Since FOSTA/SESTA passed in early 2018, we have seen many internet platforms choosing to censor or remove sex workers rather than focusing on evidence based ways to allow sex workers to co-exist with minors and the general public online. Prostasia Foundation is a wonderful pro sex work child protection group to emerge in the post FOSTA/SESTA world. I had a chat to their Executive Director, Jeremy Malcom.
For those who aren't familiar with Prostasia already, can you tell us a little about the work you do and why you differ so much from other child protection groups?
We were formed the week after FOSTA was signed into law, by a small group of experts and activists who had become dismayed about how other child protection groups supported that law—even while knowing how it would damage the Internet and infringe sex workers’ human rights.
The justification of those groups is that “immoral” thoughts and behaviors such as pornography and adult sex work are inextricably linked with pedophilia and child sexual abuse (CSA). But the problem is that evidence simply doesn’t support with that claim. Prevention experts list a number of significant causes of CSA, but that the existence of porn and adult sex work aren’t among them. This means that contrary to claims from the groups that supported FOSTA, we absolutely can address CSA without an all-out war on sex. So one of the main differences between us and those other groups is that we are not also trying to fight adult pornography and sex work; we describe ourselves as being sex-positive.
As a result, we are the only group that welcomes sex workers, kinksters, content creators, and NSFW fans as allies in our mission, rather than treating them as our enemies. We also have a human rights orientation, because we not only believe that it’s unacceptable to infringe human rights in the fight against CSA, but we also believe that it’s unnecessary to do so.
Harm is harm, whether it’s caused by CSA, or by over-broad stigma-driven responses to CSA. We’re committed to fighting both.
Why are sex workers so often left out of the conversation around child sexual abuse and sex trafficking?
At best, it is assumed that such “immoral” creatures are unconcerned about CSA and trafficking. At worst, they are treated as directly complicit in those problems. However the assumption that sex workers aren’t also mothers, fathers, and ordinary caring human beings is pure whorephobia.
There are a number of drivers of that; one is that anti-trafficking groups have strong links to conservative religious movements, as journalist Violet Blue documented in a piece that she wrote about us. Other allies of these groups include companies that hawk surveillance technologies such as facial identification, and sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (“SWERFs”) who consider that all sex work is inherently degrading to women.
Unfortunately, the power of this coalition is deeply ingrained, and if anything their ability to bend public discourse to favor their reactionary policies appears to be growing.
Fighting back is an urgent priority for progressive and freedom-loving people, and Prostasia Foundation is the first child protection organization to recognize that sex workers are key allies in this resistance.
Who do you think should be excluded from the conversation and why?
There is no reason to categorically exclude anyone from contributing their support and experience into the right against CSA and trafficking. But we mustn’t hand any of them the keys to the kingdom and hope for the best. We all have our biases, prejudices, and blind spots, and there is always that risk that if the conversation is unduly dominated by one particular stakeholder group, they will use it to advance their own interests to the detriment of children’s rights.
Indeed, that’s exactly what we’ve seen happen with the coalition of sexually conservative groups mentioned already; the policies that they promote have directly led to harms such as the criminalization of teens for sexting, the censorship of sex educators and mental health professionals, and a spate of youth suicides in response to online shaming and harassment, just to give a few examples. That’s why our approach to child protection is based on a multi-stakeholder model.
We believe that a healthy and inclusive conversation about CSA and trafficking prevention is most likely to result when everybody who wants to be a part of it on an equal footing with the others, can be. The built-in checks and balances of this model make it the most resilient against capture by special interest groups, and make it the most likely to surface solutions that are both evidence-informed and rights-respecting.
Have you had any backlash from other child protections organisations/anti-trafficking organisations in your support and involvement of sex workers?
Yes, like you wouldn’t believe. I was impressed that you managed to secure a workshop at the Internet Governance Forum, because the groups that dominate child protection discourse there have it in for us: they secretly had us barred from the Child Online Safety Dynamic Coalition, have downvoted our workshop proposals, and a key figure there publicly stated that neither he nor his colleagues would ever work with us. We have made a complaint about this to the IGF Secretariat about this which is currently being investigated.
We were also literally thrown out of a public meeting of INHOPE (the association of child abuse reporting hotlines) because we dared to suggest that preventing a teenage boy from abusing a member of his household would have been a better outcome than locking him away for 30 years after the event. Another prominent figure in the establishment coalition, who is known for his involvement in the “Satanic sexual abuse” conspiracy movement, regularly smears us as being “pro-pedophilia," and has boosted a hit piece about us that was written by an actual Nazi propagandist for an alt-right rag. All in a day’s work!
