators are sex workers and adult performers. Pretty quickly, OnlyFans reversed their stance. But for a lot of folks, that wasn’t the end of the story.

I’m Jane Coaston. I’ve been thinking and writing about this topic for a long time, about how we think about sex work in this country, and how we find the line between exploitation and empowerment in the sex industry. And I’m aware that many people don’t think that’s even possible. Sex trafficking is a horrific crime. We need to protect people who are trapped in a ring of exploitation. We should be ensuring that it’s not happening, nor being promoted. But I’ve talked to sex workers, and many say that the move to online sex work has created real opportunities for them and given them more control over their careers and bodies. If we leave either part out of this equation, we’re missing the full picture and putting real people at real risk. Our guests today have seen both sides. Jamie Rosseland is an advocate and public speaker for victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Cherie DeVille is a 10-year porn veteran and contributor to The Daily Beast.

Cherie, full disclosure, you use OnlyFans for your job. So, what is OnlyFans? And what about this platform works for you?

cherie deville

So OnlyFans is just one of many platforms that I utilize. I think one of the most interesting things about OnlyFans is it’s one of the few platforms that a lot of sex workers utilize that have become a household name. The platform is simply a sex worker’s version of Etsy. It is a place that we can put and upload content, and then use their services, which are billing and a variety of other content-hosting services to sell our content. They then take a relatively low percentage, considering the amount of value that they provide.

jane coaston

How did you find out about that brief ban on adult content? And how did that impact you?

cherie deville

I found out about OnlyFans temporarily banning adult content, actually, on Twitter.

jane coaston

That’s how we learn everything now.

cherie deville

Yeah. I wake up in the morning. I look at my feed. And it’s an explosion of all of my friends and co-workers in a panic. Many people who, like me, maybe I performed on set, some of my friends who were working as strippers. A lot of people who are doing in-person work were obviously unable to do that because there was a dangerous pandemic going on. And they switched to OnlyFans. So at this particular moment, I think, more than any other, people were really panicking about its loss. It was pretty upsetting to a lot of creators. So even though their choice to get rid of us temporarily was not surprising to me at all, it was upsetting to the community. And I’d kind of like to say a little bit more about why it wasn’t surprising to me. So, financial institutions have been policing free speech for a really long time. They’ve been policing free speech in the sex worker community as long as I’ve been in sex work. They go above and beyond what, say, the United States has considered legal. So I could legally post those things, but nobody can have a business, really, of any kind, in today’s modern world, without credit card processing. So when they started to put that pressure on other sites like Pornhub and OnlyFans, I’m completely unsurprised. And I think the reason a lot of Americans ignore that is because lots of people don’t like porn anyway. So they say, who cares? Yeah, yeah, we shouldn’t get rid of freedom of speech, but they’re just doing it to pornographers, so, good. But I think people should realize that once you open that door to say that financial institutions control freedom of speech, like, that’s capitalism on crack, man. That’s not going to work out for anybody.

jane coaston

I’m really interested, Jamie, in what you thought about the ban. How did you hear about it? And do you think that the safety measures that these sites have in place currently are enough?

jamie rosseland

Yeah, I also heard about the ban on adult content on OnlyFans through social media. I think that is how everyone hears about everything these days. One thing I wanted to mention, as far as the financial institutions attacking free speech of sex workers and porn producers, that is one part of the conversation. I think it’s a part of the conversation that we have to have. But I think there is this other part of the conversation where people are being exploited on these platforms. There’s people who are not willingly engaging in sex work. There are people who are either being trafficked or are feeling pressure to be on these sites because of whatever reason. And I believe that’s part of the reason why these companies have gone after OnlyFans and Pornhub, I believe Backpage, quite a few different sites. There is the element where we start talking about free speech, but what happens for the people who are being exploited?

jane coaston

It’s really complex because you have some organizations that are saying that, essentially, all sex work is inherently exploitative. And then you have sex workers saying that’s not true. But you do have people who have been exploited, who have had non-consensual material put on Pornhub or on other sites. I think for a lot of people who are not engrossed in what the adult industry looks like, what makes the online sex industry different from the more traditional porn industry?

