Why The EARN IT Act is Terrible for Sex Workers and the Internet as a Whole
Welcome to Brain-Throbs & Blow Jobs, a column highlighting the great minds and perspectives of Bay Area sex workers through interviews and photo portraits by Maxine Holloway.
The internet makes sex work safer. Before the internet, it was challenging to work without third-party management or a brothel. Online platforms can allow us to conduct our business independently. We utilize websites to find and screen potential clients with online protection, resources, and distance. We connect with our communities and colleagues through social media, allowing easier access to safety information and support. But sex workers’ greatest safety tool is being threatened by the US Senate’s latest anti-trafficking bill, the EARN IT Act.
EARN IT aims to stop sex trafficking by making internet platforms legally responsible for users’ posts, resulting in online speech regulations and censorship. Under this new law, this column that you’re reading right now, that highlights Bay Area strippers, escorts, pro-dommes, outdoor-workers, activists, and cam and porn-performers could very well be scrubbed from the internet. Or Broke-Ass-Stuart, WordPress, or the app you use to read this article could be liable for promoting sex trafficking.
The EARN IT Act was introduced into the Senate by South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsay Graham but continues to have ample bi-partisan support. Most notably from California Senator and Democratic Vice Presidential-Nominee, Kamala Harris. Harris has also championed similar bills such as FOSTA-SESTA, which had devastating effects on people working and surviving in the sex trade.
Last weekend sex worker advocates chose Harris’ hometown of Oakland to draw attention to the harms of this legislation. Sex worker rights groups Bay Area Workers Support and Hacking // Hustling, and internet advocacy group Fight For The Future, partnered with projection activist AE Marling. Sex workers and allies put on masks and respirators, weathering hazardous air quality, to gather outside Oakland City Hall. They covered the building with projected messages like, “EARN IT is a Sham!” and “Kamala, Stop Punishing Sex Workers!” while falling ash and smoke particles fell like snow around them.
This bill’s details and exact ramifications can be hard to define. To get more clarity on this legislation, I sat down with Kate D’Adama, a long term sex worker’s rights advocate who focuses on laws and policies on folks who trade sex. Kate now works in the national arena with Reframe Health Justice, but spent her formative years in the Bay and still has a 925 area code on her phone that she will “never give up.”
Maxine Holloway: What are the consequences of the EARN IT Act for sex workers?
Kate D’Adamo: EARN IT uses the same tactics, approaches, and talking points of FOSTA/SESTA and will have similar outcomes. The ramifications of FOSTA/SESTA are still expanding and taking shape, and we’re still learning about them – often when we notice patterns in our community. EARN IT will similarly have a range of impacts, some of which will be clear and some we will have to learn by accident. Most platforms are going to increase their surveillance and moderation, which means sex workers are going to lose useability in a lot of different ways. Some platforms will close accounts or ban people, much like Twitter and Instagram already do. Some platforms will close down sections of the site as we saw with verification sites closing messaging functions. Some platforms might close entirely. The consequences might not be entirely overt, but like any death of a thousand cuts, they’ll make things a lot harder online.
MH: Who else will this bill affect?
KD: We already know who is impacted by the ways social media and tech companies moderate digital spaces. We know that accounts with queer and trans folks, people of color, body positivity, people talking about their experiences of violence and abuse, and a range of others are more likely to be shadowbanned, shut down, and alienated. Young queer folks who are looking for information about sexuality, young trans and gender non conforming people trying to find information about their experiences, folks looking for sexual health information like abortion care – all of these groups are going to be impacted by increased moderation. Companies are being forced to heighten moderation practices that we already know are ineffective. This bill is bad for anyone and everyone who isn’t served by private tech companies
MH: This feels strangely familiar…FOSTA / SESTA created similar harms, why are lawmakers not paying attention to the way this type of legislation endangers our communities?
It’s certainly familiar – if anyone is getting serious deja vu, you’re not alone. In my read of things, first and foremost, I don’t paint every office with the same brush. You have offices like Senator Blumenthal who has made a legacy of trying to kick sex workers offline going back to Craigslist, despite direct outreach and conversations on the harm. I think there are a lot more offices who are struggling to wade through all of the different people telling them different things.
MH: What can sex workers and allies do to stop this Bill?
KD: Right now, the bill is in the Senate and its next step would be to go to the floor. But after this last weekend, any playbook anyone had for the Senate went out the window. That said, it’s going to be important to keep reminding your Senators and Reps that sex workers’ lives matter, and that policymakers will only understand the needs of people who trade sex if they talk to people who trade sex. Building those relationships and building that consciousness among staffers, allies and coalition partners is bigger than EARN IT – and when they’re your Senator and Representatives, that’s something no one can do better than you.
MH: This bill aims to prevent sex trafficking, will making companies legally liable for what users post on their platforms stop trafficking?
KD: Knowing what fights trafficking isn’t a mystery or a question mark. The exploitation of vulnerable people can be prevented, and it’s exceptionally clear how to do it. If we want to prevent trafficking, it’s about closing the vulnerabilities which makes exploitative situations appealing. If everyone had a safe place to sleep which affirmed their needs, no one could exploit housing instability. If migrants had safe routes and low barriers to cross borders, recruiters wouldn’t charge thousands to get someone a visa and make that person vulnerable to debt bondage. If everyone knew their rights in the workplace and had a safe place to report, and losing that job wouldn’t mean poverty, you wouldn’t have people tied to exploitative workplaces. Third-party liability doesn’t make people address trafficking, it makes them safer to erase and ignore it. Economic and social stability prevents trafficking.
MH: What are the ways that legislators could support survivors of trafficking besides bills like FOSTA/SESTA & Earn It?
KD: I always champion the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, which asks the Department of Health and Human Services to study the impact on health and safety when people in the sex trade lose access to digital spaces – including the impact on trafficking, and impacts for people who have experienced trafficking. But we don’t have to ask what survivors of trafficking want. There has been a US Advisory Council on Trafficking comprised of survivors, and the recommendations and asks are sadly similar every time they issue a report. Survivors want immigration protections and everyone wants more health care access, sustained housing, living wage employment and legal support after they leave their trafficking situation. We don’t have to guess, we just have to fund it.
Help Fight EARN IT: Please protect your local sex workers and everyone’s ability to access online information about sex by:
- Contacting your representatives and letting them know that that you do NOT support the Earn It Act
- Sign this petition against Earn It
- Take to Social Media – use your voice to stand up against this harmful bill. Here are some images you can share on social media, and don’t forget to include #SurviveEARNIT in your post