When our team came together, we knew that we would have our work cut out for us and that we could expect our opponents to get dirty. But we believe in that our approach is the right one, and we won’t be backing down. Besides, the backlash that we’ve experienced is nothing compared to the prejudice and discrimination that sex workers themselves battle on a daily basis.
Do you think that children and sex workers can co-exist online? If so, what does this look like?
One of the most challenging but also the most valuable things about the Internet is that it isn’t a centrally-administered platform and doesn’t have a single point of control. This means that if we are to have both child-friendly spaces and sex worker spaces, rather than a single homogenous walled garden, then we have to take steps to keep these separate.
Unfortunately, major Internet platforms haven’t done a very good job of separating the two; they either ban adult content altogether, or they allow it to crop up in your feed unwanted. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, would like to see this change by mandating age verification for adult content.
But this isn’t workable at scale, because as stated earlier, the Internet doesn’t have a single point of control. This means that there is no way for them to enforce universal age verification, unless it’s through blanket censorship of websites that don’t comply—and we really don’t want to go there. Neither do we want to end up in a place where people have to give up their privacy to view adult content, which is another consequence of age verification proposals.
What we can do is to encourage major platforms to do a better job of allowing adult content to be tagged appropriately, so that people aren’t confronted such content without their consent—bearing in mind that plenty of adults don’t want to see it, either! We can also ensure that porn literacy is integrated into sex education curricula, so that if children do encounter sexual content online, they have a context for understanding it. And we should also emphasize the role of parents to monitor what their kids are doing online—not in a creepy or invasive way, but by using existing parental controls, and by letting kids know that they can talk to their parents about what they are doing online without being scared or ashamed.
As someone who is working day to day in a child protections organization, what effects have you seen post FOSTA/SESTA?
Apart from its effects on sex workers, the law has also affected the abuse prevention professionals that we work with. One of the bravest yet most maligned groups of professionals are those who work with minors or adults who have offended sexually, or with those who are at risk of doing so without the right education and support. It is easy, and lazy, for people to take out their hatred and disgust of CSA by attacking these experts and their clients and getting them deplatformed.
Medium, Twitter, and Discord are just three platforms that have folded to such pressure by censoring CSA prevention information and support resources. From private conversations that we have had with some of them, we know that FOSTA/SESTA has been a factor driving such censorship.
That’s why we joined as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the lawsuit that the Woodhull Freedom Foundation and others are bringing to have FOSTA declared unconstitutional. The legal brief that we contributed to outlines exactly how FOSTA has led to the censorship of prevention resources, and why we believe that this could lead to an increase rather than to a decrease in CSA.
We know that just like the fight for sex workers rights, the prevention of child sexual abuse is an extremely complex issue. What's something that you think sex workers and their clients should know about human trafficking that is often left out of conversation?
Many already know this, but under U.S. law, sex trafficking is defined extremely broadly, and deliberately so. A key tactic in the war against sex is to blur the distinction between consensual sex work and trafficking. This enables law enforcement to present the appearance that they are apprehending dangerous criminals, when too often they are simply arresting consensual sex workers and those who support their survival.
This conflation of terminology is extended even further when it comes to minors. For example, a 17 year old who does webcam shows from their bedroom in exchange for tips is being “trafficked,” according to the law. We can all agree that 18 should be a minimum age for sex work—but treating cases like these as a sex trafficking is a dishonest way to justify funneling sex workers into the criminal justice system.
Sex workers, much like the kink community, are a mostly self regulating community out of necessity. In self regulated communities, the best thing we can do is be look outs. Adult sex workers, armed with knowledge and resources, can do a lot to help minors get out of survival sex work so that if they later decide to reenter the industry as adults, they are doing so out of choice.
Finally, is there anything sex workers can do to help the fight against child sexual abuse?
They are already helping! We have some awesome sex worker representatives in our leadership team, and there are other fantastic sex worker led initiatives that are beginning to turn the tide against FOSTA and towards a more inclusive and evidence-based approach. Even if these efforts aren’t directly aimed at preventing CSA, when sex workers represent themselves in the community in ways that counter sexual stigma, promote consent culture, and show solidarity with other oppressed minorities, they are indirectly helping in the fight against CSA.
If you would like to find out more about Prostasia Foundation and how you can support them, head over to https://prostasia.org/ If you would like to find out a little more about the anti trafficking movement and those involved, please check out this post.