cherie deville

The online industry is where, instead of me working for a company, I work for myself. And I pay the people who perform in my films. Photographers, talent, et cetera, own that content, which is one of the biggest differences. If I work for you, you own the content. If I work for myself, I own the content. And then I distribute that content online wherever I see fit. So I think even just in my description you can see some pretty big differences. While working for other people, I choose my rates and I take whatever work I deem appropriate. It doesn’t, at least in the pornographic realm, for most companies, give residuals. When I own my content, I own every dollar that that content makes for all time. So it’s done a lot of things. For a company to hire you, you often, in the day of the internet, need to fit inside what they call analytics. So they might have a certain user base that likes, maybe it’s a certain look, maybe it’s a certain hair color, maybe it’s a certain body type or size or gender. When you work for yourself, you have access to the whole internet. So you might be a performer that doesn’t fit into that standard analytical model. And you’d still be able to make a vibrant income as almost any type of model because you have direct access to the fans. We still have thousands and thousands of people who like any body type, any type of woman, man, or non-binary person. So it’s provided both a level of freedom for those of us who might fit into that analytical model and the ability for all types of other content creators to make a really viable income doing whatever it is they truly love. You have your customers for your passions. It’s freedom.

jamie rosseland

Yeah, I think for people like Cherie — and I’m glad that you have agency in what you’re doing, and control over your content — but I think it’s important to remember that there are people who don’t have control over their content and aren’t profiting anything, or very little, from the content that they’re producing. When the pandemic did happen, a lot of individuals who were being exploited on street or hotel level or in homes, were moved over to sites like OnlyFans. And so they still had a third-party exploiter controlling the content, controlling what they did on those platforms, and profiting off of them. And so what’s freedom for one person may just be another platform of exploitation for another person. And so I think there is this conversation where we start talking about how online sex work may seem safer. But we really don’t know what’s going on behind the camera for different people. And I say this from a place of having survived exploitation. And so I don’t want to just come off as an advocate or someone who has a strong opinion on this. In my personal story, you could have looked at it and seen agency or autonomy. And I may have even told you at the time that I had agency or autonomy. But what was happening behind the scenes, what was happening when I returned to wherever I was staying, was very different. And I had very little financial freedom and very little autonomy in my life.

jane coaston

Jamie, what kind of protections or regulations you would want to see from something like OnlyFans that could lessen that issue?

jamie rosseland

Yeah, so, for me, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I don’t have — I’m not, like, a digital online expert. I’m not sure exactly what could go up that would be really effective in deterring people who are being exploited on the platform. What I wouldn’t want to see is these cases where people who are being exploited on a platform are just kicked off. And then they don’t have the ability to make money in that way. And then their exploiters are then exploiting them in other types of ways. Or they get the ramifications of that platform being shut down. So I think I could speak more to what I wouldn’t want to see. There have been multiple incidents of finding out children have accounts. Or I even watched a TikTok where a teenage girl under 18 was ranting and raving because she was speaking out against OnlyFans, and kids her age having OnlyFans. And also, the adults around her and in the conversation blaming the teenagers for, essentially, being like such immoral sluts for wanting to be on OnlyFans, or whatever it is. And it’s just wild to me that we would blame children.

cherie deville

Well, that’s sort of the thing here. Our industry, every industry — just to go back to Etsy because I happen to have mentioned it — what if you had someone performing a horrible criminal activity, like having undocumented people creating slave labor sewing, right? And then the person with all these slave laborers was selling that product on Etsy. For me, I feel like the monster is the person making these people sew that product. And then you have the other question. How much would the platform be responsible? Now, in the case of OnlyFans and other pornographic platforms, because society has traditionally policed us very heavily, I have to provide paperwork called the 2257 for every piece of content I put out on every platform. That has photo IDs and a variety of personal information that says you are over 18. I also provide appropriate model releases saying that this is consensual, who owns the content. So there’s a lot of very careful paperwork that goes into the legal porn industry. Now, are there monsters that find a way to get around this? I believe that there are monsters in every industry. The consequences in porn are just more horrifying.

jane coaston

If something terrible was happening, someone was selling something awful on Etsy, or you see this with Twitter or with Facebook or something like that, they have the protections of Section 230, which essentially means that if a third party user — that’s me or you — tweets something and it’s bad, someone could not sue Twitter because of that bad tweet. But with regard to sex work, so you had a House Bill called FOSTA, which is the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and SESTA, which is the Senate bill, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. These bills state that website publishers would be held responsible if third parties are posting ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work. So there is an argument that these bills, essentially, are pushing people off of platforms and perhaps putting them more at risk. But I’m curious, Jamie, do you think FOSTA and SESTA have been useful? There’s been a ton of pushback. Do you think it needs to be reworked if you want to curb exploitation?

