sexual content bans are dog whistles for conservatism

December 14, 2018
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Like all parents, I worry about the world my son is growing into. Fortunately for him, I am not most parents. I am a sex worker, literally and politically so, and that informs my other politics. Culturally the term “sex worker” implies full-service work, colloquially known as prostitution. But politically, sex worker has always meant “anyone who exchanges money, goods, or services for their sexual or erotic labor.”  

Prohibition plagues these Internet streets. They want to “take back the Internet” from us porn creating and porn-guzzling deviants to “protect the children.” In America our children are protected from “female-presenting nipples” (Tumblr’s policy), comprehensive sex education, adequate information on STI/HIV testing and safer sex (which refers to both contraception and performing risky sexual acts safely), but not from racists or incels. Shutting down websites or instituting content bans like Tumblr’s will not protect our children. That idea is a virtue signal evoked by the rescue industry, specifically to stoke people’s conservatism. No matter the demographic, once you convince the general public that something is bad for children—“bad” being highly aligned with social mores and transgressive sexual and recreational (i.e. drug) practices—rationality goes out the window.

People all over Twitter were parroting that talking point: “Well, they’re saying it’s about child porn and protecting kids from seeing inappropriate media.” It isn’t. If the American government, which is now more openly conservative and bigoted than ever, cared about children, they would be shifting their budget to provide rehabilitation services, income, and basic needs for marginalized classes — including children. Child poverty and homelessness are extremely high here, and yet neither of these issues receives much attention when we discuss these things. While the government is passing laws to prohibit sexual deviancy and claims it’s “for the good of the children,” the government’s law enforcement is also interning and detaining migrant children. Their actions are forcing trafficking victims and underage people who are involved in the sex trade out of need, onto the street and under ground. You can’t find what you can’t see, and if you shut down websites, you remove the issue from the public eye. But it doesn’t go away.

The rescue industry is experiencing a political Renaissance that I suspect has been a long time coming. Anti-porn and anti-trafficking “abolitionists” have joined forces against sex worker activists/advocates, and sex positive feminists. It isn’t just Tumblr, and it’s not just America. Earlier this year I read that De Wallen (one of Amsterdam’s Red Light Districts) is in danger of being shut down due to what Julie Bindel called “a vibrant sex trade abolitionist movement emerging in Holland” in The Independent. There has been a slow, steady rise in sexually prohibitive practices by certain companies since the early 2000s. At first it was mostly payment processors (which is a huge fucking deal), but it didn’t affect enough people. Mostly it affected cyber sex workers and offline workers who used sites such as The Erotic Review to screen clients for safety; or used online processors instead of taking cash. It also affected the personal, non-sex work, accounts of many individual sex workers. Abusive exes or angry friends, co-workers,  or Internet strangers can report your social media accounts on a whim and if it is even loosely connected to anything sex-related, your account is at risk. These policies don’t just apply to sex workers, either. Facebook’s policy changes to the Sexual Solicitation section of their Community Standards are equally deserving of scrutiny. The update policy prohibits “Vague suggestive statements, such as ‘looking for a good time tonight’,” sexualized slang, and sexual explicit language that adds details, among other listed acts.  They affect anyone who creates erotic/sexual content from creatives who produce erotic literature and comics, erotic/sensual art to amateur porn creators and people who post thirst traps.

In the midst of my furious tweets about why the Tumblr ban is part of an insidious wave of sex-prohibitive legislation and conservative attitudes—and not just some random bad luck that we can brush off—my son asked me about sex. Casually. I was watching POSE for not the first time, and it was the scene where Angel Evangelista and Stan Bowes are making out in the apartment he just secured for her. I like to watch most of my shows when my son is awake, for these moments. He’s six years old, and I remember being that age and not being able to voice things like that to my mother at any age. He only asks what he wants to know, and I explain because I want him to understand. The most important thing in all these informal lessons is that I don’t worry about him discovering an erotic website or porn, because by the time he gets to that point, he will be prepared. My bookshelves are lined with books ranging from The Feminist Porn Book to Sex Criminals to The Black Body in Ecstasy. I don’t hide information from him; he may pluck as he will, as he ages. For now I curate his content, though not entirely in the same way as most parents I’m gathering.

I explain to my child that the shows we watch, the books we read, are fantasy, a product of the human mind. I speak candidly about my work, and sex and politics, because my mother never did. When he is older he will likely discover porn on his own but we will have talked about it, because in my house I offer a comprehensive sex education from my books, to my own experience, and it isn’t poisoned by bigotry and sexual repression. I am not arguing for children to be exposed to porn, I am arguing against prohibition based on the lie of protection. Our Black children are not being protected by the government. Prohibition has never been for the good of the people, it has always been a tool of oppressors. The Tumblr bans and Backpage closure are just the tip of the iceberg. These bans not only do not help actual trafficking victims or impoverished child workers, they also endanger a class of people that heavily intersect with other marginalized groups, such as the queer/trans community, Black and Brown women, and homeless people. Children of color, queer children and poor children are the most likely to be trafficked, or to engage in underage sex work out of necessity (to escape poverty or abusive households), so you would think that would be the focus. The red herring of “saving the children,” however, has many distracted.