Sexual Politics

These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex.

Robin:

Nude Shoot: Robin Gorsline, 10/3/2017The sex police are at it again.

In a society so rife with sexual scandals involving men (and the occasional woman too) in high and powerful places it seems somehow hypocritical when righteous Senators and Representatives legislate yet one more obstacle to the safety and honest labor of sex workers.

Yet, that is what they have done, by passing the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SOSTA). FOSTA was passed by the House and the Senate passed SOSTA, and then they were combined into one law, now awaiting what seems to be the almost certain signature of President Trump (of course, with him, it’s not done until its actually done and he can’t take it back).

Here is relevant language from the bill:

§ 2421A. Promotion or facilitation of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking

“(a) In General.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.

“(b) Aggravated Violation.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person and—

“(1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons; or

“(2) acts in reckless disregard of the fact that such conduct contributed to sex trafficking, in violation of 1591(a),

shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 25 years, or both.”

US capitol buildingThe casual observer might well feel good that Congress has taken a step to stop sex trafficking. I certainly want sufficient tools to combat the horrors of forcing people to be sexual with others against their will (certainly when children are involved but also adults who are coerced into being the sexual tools of others). So, this law ought to make me feel good, right?

Sadly, no. There are two aspects to the legislation which feel especially egregious to me. First, the act conflates sex trafficking with legitimate, chosen sex work by using the term “prostitution” as that which is subject to its provisions. Thus, sex workers, not just sex traffickers, are affected by the law.

Second, the act has the very clear potential to increase risks to the safety of sex workers.  By holding web hosting companies and others responsible, and subject to jail time and fines, when they knowingly allow ads and other notifications of prostitution on their sites, the law actually can contribute to the inability of sex workers to screen clients. How is this so?

Basically, web companies and others don’t want to be involved in federal or state investigations and lawsuits due to sex-focused advertising. A zealous prosecutor can quickly make things expensive and burdensome for a company. What is the solution? Stop accepting advertising that promotes sex (prostitution in the language of the act).

Police groupAnd that is already happening. The upshot is that sex workers are forced back on the streets without ways to screen clients. Craigslist, which had closed down its erotic notices section in 2010 in response to earlier legal problems, now, as the result of this law, has closed down its “Personals” section, which many individuals who are not sex workers used for sexual hook-ups.

Which is why I speak of the sex police.

This new law, while having a commendable intent to prevent sex trafficking, adds yet one more layer to the criminalization, or at least prohibition, of consensual sex acts between and among adults (with and without compensation).

Indeed, it perpetuates the mistaken notion that the government can and should stop sex work. This is not unlike the unsuccessful campaign to end drinking by banning the sale of alcohol. Prohibition acts in the states and the constitutional amendment were passed but drinking did not stop. If that campaign were going on now, it seems likely that the advocates would, like the sex-focused Congress now, penalize online promotion of drinking alcohol.

Malachi and I have written elsewhere about sex work—see especially “Is Sex Work?” , and earlier on my personal blog I wrote “Sex Is Good. Why Is It Illegal?”

In both blogs, there is a recognition of the centrality of sex to the lives of human animals. And there is a positive valuation of various consensual ways people endeavor to exercise their sexual muscles, to live in ways that reflect their own sexual desires and attitudes in concert with willing others.

sex is divine arealrattlesnake com
arealrattlesnake.com

These two points—the centrality of sex in our lives and the honoring of the various consensual ways we are sexual—are base line, theological, spiritual values for me. They are grounded in my belief that every body, every single body—regardless of size, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, age, and all other ways we humans set up to draw lines around individuals and groups of people—is beautiful and reflects the Creator.  The entire universe—every human and non-human being as well as all rocks, molecules, trees, everything—is, for me, the Body of God, and each of those is valued in itself for carrying divine DNA to make that Body.

And key to this is the energy source which keeps it all going. I call that source eros, the divinely inspired and desired power of connection among us all. Sex is the opportunity for making connection.

