Post FOSTA/SESTA we've seen a new wave of sex worker collectives organise and innovate to raise public awareness around sex workers rights. With FOSTA/SESTA 2.0 aka The EARN IT Act on the table, now it is more important than ever to help the public understand how harmful the censorship of marginalised groups can be. One of these collectives is a group called Art Veil from NYC. I was lucky enough to chat to Empress Wu about one of their most recent projects E-Viction. We would love you to help spread the word if you can. Even if you have a small audience, sharing content produced by actual sex workers helps the general public gain a better understanding of our concerns and needs.
First off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey in the sex industry?
Yes! My name is Empress Wu. I am a New York City-based Dominatrix. I started doing BDSM professionally in 2016, have worked both in person and online in New York, Texas, and New York again. I’ve been involved in sex worker organizing since 2018, and currently organize exhibitions and events as part of Kink Out Events, Red Canary Song, and Veil Machine.
What caught my attention initially was your project E-viction as apart of the Veil Machine collective. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about Veil Machine and how you came to start this?
Veil Machine is a collective of sex workers and artists. The collective creates art that explores the interplay between fantasy and reality, intimacy and lies, and sex and power. Our members include a diversity of artists involved in and adjacent to the sex industry.
We were founded in 2020 by Niko, Sybil, and myself and this is our first official ‘show,’ though many of us have worked together on similar projects in the past--Sybil and Niko had collaborated on an exhibition in 2018 called “Blood Money,” Niko and I have collaborated on many projects for Red Canary Song such as its installation at the Sex Worker Pop Up exhibition in March, and Sybil and I worked together on the 2020 International Whores’ Day Digital Rally for Kink Out Events.
I had a little bit of a read about E-viction after it popped up in my Insta feed, and it sounds amazing! For those who haven’t heard of it, could you tell us some more about it, who’s involved and what inspired you to start this show?
SESTA/FOSTA, the privatization of the internet, the threat of EARN IT, and the exigencies of COVID have put sex workers in an impossible position. Sex workers are constantly being deplatformed and are increasingly left with nowhere to go. We wanted to aestheticize our own digital censorship, to take it into our own hands and turn that increasingly gentrified online space into our own grounds for protest.
The site is going live at noon eastern time, and from then on you will be able to scroll through listings of performer ads, items being sold on ebanned, resources on FOSTA/SESTA, find some secret treasures we’ve scattered throughout the site, and have intimate, one-on-one experiences with our performers. At 6pm, halfway through the day, performances will start: to get to them, you’ll have to navigate a labyrinth of links until finding the room you’ve been seeking. The performer may be painting themselves, exploring the textual intimacies of Google Docs, toying with their sissy bottom, or playing with the sweetness of all American cherry pie. At 11:30pm, as midnight approaches, the site will start to self-destruct as a dramatization of censorship. To find out what that means, and what’s on the other side, you’ll have to log on yourself~
Representation is something that is commonly repressed and denied to sex workers, particularly in elite spaces. With each of you having had works in major fine art institutions, such as MoMA, how have you found being a sex worker in the art world?
Interesting question. I think it mirrors a lot of the experiences of any other marginalized population in an elite space. You are tasked with twice the labor: advocating for yourself as an artist, like any other artist, and avoiding fetishization as a member of that population. My work isn’t representative of the experience of every single sex worker, but neither are the tropes and sex-worker-as-allegories that would dominate the narrative if myself and other workers weren’t in those spaces to dispel them.
On the other hand, being a SW has offered so many skills that are useful in operating in the art world. Both sex(uality) and art have been commodified into luxury items that sell more than just their representative object; it is so common in the art world for objects to become so abstracted to convey the world of a single concept, while any sex worker could tell you that they aren’t actually selling you access to their body, or even the hour--they’re selling you the idea that you can be who you want to be, reflected in their eyes. At the intersection of these industries, it makes complete sense to be thinking about sex work through a lens of aestheticism (and vice versa).
What do you think tech companies can do to stop the erasure of sex workers from the internet?
Tech companies have standing in a way that we don’t and should be using their political and financial capital to protect us, instead of to harm us. Lobbying against EARN IT and SESTA/FOSTA instead of simply bowing to it would offer us greater freedom. Working with sex workers to develop policies and community guidelines that could actually differentiate between trafficked minors and sex workers would actually be so much more effective than anything tech companies could think of for themselves.
Do you think the public’s views on sex work are changing and in what ways have you seen this unfold?
I absolutely do. We are now seeing sex work being discussed in mainstream discourse from the perspective of sex workers. Sex workers are being acknowledged as a marginalized group with their own diverse experiences, and sex worker issues are being discussed in major publications. Sex work is being critically discussed by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. And let’s not forget how sex work is being discussed in pop culture; from the release of Hustlers to Beyonce’s mention of Onlyfans, to Cardi B’s very frank transparency with her history as a stripper. I think we’re able to be more open about sex work than ever before, partially because the internet has a) offered so many different avenues of sex work and b) allows sex workers from across the globe to digitally gather, celebrate, commiserate, and share experiences with each other. However, that’s exactly why we need to be paying attention to internet censorship right now; as these freedoms are being taken away from us, it is clear that there is so much more work to do
The public often turns a blind eye to the concerns of sex workers around things like digital surveillance because they aren’t being directly impacted. Why do you think it is so important for the public to start taking our concerns seriously and what can they do to help?
The internet, which is being insidiously privatized, has been taking over the function of public spaces, excluding some populations from the joy of gathering and politicizing their very identification as a group. Sex workers are one of those populations on the front lines of that digital gentrification, but it can and will affect more than just us. The EARN IT act is a great example of this-- under the guise of preventing sexual abuse online by threatening to allow more lawsuits against websites over user-created content and communication, unless they comply with new government speech guidelines, what it effectively does is eliminate end-to-end encryption. This is the same encryption that allowed protesters to mobilize and protect each another before, during, and after the wave of BLM protests. Here’s the thing--you don’t have to be a sex worker to be surveilled like a sex worker. This is about sex work for us, but it’s also about internet freedom in general that could make or break protections for so many others.
As for what others can do, donate and support your local sex worker organization. Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT create or support any organization about sex work that is not headed and run by sex workers. Listen to what sex workers have to say about how they’d like to be supported. And find your local representative and ask them to oppose the EARN IT Act.
How would you explain to people who haven’t been censored before what censorship feels like and why is it such a big issue to be removed from mainstream platforms?
I’ve been censored on social media and payment processors alike; it feels like attempting to juggle with one arm tied behind your back. Some of us are just out here trying to survive in the world, some have found this line of work as an avenue of incredible self-expression. Either way, there’s such an investment of time and labor into a digital portfolio, an archive of your work to find people who think like you or who can appreciate what you do--and all of it can disappear in seconds. Our life’s work, our community networks, or our access income are could be deleted without a moment’s notice, and we want audiences to get a sense of that while engaging with E-Viction.