Sex life: I am being forced off the internet

Online worlds used to be my refuge. But the crackdown on sex workers by many platforms makes the internet feel hostile 
June 18, 2024

I’ve always been hyper-online. I cut my teeth in the community-run, anonymous forums of the early 2000s, in the age before social media was ubiquitous and when Tumblr was just a twinkle in its founder’s eye. I would upload grainy nudes of myself, taken on a digital camera, to sites for strangers to peruse, when I was well below the legal age to do so. And these early experiences have meant that the internet has always felt like 

a familiar rather than an unwieldy place. I am of the generation that you could say was raised with the world wide web when it was still the wild west, before it became choked by advertising and algorithms and censorship. Before it was monopolised by a few corporations. 

As the internet has become more regulated, it has begun to mimic the morality of the world at large—or more specifically the morality of the United States, where many popular websites are hosted, and whose laws therefore apply, laws such as FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, both of which undermine the 1996 Telecommunications Act and hold websites legally liable for the content that users post). This has made the internet increasingly hostile for sex workers like me, because many website owners are concerned about the consequences of having us on their platforms. Apps can be kicked off the Apple Store, barred from using payment services including Visa and Mastercard, or even charged with soliciting or “sex trafficking” (which the US often mistakenly conflates with in-person sex work), and so as a consequence they pre-emptively remove sex workers to prevent this. 

The precarity of existing on the internet as an “out” sex worker has shifted my relationship with it. The internet has been transformed from the place where I sought refuge as an isolated and rural queer teen, to one where I feel threatened and vulnerable, that I could be excluded from at any moment. The increase in the censorship of sex workers online internationally is part of a coordinated attack from conservative Christians in the US. Christian groups such as Exodus Cry have lobbied for anti-sex work laws to extend across not just the physical spaces we inhabit but also the digital ones, too. Given how many platforms are hosted in the US (Instagram, for example) this affects sex workers across the globe. This crackdown coincided for me with the pandemic, and served as a reminder of the fact that, while the internet can be a compelling place of connection and education, it cannot fix the physical loss of “third spaces” (spaces that you can socialise in outside of work and the home) that we are currently experiencing across the world, due to trends like the rising cost of living, gentrification and hostile city planning. 

The precarity of existing on the internet as an “out” sex worker has shifted my relationship with it

I have begun to value these physical spaces more and feel sickened and over-saturated with screens and social media. From being someone who was eager to share, who unbared myself without hesitation through my early twenties, I began to feel uneasy with the parasocial nature of some people’s interactions with me online. I also reckoned with the fact that nothing I wrote online was permanent, because I was at the whim of a company that was ready to delete me, and my digital footprint, at any point. 

People say that once something is online it’s there forever—but that is a falsity, which completely ignores the technical events that can obliterate content, like a server crashing or websites no longer being hosted. There is also the deliberate persecution of certain marginalised groups, such as sex workers, by social media sites, meaning that a lot of knowledge and history has not been backed up and subsequently has been lost. We mistook the internet for an automatic archive, something written in stone. In reality, as a creator, you are at the mercy of the platform that hosts your content as to whether they preserve and protect it or not. 

Grappling with this impermanence also made me more reluctant to write online, as I sought to see my words in print—I relish a hard copy that can exist in my hands and on my shelf. I remember reading something Seth Rogen said about why he got into pottery, how he wanted to be able to physically hold his creativity when his films shifted from being stored on DVDs to streaming sites. If my words are safely in a book that’s tucked away in my room, no condemnation of my work or my personhood from someone on the other side of the world can take them away from me. And while it hurts and saddens me to have found the internet turn against me, what is more concerning is that this reflects the persecution of sex workers generally—as we are kicked off giant platforms like Instagram and X, we are also squeezed off smaller sites, banned from Airbnb and Paypal simply for existing. We are left with nowhere we can advertise and nowhere we can simply be, because being is being visible. And being visible is an affront to others.