Sex Work Is Not TraffickingSo, instead of continuing efforts to penalize people for wanting sex, we should be encouraging an openness to it, a celebration in fact of our desire for connection. Desire is not encouraged or made possible through coercion—that is abuse and rape—but through creating safe conditions that make it possible for us to explore and share our sexual selves with others.

I wish I thought the President would veto the legislation, but I know it will not be so (even though the Justice Department raised some concerns about possible restraint of speech).

We need to promote the decriminalization of sex acts among consenting adults and oppose efforts which perpetuate old attitudes about the evil of sex. Congress has failed that test, again.

Malachi:

DSC_0599Recently, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). SESTA closes the loophole in section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, in which websites were not liable for the content users produced and shared on their website. FOSTA makes online ads for prostitution a federal crime- either posting the ads or hosting the content.

Please let me be clear: sex trafficking is a horrendous violation of human rights and should be prevented and stopped. There is no equivocation on this fact. FOSTA/SESTA does not achieve this goal; in fact, it makes it harder to catch those dealing in human trafficking as they are forced to go “underground” and limit internet exchanges. So not only does this bill not do what it was designed to do, it also makes consensual sex work significantly more dangerous.

I have many friends who are consensual sex workers- adults who have been in the industry for years and continue to stay in the industry of their own volition. Some enjoy the work; others view it as a job. A friend recently pointed that out we place expectations on consensual sex workers such as “is the job fulfilling?” and “do you feel empowered by your work?” She pointed out that we do not require “fulfillment” or “empowerment” or any such conditions on other jobs- grocery baggers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, etc. Some find it fulfilling; others do it for a paycheck; she argued that requiring sex work to be considered “fulfilling” in a specific way was still placing moralistic judgement on the work. For her, it is a job; she doesn’t love it and doesn’t hate it, but it pays the bills and she’s been in the industry long enough that she has a good client base and is able to work relatively safely.

I say all this to say- consensual sex work is, like any other profession, a job. There aresex-work-is-work good days and bad days. I don’t pretend that there aren’t risks associated with sex work, but I do recognize that requiring that those doing the work feel a specific way about the work (a) continues to reinforce this idea that sex work isn’t work in the same ways we view other jobs as work and (b) makes it harder for sex worker to talk about “bad days,” because the default answer is almost always, “Well, why don’t you stop doing it then?”

One of the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA is that it shuts down online ads for prostitution- including the ads of consensual sex workers. This means that advertisements leading people to personal websites where workers are able to screen clients safely (rather than being forced to meet in person) are now illegal. This forces many workers who do not already have a client base to engage in higher-risk sex work (including, but not limited to street-based sex work and meeting clients in-person for screening). This also means that sharing information about sex work in online forums- such as exchanging names and information of bad clients, or tips for how to screen new clients- is now a federal crime.

Websites such as craigslist have already taken steps, such as shutting down it’s personal section rather than face prosecution for hosting prostitution ads. The craigslist personals section covered everything from sex work ads to people looking for random hookups local to their area. Fetish websites such as FetLife have put out their own guidelines for complying with FOSTA/SESTA, which means those who advertise the exchange of goods for sex (which sometimes includes professional dominatrices, or pro-dommes) will be subject to having their accounts deleted, and any mention of prostitution in any form will be deleted from the website- including those who engage in consensual interactions where they roleplay prostitution scenarios.

img_7426.pngThe implications of these bills are vast and with the ambiguous language, are able to be interpreted quite broadly. Conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking does a disservice to both groups- in fact, I know of no group more vocal in stopping the abuse of sex trafficking than sex workers. FOSTA/SESTA not only puts consensual sex workers in a significantly more dangerous position, and not only does it elevate safety measures for sex workers (such as online screening) to a federal prostitution charge, but it makes it harder to catch those engaging in sex trafficking, driving them offline and forcing them to create new networks that are not as easy to track as online networks.

These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex. It is unclear how these bills might impact things like the #MeToo movement (more on that here) or censor online discussions of sex at all (a comprehensive look at the impacts of FOSTA/SESTA can be found here). The reality is, this bill is an atrocious piece of legislation that impacts everyone- but specifically makes sex work more difficult, more dangerous, and does not protect victims of sex trafficking.