jamie rosseland

I think any trafficking legislation that doesn’t come with robust funding for exiting services and for harm reduction services and for services that meet people where they’re at, misses the point. It’s not likely someone’s being sex trafficked off of Etsy. But it’s much more likely that someone’s going to be sex trafficked off of Backpage or OnlyFans. And so, what about these people — the individual who’s trafficking obviously has to come to account. But what about the people who are literally designing institutions where trafficking can thrive? And so, I think it’s difficult to compare, like, Etsy to OnlyFans. I don’t think FOSTA/SESTA is perfect. I think there’s a lot of issues with it. And I don’t think it did enough to meet people where they were at, whether they described themselves as a sex worker or whether they were a trafficking victim. It just was this bill that was supposed to take down some websites. But what about those people who are now off those platforms? Because there’s real-life ramifications to that.

jane coaston

Yeah, I want to get into that a little bit because I will tell you that a concern I have is that you can see that when sites, when platforms, start curtailing sex work, you can see it. You can see it when you have sex workers who start spelling the word “sex” S-E-G-S, or they start spelling it out in a different way because they know the algorithm is going to go after them. And then you start seeing them disappear. I think that sometimes people have this idea that, like, ah, if you can’t do sex work in these spaces, you will just stop doing sex work. Which, like, maybe for some people, but for a lot of people, no, especially for people for whom this is consensual. But this is also their job. This is how they’ve gotten the means by which to pay their rent and do what they need to do. But I’m curious as to how you think about keeping adult content in specific places and then keeping Instagram or TikTok free of adult content. I’m not sure what you think, Cherie.

cherie deville

Well, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, social media, they’re independent companies. And they are very much allowed to dictate the guidelines with which we utilize their services. But your point is correct. Often sex workers will utilize a platform within the guidelines that that platform has set. You know, “we allow this type of content.” A sex worker like myself will say, here is that type of content. And here is 10 other mainstream people providing that type of content, maybe it’s a bathing suit shot. You’ll find that a sex worker will be taken down for the same type of content that a mainstream person will not be taken down for. So it’s — yes, I agree that individual platforms should absolutely be able to police themselves and dictate what type of content is allowed. But I don’t believe that, just because I’m Cherie DeVille, I should be removed from TikTok or Instagram if I have not broken the rules that they have set out to police their site with.

jane coaston

Jamie, we’ve seen organizations like National Center on Sexual Exploitation going after social media sites like Twitter to moderate sexual content. But as Cherie said, a lot of times that is moderating sex workers. It is that if Megan Thee Stallion tweets a photo of herself in a bikini, she will not get that taken down, because she’s a rapper. If someone who is a sex worker tweets the exact same type of photo, they get taken down. I am curious as to what you think of the move to try and push sexual content, or, in many cases, sex workers, off of these platforms. Because it sounds to me that, like what you’ve been saying, Jamie, is that like that doesn’t really do anything for folks who are enduring exploitation.

jamie rosseland

Right. I hear your question but, as I’ve been listening to the dialogue, it seems like there’s this commonality, this common thread, where there’s a stigma or discrimination against people who have been exploited or who identify as sex workers. And it is this, like, we don’t want to look at sex work. We don’t actually really want to look at exploitation and trafficking. And if we can kind of get it out of our faces, we can go about our lives and pretend like it doesn’t exist. It’s not solving anything because the sexual content is still there. And they’re saying it’s one thing but it’s actually another, kind of more like a moral agenda.

cherie deville

I think that might be an area where we do have a lot of common ground, Jamie, is that the truth of whether you’re a sex worker like myself, really thriving in the industry, or a person who’s been victimized, we both face the same problem. So Jane, if you were to decide to work for another company tomorrow, I imagine that would be a fairly easy transition. You could find a variety of other jobs if you decided that this was not a career that you wanted to do for the next 10 years. But for anybody in the sex work realm, transitioning to another job is a challenge. And the challenge is not because we’re sex workers. It’s because of society. And that is sad. [MUSIC PLAYING]

maya

Hi, my name is Maya, and I’m calling from California Bay Area. The thing I’ve been arguing about with my colleagues, my family, and myself, to some extent, is about gender politics. I was raised by parents who were skeptical about feminism. I personally have mixed feelings about the value of gender affinity groups. But I’m also frustrated by corporate pinkwashing. And I’m also frustrated and incensed, of course, by women’s lack of access to the tools of economic empowerment. And then there’s the whole question about who gets to define gender. Thank you very much.

jane coaston

What are you arguing about with your family, your friends, your frenemies? Tell me about the big debate you’re having in a voicemail, by calling 347-915-4324. And we might play an excerpt of it on a future episode.

