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Thanks to US laws, sex workers are fighting to stay online

In 2021 escorts aren't just fighting against the stigma of sex work, they're fighting for their right to be on the internet.

Editors' note: This story contains sexually explicit language and descriptions not suited for younger readers.

In August, sex worker Lucie Bee was having serious issues with her OnlyFans account. First the site slowed to a crawl, then she couldn't log on. 

Almost immediately, she freaked out. 

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A 30-year-old, high-profile escort with over 40,000 followers on Twitter, Bee sometimes incorporates cosplay into her sex work, once sewing a costume from scratch when she couldn't find just the right one to please a client. Living in Australia, Bee works as an escort, but around $2,000 of her monthly earnings come from $10 fees and tips from paid followers on OnlyFans, a subscription-based social media platform that lets creators sell their original content -- photos, videos -- as well as host one-on-one interactions.

And Bee thought she was going to lose her OnlyFans income. All of it. Because when she was logged out of her account, she leaped to what she believed was the most obvious conclusion: She'd become the latest escort to be banned from the site.

To blame for Bee's tenuous position? FOSTA-SESTA, a one-two punch of bills signed into law in 2018 in Washington DC, 9,500 miles away. Until these laws change, escorts like Lucie Bee are entirely at their mercy.

Sex work is banned in every US state outside of Nevada, but if you are an escort in Australia -- where Bee works legally --  your online presence is bound by stringent US laws giving authorities the power to shut down any website that advertises escort services. In 2021, sites like OnlyFans, Twitter and Instagram will quickly remove any accounts for even the barest mention of escorting, without explanation.

These deletions pose a major problem for workers like Bee, who risks potential financial ruin as a result of escort work, which, where she lives, is perfectly legal and above board.

"At any moment, it can all be taken away," Bee says. 

FOSTA-SESTA

Granting federal authorities in the US the broad power to shut down any website where escort services are advertised, FOSTA-SESTA is a bill designed to curb sex trafficking on sites like Backstage. Despite good intentions, the bill's passing inspired broad debate online. The Electronic Frontier Foundation claimed it would "silence online speech," calling it a "dark day for the internet."

Lucie Bee lives in fear of losing her OnlyFans accounts, and accounts on other platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

Lucie Bee

But supporters of the bill, including Marian Hatcher -- a victim advocate and policy analyst -- believe freedom of speech is low on the priority list. "Our primary objective must be to end exploitation and prevent the harm that is inherent to those in the sex trade," she said in an interview with Feminist Current. 

Yet the mistake, escorts claim, is assuming all sex workers are being exploited. 

Some embrace the profession out of hardship, but many find the work empowering. Above all, sex work is work. FOSTA-SESTA is designed to protect victims involved in nonconsensual trafficking, but overlooks those like Bee involved in consensual, legal sex work.

Bee wishes more people understood exactly how escorting works. Sex work isn't always about sex, she says. She's built a community of clients who will regularly tune in to watch her livestream video games on Twitch. "The guys all talk to each other," she laughs.

"The thing I wish people got about sex work is that sometimes it can be incredibly boring," Bee says. "But sometimes it can be sweet."

But sex work can also be dangerous. Some -- like Alexandra Yelderman, from the DC-based Human Trafficking Legal Center -- believe FOSTA-SESTA works against sex workers' safety. Removing online advertising of sex work services, Yelderman says, makes it incredibly difficult for law enforcement to track and recover potential victims of trafficking.

FOSTA-SESTA's passing had a dramatic impact on the internet. Major platforms have been running scared. Tumblr was perhaps the most high-profile casualty. Tumblr removed all pornography in December 2018 -- most believe in response to FOSTA-SESTA. As a result, its audience went into terminal decline and never really recovered.

But sex workers took the biggest hit.

In 2021, escorts aren't just fighting against the stigma of sex work. They're fighting for their right to be online.

'You don't get told why'

"FOSTA-SESTA fucked the entire industry," says Jenna Love. Love is an escort working out of the Blue Mountains in Australia who creates and sells her own pornography.

"You go to log in one day and you can't. That's it. You don't get told why. In Australia, we're working legally. We pay a lot of taxes."

But that doesn't matter, says Love. Because sites like OnlyFans are hosted in the US, they are subject to its laws. 

In a statement, OnlyFans confirmed that promotion of escort services is against its terms of service and that "immediate action" could be taken against accounts that advertise escort services. Emily van der Nagel, who co-wrote the book Sex and Social Media with Katrin Tiidenberg, calls the process the "deplatformization of sex."

"The way sex workers are using technology, constantly negotiating with those platforms makes their selves, work and livelihoods even more precarious," van der Nagel says. "This is a huge problem."

As a result of social stigma and discrimination, sex workers are already placed in difficult situations both financially and physically, says van der Nagel. FOSTA-SESTA exacerbates that.