We must do more to fight trafficking and protect and support victims of sex trafficking. But measures such as FOSTA/SESTA, however good-intentioned they might be, do significantly more harm than good and do not achieve their goal. We need to look at ACTUAL measure to protect victims- many suggestions and stop-human-traffickingresources come from within the sex work community. Criminalizing consensual sex work in an effort to protect victims of trafficking not only removes the autonomy of adults to make their own decisions about their employment- never mind choices about their bodies- by conflating all sex work as a form of trafficking, but it also removes a vital, necessary resource toward ending trafficking- the resources and knowledge of sex workers who are connected to the sex industry. Sex workers are far more knowledgeable about the sex industry than those peering in from the outside with a savior mentality, and have been fighting trafficking for years, often without legal and social support. It’s time to stop criminalizing sex work and focus on supporting sex workers- which will do more to end trafficking than ambiguous, blanket-statement legislation written by those who don’t fully understand the implications of these actions.

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We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think about sex work? What do you know about it? What should government do to stop sex trafficking? And not do? How do you define sexual freedom? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Mark Your Calendar! May 9th, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

Who Pays for Sexual Freedom?

Once again, the good intentions and heavy hand of law enforcement may have unintended, and undesirable, consequences.

Robin:

revrobin2-023Once again, the complex issues of sexual freedom and sexual safety are colliding. When and where does one person’s sexual desire and expression, including a public offering of their body and/or sexual services, run into society’s interest in protecting people vulnerable to abuse and violence? An answer of sorts was given recently.

A website for consumers has shut down the part of the site that made sex and bodies available for hire (click here for Washington Post news story). Backpage.com, a site similar to Craigslist, contains ads from individuals for the sale of every conceivable kind of product. Until January 9, those products included the offering of “escorts (female and male), body rubs, strippers and strip clubs, dom & fetish, ts (transsexual escorts), phone & websites, and adult jobs.”

Ads were often accompanied by explicit photos. Until 2010, Craigslist, offered similar products, but that year gave in to pressure from federal and state authorities, as well as some public interest groups, and stopped the ads. Backpage.com then became the major vehicle for those advertisers.

The Justice Department and local prosecutors claim the site not only allows but also supports sexual abuse of minors and the sexual enslavement of adults, primarily women. Congressional committees are also holding hearings and conducting investigations.

backpage-dot-comThe site, and the company that owns it, claim it is not so, and say they regularly cooperate with law enforcement in the apprehension of those who abuse and enslave others.  Advocates for sex workers complain that shutting down the ads will do nothing to protect victims, and will increase the risk of harm to the workers—because being able to advertise on line is safer than working the streets.

Malachi and I have written previously about this topic (Is Sex Work? When Does Freedom Become Oppressive?) and in general I think it is correct to say we opt for sexual freedom wherever possible. At the same time, we clearly oppose abuse and slavery, any form of bodily or sexual coercion against anyone.  We passionately believe in a God who works through our bodies and our sexuality for good.

So, this topic of the public regulation of sex is a difficult one. I for one am very supportive of public health regulation in terms of sexually transmitted disease to protect all of us against disease, certainly including those most vulnerable. And I want to throw the book at those who make their living by selling the bodies and sexual favors of people against their will, no matter the age or gender or race or nationality of the one being used.

But does removing the advertising from a popular consumer site fix anything? I am not sure. What I do know—and frankly this seems so obvious to me as to be beyond any question—is that no amount of government control will ever fully eliminate what I call sex work, and many others call prostitution. We will never end the demand for sex by some willing to pay for it any more than we will ever end the offering of it by others who like selling it and/or think it is a good way to make ends meet (either in a time of acute economic need or more regularly as a way to make a living).

stop-human-traffickingHere’s another thing I know. When politicians get into the act of speaking about sex, it is unlikely that much thoughtful, nuanced understanding will emerge, let alone be sustained.  The obsession with former President Clinton’s sex life, admittedly involving abuse of power, should be a lesson for us. And Prohibition, that noble experiment to rid the United States of the curse of alcohol, provides an important lesson in our power to stop something many people enjoy.