There’s that phrase that’s used that sex work is work. There are good days and bad days, good employers, bad employers. But I think that, no matter how many times people say that, there’s a real sense that we don’t believe it. Because if you’re in the industry, even if you’ve endured exploitation in the industry, there is a sense that you will always be that. You will never be different. What, Jamie, do you think would be helpful for protecting exploited folks? What we’re doing right now isn’t working.

jamie rosseland

Yeah, it’s really about major societal shifts. I think one of the biggest things is victim blaming and how pervasive that is. And so that comes through in a lot of ways. So, in prevention, a lot of the prevention curriculum for anti-trafficking work or even for sexual violence, is teaching people how not to be trafficked or teaching people how not to be raped. And you’re putting the onus on this person to learn those things and figure out how not to get manipulated. And so we have to start looking at prevention as gender equality, as people being able to earn a living wage, and to be able to do that in whichever industry that they choose, that they’re passionate about. It really starts becoming about this larger conversation about class and how society treats people of a different class. We have to decriminalize sex selling. I absolutely 100% believe that. I think when we criminalize people, whether they identify as sex workers or whether they’re people who have been exploited, we are just making it more difficult for those people to have autonomy and choice in their life, and for them to either remain in the industry safely or exit safely and be able to have meaningful lives. I’m Jamie Rosseland and I’m a survivor of exploitation. And that is a label that — I didn’t choose a pseudonym when I first got out eight years ago. And so now my name is attached to that. And there is no undoing that. And people have thoughts and beliefs about me, if they know that I’m a survivor, before they get to know me. And, Cherie, I’m sure you have similar things. People will have, probably, thoughts and beliefs about who you are, if they find out that you’re a sex worker. And so there is just a stigma that, whether you’ve survived exploitation or whether you’re a sex worker, that it’s really difficult to shake that label. It’s really difficult to move on. And there’s all these societal things that keep people from being able just to make choices about how they want to live their lives.

cherie deville

And I have to say, at least for the legal side of sex work, which is the only side I’m truly aware of, that people fighting against the platforms that keep us safe, whether it’s OnlyFans or our distribution or our credit card processing, even that fight, even in the guise of helping sex trafficking, harms us. Not just directly with direct financial implications, but it really just perpetuates the stigma, the dialogue of us being othered, being pushed, being that’s not something we want in our society. Furthers the very stigma that harms all people, whether you’re on the legal, illegal, or, god, heaven forbid, victimized spectrum of this giant pie. I feel like, instead of celebrating the consensual legal side of it and differentiating, you know, the people making moonshine from Budweiser, I don’t understand how the legal side — my side, the Budweiser — has gotten as roped in. And I’m not saying they aren’t adjacent, just like someone creating a beautiful fake ID and getting access to something they shouldn’t have access to. But it seems like the only industry where the legal and illegal side of that industry is thought of as the same, when it just couldn’t be further apart.

jane coaston

Jamie, you mentioned decriminalization, whereas there’s legalization, which would be having sex work be regulated in places where it is legalized or might be legalized. There are places where you can do it, like a brothel, and places where you can’t do it, on the street level. I have concerns there because I think that that then means that people who might be most vulnerable to exploitation, street-level sex workers, are also vulnerable to exploitation from law enforcement and from the awareness that they are doing something illegal. But I’m curious. Cherie, as someone who’s in this industry, when you talk to people, where do people lie on the legalization versus decriminalization argument?

cherie deville

When something is illegal, it’s almost inherently underground. And I know in-person sex workers who would be very uncomfortable calling the police in, say, a rape situation. I’ve known of in-person sex workers calling the police in a rape situation where the police have said things like, you can’t be raped because you’re a prostitute. Or other crazy things, where I feel like having that be a legal profession would help those people from a lot of the problems that they’re facing. And, again, it’s not my realm, but it just seems like it would provide so much more safety. Because, for me, working within the legal realm, I do feel very safe. How often we have to test for STIs. Now how often do we have to test for Covid, if you’re vaccinated, if you’re not vaccinated. A litany of paperwork, huge consent forms, massive checklists of what you are willing to and not willing to not just do, but say, on film. I mean, our consent is really impressive if you think about it. That’s what, to me, legalization provides, the things that I benefit from in my line of work.

jane coaston

Jamie, I’m curious as to why you think decriminalization is a better option than legalization.

jamie rosseland

I think there’s some nuance in decriminalization that we haven’t really got into. So when I say “decriminalization” I mean decriminalize the act of selling sex. I don’t think people should be criminalized for whatever they have to do to survive, however you label that, that specifically. I don’t believe traffickers and pimps and people who profit off of people who are being exploited, or even the demand side of the equation, should be decriminalized. It’s a model that’s called the Equality Model. It’s also called the Nordic Model. Because in the system that we have right now in America, disproportionately, the people who are selling sex are the people who are being targeted by law enforcement, are the people who are really at the highest risk. But one thing about the Equality Model, and the only way I think it really works, is, once again, any piece of legislation that touches trafficking or exploitation or even sex work has to come with provisions for how to meet people in that, whether they’re seeking to exit or not.

