Amid FOSTA crackdown, sex workers find refuge on Mastodon

Sex workers are running out of safe online spaces. Craigslist is no longer displaying personal ads. The controversial classifieds site Backpage, which many escorts used to screen clients, has been seized by the FBI. Adult content is disappearing off Google Drive, and many sex workers say they’re being forced off social media. With the news that President Trump has signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), their options will continue to dwindle — and with it, the ability for many sex workers to pay their bills, let alone do so safely.

Over the past few weeks, sex workers have been turning to an unexpected platform to remain online: the social network Mastodon, under a new instance called “Switter.” Melbourne-based company Assembly Four created Switter after its founders learned that social media platforms were either removing sex workers’ content or banning their accounts. Without the time or resources to build a whole new network from scratch, the group turned to Mastodon.

Although ostensibly aimed at sex trafficking prevention, FOSTA’s reduction of legal protections for websites is having disastrous consequences for sex workers. Faced with the new potential for litigation, many websites are removing any content or avenues that could possibly violate FOSTA. It’s disconnecting many of the most vulnerable sex workers from crucial resources.

“Those that are impoverished, those that are running away from abusive partners, those that are actively trying to get out of really bad situations, especially black, trans street workers,” N’jaila Rhee, an educator and sex worker who hosts The Cuntcast Podcast, tells The Verge. “They’re now cut off from a means of elevating themselves into a safer work space.”

Switter, which uses a domain hosted in Austria, offers a workaround to this U.S. legislation. As an open-source platform, Mastodon mimics the look and function of Twitter. Rather than rely on a single flagship site, however, it functions through a series of networks called instances. These instances can be connected to others, or they can exist as standalone networks. Since its launch last month, Switter has grown to become the sixth largest instance, according to Mastodon Network Monitoring. “The ability to communicate and share information with your peers is absolutely critical in the modern age,” says J, an Assembly Four employee who goes by a single-letter handle. “With FOSTA already having wide-reaching effects, we realised that we needed to come up with a safe place for sex workers to communicate, and fast.”

Switter isn’t the only off-shore server resource for sex workers, but unlike many others, it is free. Rhee, who has yet to join Switter, points out that many alternative sites for sex workers charge expensive fees to place ads. “Somebody who is doing sex work to get by and is in dire straits does not have $ 300 to place an ad,” Rhee says. Instead, sex workers will be driven to the streets, she says, and may even lose their ability to do their work independently. As online options are vanishing, Rhee says she’s received solicitations from services offering to help her get clients. “They see this as an opportunity to essentially be pimps,” she says.

“FOSTA is, ironically, going to lead to more people being trafficked,” Rhee adds. “It’s not going to help those that are being trafficked. Being arrested isn’t rescue… being criminalized, being put in the legal system, being labeled a criminal or felon, that’s not what somebody who’s being trafficked needs.”

FOSTA’s impact has already included the closure of everything from Craigslist’s personal ads to furry dating sites. Other platforms, like Reddit, have closed escort subreddits and amended rules against “transaction” services, which lumps “paid services involving physical sexual contact” with rules against firearms or drugs. Lola Hunt, an Australian escort working with Assembly Four, says these rules or outright bans are especially damaging for workers located in America. “When we’re censored on platforms, it sends the message to the general public that sex work is a mostly negative thing in society and NEEDED to be removed,” she tells The Verge via email. Lumping “paid sexual services” into the same category as guns and drugs, she says, is only furthering the idea that paying for sex is an immoral act. “The U.S. is now one of the only countries [where] you can legally buy multiple firearms, which can kill someone, without a license, but you could be charged for carrying condoms,” she says.

Furthermore, driving sex workers off mainstream sites like Reddit, Craigslist, or Skype means pushing them away from resources that Hunt says are absolutely vital. “This will only force many more workers into the hands of exploitation and street work, as they will no longer have access to these resources,” she says. “Losing these platforms means there is a much higher chance of ending up in a potentially life-threatening situation.”

One escort, Buffy, tells The Verge that it’s hard to pinpoint one single thing that’s currently at stake in the wake of FOSTA’s passing. “The reality of it is, my career and my entire life are in jeopardy because of this bill,” she says. “Sex work is how I pay my rent, how I pay my bills, how I feed myself and my pets.” Although she says she’s able to stay afloat for now, she has concerns about the longterm sustainability of her profession if she’s kept offline.

Buffy learned about Switter through a group chat that acts as a safe space for providers in her area to talk. “Word [has] spread pretty quickly to other providers,” she recalls. “Obviously we were excited to talk about it.” Buffy says she joined because of the recent updates to many sites’ terms of service that would make her profile as a sex worker bannable. “It’s very frustrating, to be targeted like that,” Buffy says. “Switter is a safe space, one where I don’t have to dance around the word ‘escort’ or pretend I’m something I’m not. That is incredibly valuable right now.”

Although she doesn’t consider it a permanent solution to her booking needs, it’s a place to continue her work for now. “I am simply keeping my eyes and ears open and paying attention to where others are going,” she says. “As the websites continue to be made and shut down, eventually, new central hubs will become apparent, and I intend to be a part of them.”

As sex workers fight for their livelihoods, there’s also concern about the social implications of being driven off public web platforms. The stigma around sex work is far from gone, and the fallout from FOSTA for those in the industry is proof.

“When we are banned and silenced from social platforms like Twitter, this not only makes it harder for clients to interact with us, it also distances us from the general public,” says Hunt. If sex workers are forced to work in backchannels of the web, it only furthers harmful stereotypes. Hunt likens it to the image of the “broken-down street worker, reliant on drugs and being abused by a pimp. In reality, we come in every shape, form, and demographic, and often the people who are forced into the hands of exploitation are victims of the stigma.”

Switter may offer a temporary salve for the community, yet sex workers say it cannot stand as a last bastion, an end-all be-all answer for their profession. Assembly Four says it’s prepared to continue working to make it a safe destination for sex workers, but that they need real change.

“The best-case scenario would be the opposite,” says Hunt. “The best-case scenario would be if we didn’t need to have safe spaces, if public spaces were somewhere we were accepted.”

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