Those who seek to shut down sites like Backpage.com will say that they are not anti-sex but they are against the sale of it, and they are want to end the exploitation of people within vulnerable populations—children and youth, women, immigrants, racial and sexual minorities—by those who profit from that exploitation. One organization, World Without Exploitation, is focused on ending human trafficking and sexual exploitation. They focus on stories from victims as well as statistics from government agencies. Their goals are impressive, and commendable in many ways, but I am concerned with one of their key statements: “We understand that we won’t end sexual exploitation until we end the demand for prostitution. As long as there is a global sex trade, ours will be an unsafe, unjust world.”

I do not believe the demand for prostitution will ever end, if, as I assume, they mean the selling of sex to willing buyers. If that is the only way to end human trafficking then I fear it too will never end. The statement above refers most directly to the coercive use of women (and some men, too) in other countries—especially poorer countries—both for men who travel to these destinations and seek sex, as well as those who prey upon immigrants to our country to sell their bodies for the profit of those who prey.  And that can be distincti from sex work by non-immigrant U.S. people in this country.  Still, they seem to believe prostitution is simply wrong, no matter the context.

world-without-exploitationI first came across this organization when walking on a main, high-end avenue in Washington D.C. by observing a sign on the outside of a bus stop shelter (see photo). The advertisement sets up a contrast between what it calls the “prostitution myth” and the “ugly truth,” namely that anyone who thinks they can get rich through sex work is far more likely to experience violence and even death at the hands of pimps.

I do not doubt that most pimps, perhaps all, fit that picture, and that many of their victims experience horrific violation and violence. So, I am sympathetic. At the same time, I am skeptical that there are very many people thinking they can rich in sex work. Survive, yes, make ends meet and maybe help pay for college, yes, but not rich.

When I listen to and read the accounts of sex workers I also discover that many of them do not work for a pimp or anyone else for that matter. Many are solo entrepreneurs or even occasionally part of groups working together. One of the ways they are able to do this is by advertising online for themselves and not being beholden to a pimp.

I read entries from a blog, Tits and Sass, by sex workers about sex work, including their desire to undermine and correct, often by lampoon, much that is said about them. I recommend reading some of the entries (click on link above). A different picture may well emerge, as it has for me.

Long ago, I ceased judging the workers for selling their bodies and sex. I do judge those who seek to take advantage of them, most of all those who coerce others into slavery or those who take advantage of people of all ages in such dire straits they can only succumb.

sex-work-is-workLeft out of the picture often are those who buy the sex. I have no proof, for example, that our President-elect has paid for sex here or abroad, but it sure seems likely to me. He fits the profile of entitled white men often portrayed on Tits and Sass as less desirable customers, even if they, like him, have great wealth.

Somehow, while supporting the prosecution of pimps and human traffickers of any kind, I also think the sexual abuse and violation of women and men and children and youth will be reduced more by cultural changes—overcoming patriarchy and male domination and entitlement, especially (but not only) by men who call themselves white.

In the meantime, I fear for those who rely on online advertising to make their livings, to support themselves, and their children, too.  Once again, the good intentions and heavy hand of law enforcement may have unintended, and undesirable, consequences.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I’ve been mulling over the recent shutdown of Backpage’s adult advertising section. For many who are anti-trafficking, the shutdown of Backpage is being viewed as a victory in the fight to end human trafficking- particularly because some traffickers have used Backpage to advertise. For others who are involved in adult, consensual sex work, however, the shutdown has made their lives significantly harder and more dangerous.

Backpage began in 2003, when the Village Voice began publishing its classified ads from the last page of the paper on the Internet (hence, the name). The growth of Backpage, however, was predominantly due to their space for people to advertise for adult content: hookups, anonymous sex and, of course, sex work.

For clarity: there is an immense difference between human trafficking (buying and selling of individuals without their consent, often for the purpose of having sex slaves, and many of whom are underage) and sex work (the act of adults exchanging sexual favors for money or other currency). For me, personally (and I am not a sex worker), being subject to a pimp tends to (although, not always) fall under what I would consider trafficking.