cherie deville

I feel like a lot our differences and opinions almost come from the way we were, if you even want to use the word “brought up” or introduced to the sex industry, I was an adult with advanced degrees who made a very thoughtful choice and contacted lawyers and did all of my due diligence before joining an industry that I had very carefully decided to join. And it seems like you had no such autonomy in your decision. And I can’t even imagine the ways that would color the perception of both sides of the industry. I can’t even imagine how painful that is.

jamie rosseland

Yeah, I appreciate those comments. My lived experience definitely informs the way that I view this topic. One thing that I’ve seen, working as an advocate, working at nonprofits trying to help people who have been where I have been, is people who believe that sex work is work and should be legal in society, and people who believe there is some gray area where exploitation is happening — and I don’t want to say all sex work, but in quite a bit of sex work. I don’t think, from what I’ve seen, your experience is like the typical experience.

cherie deville

And then, conversely, I’m only around people who made this choice and have left other lucrative jobs to choose this job. Our bubbles of visibility are very different.

jamie rosseland

I think conversations like the ones you and I are having are important. I think it’s time for this divide and whatever our stances are on policy or political beliefs, I think we have to start coming together and having more conversations. Because I think the people who hold the solutions are the people who’ve been exploited and the people who are in sex work, or have been in sex work. I think if there are more open conversations where I’m coming in good faith, and I see you as a whole human being, and I want to honor your experiences and know that you have the same for me, then I think we can make a lot of headway in ending exploitation. We’re going to differ in some areas. But I think there’s so much commonality that we just have to start having more of these conversations and stop seeing each other as oppositional forces.

cherie deville

Yeah, because, at the end of the day, I don’t know a single person who is remotely OK with trafficking.

jamie rosseland

Right.

cherie deville

So that is a huge commonality. And both of us want it out of the world.

jamie rosseland

And I want people who identify as sex workers to be able to not experience violence and harm in the industry. For me, I don’t care how you identify, but if horrible stuff is happening to you in the industry, I don’t want that to happen to you. It doesn’t have be a “you have to be a survivor” for me to give a [EXPLETIVE].

cherie deville

I mean, I feel like it’s, just to say in terms of danger, kind of like old-school mining. You know, that sounds like a horrifying job to be a miner. But it seems like the miners themselves are fighting back to make things safer. And I think we could agree that if we all, like you said, could get together and fight the common enemy of hazard, in whatever way that is — there is this feeling in the community of sex workers that feels like some of the people fighting against trafficking are fighting against us as well. And when that feeling happens, you’re correct, it almost stops dialogue that really needs to happen. Because you say, oh, well, they don’t listen to us. They don’t like us. We’re just going to go way over here. And you’re right. That doesn’t help either party. And, most importantly, it doesn’t help the victims of crimes.

jane coaston

I just want to say, this has been such a wonderful conversation between you two. I know that this is a challenging topic, especially when we are coming from these differing perspectives. Cherie, Jamie, thank you so much.

jamie rosseland

Yeah, thanks.

cherie deville

Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

jane coaston

Jamie Rosseland is an advocate and public speaker for victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Cherie DeVille is a 10-year porn veteran and contributor for The Daily Beast. If you want to learn more about OnlyFans and sex work, I recommend, “What We Can Really Learn from the OnlyFans Debacle,” published by Jessica Stoya in Slate, in August. For the other side, you can read “OnlyFans is Not a Platform for ‘Sex Work.’ It’s a Pimp,” by Catherine MacKinnon in The New York Times, published in September. And listen to “OnlyFans and the Future of Sex Work on the Internet,” an episode on NPR’s “1A” podcast. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes. And if you liked this episode, you might also like “The Ezra Klein Show’s” recent interview with philosopher Amia Srinivasan. She’s the author of “The Right to Sex.” Her book of essays gets into consent, pornography, sex work, and the role of law in regulating these things. The episode is called, “Can We Change Our Sexual Desires? Should We?” You can find it in your favorite listening app. [MUSIC PLAYING]

“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Alison Bruzek and Sarah Geis, with original music and mixing by Isaac Jones. Additional engineering by Carole Sabouraud, fact checking by Kate Sinclair, and audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks this week to Kristen Lin.



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