The Government’s Attack on Sex Workers: The SISEA Bill

(CW: Sexual Assault, Rape)

The SISEA bill will kill people, plain and simple.

This is an incredibly abrupt way to start an article, and it may even sound like scaremongering but it is absolutely the correct way to define this situation. If you are unfamiliar with the SISEA bill, here is a brief summary. It is a bipartisan bill being sponsored by Republican senator Ben Sasse and Democrat senator Jeff Merkley. In its pure essence, the bill is attempting to achieve something actually admirable. The bill is attempting to curb the practice of revenge-porn, the practice in which a person posts a video or image of their former partner performing a sexual act in an attempt to smear or embarass them. It is also attempting to reduce the number of pornographic material in which not all participants are consenting, which in layman’s terms would be simply referred to as video of a sexual assault or rape. This comes in reaction to several investigative pieces concerning the website PornHub, and several cases in which they featured content containing sexual assault, including several involving minors. If the bill simply contained harsher sentences for the uploaders of the content in question and penalties for websites not complying with takedown requests from the victims, there would be nothing wrong with it. It would have been exactly what sex workers, survivors of rape and sexual assault, and the general populace had been asking for this entire time. However, this bill goes too far in several areas, and is a threat to the livelihood of almost every sex worker, not just in the United States, but potentially worldwide.

I do wish to give credit to Ana Valens (@acvalens), a reporter for the Daily Dot, who has an excellent thread on this subject that I highly recommend you read, maybe even before continuing to read this article as it is simply a fantastic resource for information about this bill, as well as Emilia Song (@EmiliaSongBot), Madita Oeming (@MsOeming), and many other sex workers who have recorded videos discussing their frustrations with both SISEA and a separate issue which will be discussed below.

Before we get into the contents of SISEA, lets define the term ‘sex worker’, as there is some confusion around that term. A fair amount of peoples’ understanding is that a ‘sex worker’ is someone who performs sexual actions on an individual who is paying for it. While, yes, that is a type of sex worker, it does not encompass the entirety of that term. It refers to a group of people whose work pertains to some form of sexual action. This would include porn actors and actresses, models who appear in pornographic or risqué material, and many more who fit the definition of being employed by the ‘sex industry’. They are also a criminally under protected group, due to the legal ambiguity surrounding large portions of their profession. The Sex Workers Project, a legal advocacy group for both sex workers and survivors of human trafficking, reported that globally, sex workers have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence while on the job. This includes police violence, which identified patterns of “assault, sexual assault, public ‘gender searches’ (police strip searches for the purpose of viewing genitalia), and rape”. Couple this with the fact that many sex workers are part of marginalized groups, whether they be people of color, undocumented immigrants, transgender, or queer in some form, they are in dire need for additional legal protections. In addition, it must come into consideration how many individuals became sex workers over this past year, in reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic. In early April, OnlyFans, one of the main sites utilized by sex workers, reported a 75% increase in individuals signing up to be models as unemployment rose worldwide. This is the only way that many individuals have managed to survive amidst this pandemic. In early December, the New York Post reported a story about a New York City medic, who uses her OnlyFans to make ends meet. In a later interview with the Rolling Stone, the paramedic stated:

“I don’t really feel comfortable disclosing how much I made, but I will say that it definitely helped. And in times when I needed money for food, or rent, and I had no more money in my bank account because I paid rent or my bills and now I don’t have money for groceries, well, now I have money for groceries because of the nude pics that I sold online.”

Now that there is a clear image of who will be affected by this bill, let us discuss the actual material in this bill. Firstly, it is targeted at all websites that can potentially host pornography, including social media sites, where many sex workers promote their OnlyFans and similar sites. It then requires the websites in question to have a 24-hour platform hotline with a 2-hour window for the removal of the reported content. As most websites are profit based and having to run a hotline would be a financial drain that they were not used to, it is far more likely that they would simply ban all pornography from its platform. On top of this, this will shut down many independently run websites, as they simply would not have the funds to operate a 24-hour hotline. This would leave only leave large corporations centered around the distribution of pornography, like Pornhub, whose actions are a factor behind the creation of this bill. The next point is incredibly minor in comparison, but it is worth discussing. The bill defines “pornographic image” as “any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, of sexually explicit conduct”. While in theory, the final portion of that definition is to curb the presence of porn utilizing deepfakes, which is a process in which an artificial intelligence program interpolates an individual’s face onto the body of another, the definition seemingly encompasses art as well, potentially curbing any form of artistic expression that may be considered sexual content. Also, all websites will require all platforms verify all uploaders’ identities, age, and obtain consent forms from all individuals appearing in the material. This introduces security risks for performers, as data breaches are very possible. Even if an individual used a pseudonym and hid their face in their work, it would still be very possible for their information to become public in some way, posing an incredible risk to their safety.

Finally, we get to what I find to be the most disturbing portion of the bill. If you are a victim of revenge porn, you are to provide your personal information to the federal government. This database, however, appears to be built in a way that if you are a sex worker attempting to report a singular video of yourself you did not consent to being uploaded, it would effectively remove all your content. This effectively locks all sex workers out from this protection, which is ghoulish, considering the large amount of sexual violence sex workers face, as mentioned above. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that undocumented sex workers would also be locked out of these protections, as well.

This comes at the same time that Visa, Mastercard, and Discover froze or cancelled payments to sex workers, spawning both the hashtags, #VisaVictims and #MasterCensors. This is truly a grim time for sex workers. This stands in the way of many individuals paying rent, paying their bills, getting groceries, and even paying for medication. If nothing is done, there is no doubt in my mind that this will lead to an increase in homelessness, starvation, and death, and yet no one is talking about it. Even as adults, it seems so many are embarrassed to even acknowledge the existence of sex workers, simply because it’s uncomfortable to discuss things of a sexual nature. Are we willing to sacrifice human lives to maintain our own comfort? I’d like to think most people are better than that.

What can we do at this point? If you’ve read my last article, this is definitely a time to contact your senator or congressman. Let them know in principle that you agree with a bill that would help the survivors of sexual violence or victims of revenge-porn, but that it can’t come at the risk of the lives of thousands of individuals who are probably survivors, as well. The bill has only been introduced, so there is time to change it. It may even be worthwhile to push your elected officials to draft an alternative. Let them know that if they vote ‘yes’ on this bill, you will be withholding your vote when it is time for their reelection, regardless of how true that statement is. This is a bipartisan bill, so whether your elected officials are democrats or republicans, it is worthwhile to call them.

If you wish to track the bill, click here. Again, I highly recommend reading Ana Valens’s twitter thread for additional information.

Every few years the internet comes together to protect its freedom of expression. Let this be another moment for that.

Freelance Writer & Video Editor

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