It’s also important to remember that some people go into sex work because they want to and they choose to, while others go into sex work out of need and do not want to continue doing sex work. Those are also vastly different narratives, both of which are equally viable. But for those who do not see a distinction, any decrease in sex work is a decrease in Sex-Work-Is-Not-Traffickingtrafficking.

So, the argument for closing Backpage’s adult advertisement section is that it disrupts and limits the ability for traffickers to work.

I personally come from a harm-reduction perspective. I weigh the options and tend to go with the choice that minimizes harm to a community as much as possible. So I have to pose the question: does shutting down Backpage serve to minimize harm to those who do not (or cannot) consensually choose sex work? Or put another way, does closing Backpage have enough possible benefit to victims of trafficking that it is worth displacing adult, consensual sex workers?

I am leaning pretty heavily toward “no.” Closing Backpage will not stop human trafficking- it was never the sole point of recruitment, and traffickers will simply move to other places. But knowing that as a point of entry could have helped locate people who are engaging in trafficking- a point of entry that is no longer accessible. So I’m not sure how closing Backpage has helped victims of trafficking- people won’t advertise there, but they will advertise elsewhere, and finding out where that is will take additional work and time and then- what? That place will get closed down as well? New places will always pop up to replace the old, so I’m a fan of “the devil you know” argument.

So, I don’t see closing down Backpage as making any appreciable dent in the lives of those who are victims of trafficking- if anything, I can imagine it making their lives harder, if people get spooked or are worried about additional scrutiny, then abandoning and/or killing those enslaved is not out of the realm of possibility.

In contrast, I look at the lives of those who are consensual, adult sex sex work is real workworkers who used Backpage to find and screen clients. Without the resources to begin (and very carefully word) their own website, many of those who are engaged in sex work will have to find alternative methods of finding clients, or alternative methods of paying their expenses.

Alternative methods of finding clients, unfortunately, means sometimes meeting people face-to-face with no buffer or ability to screen, which makes the situation much more volatile and dangerous for sex workers. In addition, there is now a lapse (unless someone has established clientele) where they do not have income coming in, but still have bills that need to be paid.

And quite frankly, forcing someone to take a low-wage job that pays a quarter of what they are currently making (never mind shaming them for working a low-wage job on top of it) removes a person’s autonomy to decide what they want to do with their bodies. Are there economic situations in which someone feels they have no option but to turn to sex work? Yes, absolutely, and I completely support resources that help people find their way out of an exploitative situation.

But do I also know people who love being sex workers? Yes. I know people who are passionate about it, who have chosen it, who want to continue doing it, and do a lot of work and advocacy around making it safer- including ending trafficking. And I think this is the part that keep coming back to: when people who are intimately familiar with sex work and have an active understanding of how these things work- partially because their livelihood depends on it- I’m going to believe them when they tell me this is not a victory. When they tell me that this is going to make sex work harder and more dangerous for them, I am going to believe them. When they tell me that it is going to make it harder to track down perpetrators

glogster.com
glogster.com

of human trafficking, I am going to believe them. When they tell me that this, while well-intentioned, makes things worse, I’m going to believe them.

Do I want to end human trafficking? Yes, absolutely. But do I think that closing Backpage is going to have a measurable effect on ending trafficking? No. Do I think that it is going to do have an impact on minimizing the harm to those who are victims of trafficking? I don’t. Do I think this is going to make it harder for consensual adults to engage in sex work? I do.

To me, closing the Backpage advertisements is a false victory, an action that looks good but has limited measurable impact in its intended goal, and runs the risk of doing further harm to other communities. We need to take action- real action- to end human trafficking, particularly of children, but I would celebrate something that truly met that goal, and not something that feels like another resource lost to consensual sex workers.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your thoughts on ending human trafficking without negatively impacting the lives of sex workers? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, January 19th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Workshop description:

Sacred, Not Secret, Part 3: Beyond the Norm

We invite you to join us on Thursday, January 19th for the third part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On January 19, they will continue to explore non-normative relationship structures and practices, focusing this time on kink and BDSM. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of these sexual activities, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to practitioners–because do not doubt that you know and interact with them, in church and elsewhere.

Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.