In what was ostensibly an attempt to hinder sex trafficking, President Trump signed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act-Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA-FOSTA) into law on April 11. SESTA-FOSTA, which hinges on the idea that criminals need the internet to sell illegal things, will be ineffective as an anti-trafficking law. It does, however, have devastating effects on people who work for themselves and choose to sell sexual encounters of their own free will.
This law, which puts independent sex workers’ lives at risk, is particularly galling because many of them became sex workers as the result of government failings. The gaps our government and economy leave in our social safety net are often patched up by sex work. The first sex workers I met were artists and students whose ambitions outstripped their parents’ finances or their own.
But the more sex workers I knew, the more I saw people who had been marginalized by capitalism. They were disabled, trans, or neuroatypical (whose neurological differences can manifest in autism, chronic depression, or ADHD). Even something as common as being single mothers—23 percent of U.S. households are headed by them—made them unable to fit into a “normal” job. In many developed countries, there would be government assistance available for single mothers and other people. But they lived in the United States. So they found another way.
Sylvia (who, like most people interviewed for this story, will only be identified by her first name or a pseudonym) cites her first foray into sex work as an arrangement she had to trade sex for rides to her minimum-wage job, which was not accessible via public transportation.
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“It was sort of a ‘fuck buddy’ situation,” she said. “I told myself that I liked him for other reasons but … it was a hell of a lot more convenient than spending half my salary on taxis to and from work.”
That may sound frivolous. But something as basic as affordable public transportation is unavailable in much of this country. And given how low the minimum wage is nationwide, that arrangement may have been the difference that kept Sylvia fed. That is the economic knife’s edge on which so many people in the United States live. Countless people are one missed paycheck away from homelessness or hunger.
“When you lose your income overnight, there’s no legal way to get fast money,” said Laura LeMoon, who became homeless after losing her last job. “Even if you get a new job right away, you don’t get paid immediately. I’ve waited two weeks or even a month for a paycheck from a new job.” Similarly, unemployment benefits can take weeks to come through and are not available for everyone.
The Gender Politics of Being Pushed Out
Some people, including trans people, turn to sex work after being pushed from jobs by discrimination related to their gender identity. Though trans people have found some (often challenged) protection from existing discrimination laws, there is no federal law that specifically protects trans or nonbinary people.
“I could have just as easily been a very successful waitress,” said Lydia Love, who was fired from a cocktail waitressing job after being outed as trans. “But there are plenty of trans people for whom every social interaction is like pulling teeth. Every interaction has to be a conversation about their gender …. If you make your job about your gender, then you can’t be penalized for it.” Sex work, specifically escorting or adult film acting, is one of very few professions where being trans can come with the advantage of a niche market.
Similarly, women pushed out of the workforce by pregnancy might use sex work as a resource. Maternity leave is not mandated for every job, and few jobs are flexible enough for single mothers to work full-time while caring for their children.
Pregnancy complications forced Susan to leave her teaching job early, and she became a stay-at-home mother.
“My partner was pretty well-to-do,” she said, with some unease. “I didn’t need to work, so when I got sick, we just figured I’d take care of our son full time.” While she was pregnant, Susan began the work of starting her own business, hoping it would slowly grow along with her son.
This plan went south when her partner divorced her suddenly. Susan found herself living in an expensive city with no job and a 5-month-old baby. Her business wasn’t making enough to support her, and child support only covered a fraction of her bills. Susan considered returning to teaching, but child care proved so expensive that she would have to take on extra work. “I did the math and, between working and commuting, I’d only have one hour with my son every day.”
Unwilling to all but give up contact with her child, Susan looked into sugar daddy sites, where men offer monetary rewards to women who will be their ideal girlfriend. “That world can be scary and weird,” she acknowledged. “I got scammed by a few people.” While she wishes she could have been more sure of her safety, she was able to pay her bills and launch her business, while still having the time to raise her son.
Health Care Woes
Health care costs have increased exponentially, and the failings of our health-care system featured most prominently in the stories I was told. Many of the women I interviewed started doing sex work to pay for medical expenses, or because sex work allowed them to make a living while accommodating their depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, or chronic health conditions.
“If my depression is acting up, I can give myself the day off,” said Laura LeMoon, a trafficking survivor who began doing independent sex work after eight years of retail and service jobs left her feeling exploited. “I wanted to see if I could approach sex work from an empowering angle. It was a lot more empowering than a regular job.”
Callie, who has been dealing with chronic pain and neurological issues for five years, said, “I can work three hours a day and make rent in a week.” When asked if she was helped by any government programs, she heaved a frustrated sigh.
“Disability is a trip,” she told me. “I started trying to get on disability in April of 2017, and I’ve been rejected twice.”
Other sources echoed her weariness when asked about government assistance.
“I’ve been working on getting disability, but the forms are impossible,” Sylvia said. “I’m a smart person, with an advanced degree. English is my first language. I can’t imagine how hard these forms would be for someone with cognitive issues, or a different native tongue, or without education. I’ve been rejected for food stamps twice, due to clerical errors. I went through my disability paperwork with a fine-tooth comb, dotting every I and crossing every T. I haven’t heard back in months.”
Sylvia’s desired career requires a doctorate, so she began sugaring to pay for graduate school. “I figured I could have shitty sex with men for free or for money. And if I got paid for it, I could make two weeks worth of retail pay in an hour.” She began escort work full-time when chronic illness made retail work impossible for her. “I can’t stand for long hours or lift heavy things, and that’s required in pretty much all retail work.”
Even veterans can’t count on help from the government they served.
“[Navigating the Department of Veterans Affairs] was impossible,” commented Mars, who was discharged from the military due to her anxiety disorder. “I had to start paying out of pocket for all my treatments.”
Mars started selling erotic shows via webcam in order to afford a psychiatrist. When her agoraphobia lead to her being fired from her “vanilla” job, she began escort work.
“Burlesque had already made me comfortable with my body, and I was unable to hold a regular job. Sex work seemed like the best way I could pay my bills. And it was fun …. I genuinely love the work.”
Job satisfaction was a common refrain among these women, who all chose sex work. None of them regretted the work they did and most said they would continue to do sex work even if they could have a “straight” job.
“Sex work is 100 percent better than a 9-to-5,” said Callie. “Especially in terms of flexibility and autonomy.”
This is not to say that sex work is a cure-all. Those who are coerced into it have no safe way to leave or get help from law enforcement. Its illegality leaves all sex workers in danger from both the possibility of prosecution and the lack of recourse if clients assault them, overstep agreed-upon boundaries, or refuse to pay.
“Wherever I’m working needs to have a space where I can hide my cane or walker,” said Callie, who uses a mobility device. “I can’t have clients finding out that they could overpower me. If that gets out, who knows what could happen.”
Even in the safest circumstances, sex work does not offer the protections of a “normal” job, like health care, pensions, and a guaranteed income. And sex work tends to favor the conventionally attractive and able-bodied.
Still, consensual sex work has helped some marginalized people survive and thrive in a country that does not support them through social services. With the passage of SESTA-FOSTA, the government is now poised to take away the income they worked to carve out of this cruel system.
“Since SESTA passed, the clients that have called me have made offers so far below my normal rate that it’s insulting,” said Callie, disdainfully. “They’re trying to take advantage of me because they think I’m working from a place of desperation.”
“But,” she added casually, “I’m not quite homeless yet.”