The tension

"FOSTA-SESTA fucked the entire industry," says Jenna Love.

Sage Selenite Amethyst

OnlyFans is very much in the midst of its moment.

"OnlyFans has become the Tupperware or Kleenex of porn platforms," Jenna Love says. "But it's not the only option."

Love is absolutely correct. Many performers sell pornography using platforms like Patreon, ManyVids and even Snapchat, but, in 2021, none of these alternatives offers the reach and influence of OnlyFans. The site had 90 million users and over 1 million content creators, up from 120,000 in 2019, as of December, according to The New York Times.

A "social platform revolutionizing creator and fan connections," OnlyFans launched four years ago, but in January 2020 garnered mainstream attention when Kaylen Ward -- aka the Naked Philanthropist -- raised around $1 million in relief for Australian bushfires by selling nudes on the service. 

As a sex worker living in Australia, Love knows she's losing money by not having a presence on the site, but has issues with how the site operates. OnlyFans is "making bank" on the back of sex workers, she says, but treats them with disrespect.

There's a massive tension, she says, between how OnlyFans describes itself and what it actually is. OnlyFans, she explains, doesn't think of itself as a porn platform and isn't necessarily friendly to the clientele that earns it a significant chunk of its revenue.

In 2020, OnlyFans went mainstream. Beyonce name-dropped it in a song with Megan Thee Stallion. Even celebrities like Cardi B are getting onboard, charging users for monthly subscription fees for content like fan Q&As and behind-the-scenes footage of video shoots.

But sex workers, believes Love, are getting left behind. "Celebrities and Instagram influencers have a grand old time on OnlyFans. But those of us for whom this is actually our job get booted off."

Money and power

Bella Thorne caused controversy when she launched an OnlyFans account last year.

Michael Tran/AFP/Getty Images

Enter Bella Thorne.

A 22-year-old former Disney star with 24 million followers on Instagram, Thorne broke OnlyFans records when she created an account in August last year. After misleading subscribers into purchasing a "nude" photo for $200 (which turned out not to be a nude), Thorne made $1 million in a single day, but left a trail of destruction in her wake.

As a result of her actions, OnlyFans was overwhelmed with refund demands. Thorne's representatives didn't respond to a request for comment.

Weeks afterward, OnlyFans limited the amount content creators could charge for "exclusive" content to $50 and changed its payments from weekly to monthly.

Sex workers weren't happy. The payment shift from weekly to monthly was one thing, but for many OnlyFans creators, the ability to charge extra for exclusive content was a major source of income. It functioned as an additional paywall. In addition, OnlyFans put caps on the tips system, which also limited the amount creators could make from their subscriber base. All up, the changes dramatically reduced the amount creators could make from the service.

The case for OnlyFans

Bee hadn't been banned from OnlyFans. She was eventually able to get back online and access her earnings, but it was a stark reminder of how vulnerable she was. And how quickly she could lose it all.

"I know it sounds dramatic," she remembers, "but I felt like I was gonna die."

Bee scours her OnlyFans account constantly, fearful a subscriber might ask for escort services in a direct message. Fearful that an old Twitter account, linked to her OnlyFans, might mention that she does escort work on the side.

"I'm always so panicked I'm going to wake up one morning and it'll all be gone," she explains.

"To exist online is really tough," adds Love. Both Love and Bee have dummy accounts on multiple social media platforms, in case they get removed for the wrong kind of tweet or for a photograph that's too revealing. This is common practice for anyone involved in sex work.

Despite arguments that the presence of OnlyFans is helping destigmatize sex work, Love believes its move to the mainstream has only made things worse.

Van der Nagel believes OnlyFans could really help ease the stigma attached to sex work.

Emily van der Nagel

"[OnlyFans] destigmatized the hot chick who wants to sell some nudes. It's 'you go girl, make your money.' But those of us who are actually sex workers are still thought of as filthy whores."

Van der Nagel believes OnlyFans -- given its influence -- could properly destigmatize sex work, by creating a charter that explicitly lays out its support for those involved.

"If OnlyFans came out and said, 'We're in support of sex work,' that could be a meaningful step to taking the shame out of sex work as a profession. They're really missing an opportunity to say, 'Sex is a normal part of a healthy adult life.'"

Charter or no charter, Love still wants no part of OnlyFans. She says the site has "spent years profiting from sex workers" with zero acknowledgement. She'd rather support platforms she believes are more supportive of sex workers, like AVNStars or JustFor.Fans.

Bee feels like she has to be more pragmatic. She's built a loyal community on OnlyFans. Many of her followers subscribe to multiple creators on the site and would be reluctant to sign up for another service.

"I can't presume they will be loyal and follow me wherever I go," she says. "You don't wanna bite the hand that feeds you."