By ANA FINEL HONIGMAN, June, 2018
The passing of SESTA-FOSTA, the law prohibiting sex workers’ communication online, has created a crisis for consensual sex workers and artists with explicitly sexual subject matter. Drafted in response to online sex-trafficking, SESTA-FOSTA was opposed by media outlets, law enforcement and sex workers themselves for eliminating the web’s harm-reduction environment. Prior to the law passing with Trump’s signature, on April 11th, communities of sex workers independently advertised on classified sites, screened clients, and shared warnings about predators. Without these peer-to-peer channels, sex workers are in danger of homelessness, assault, isolation, and worse. While the internet facilitated the sale of trafficked minors, it also provided forums for victims and survivors of sex trafficking to forge communities and established safe-guards people, of all genders, to work on their own terms. Now artists and curators are joining the fight against the law by creating community fund-raising exhibitions and protests.
Pioneering the artistic opposition to SESTA-FOSTA, Emily McMaster and Allison Brainard staged “One Night Stand” on May 3rd at Brooklyn’s Euridice Gallery. Proceeds from the show’s raffle, silent auction and sales were donated to the Emergency Mutual Fund. This peer-to-peer fund was designed to provide emergency services for sex workers facing eviction or similar hardships following websites’ immediate elimination of sex workers’ material online. Following the group show, Whitehot sat with McMaster and Brainard to discuss what artists, art professionals and anyone concerned about people in the sex industry’s safety can do to help.
* How did you select the artists for your exhibition?
ALLISON: When Emily first got the idea to curate this fundraising exhibition and asked me to help plan the event, we had a very clear conversation about our goals for the event and what we wanted to achieve. We decided that we wanted to raise as much money as we could for Emergency Mutual Fund, but also focus on raising as much awareness about SESTA-FOSTA as possible. We also wanted to bridge our communities of established and emerging NYC artists as well as sex workers and friends in the BDSM/Kink community. Most of all, we wanted to create some revelry and fun as a form of protest in the face of these bills which are beginning to encroach on people's safety, livelihood, and freedom of speech.
EMILY: We reached out to artists in all of these communities by an open call on our social media and privately to artists we already knew. The artwork we selected reflected this wide range of people, subject matter, and medium. As our goal was to raise as much money for the emergency fund as possible, we wanted to include anyone interested in lending their support and found creative ways to integrate non-visual artists, too.
We incorporated a raffle, a silent auction, performances, and live music from Vera Sola. Most of the artists were based in New York but we also accepted mailed in submissions.
* Why curate an exhibition about SESTA-FOSTA? What was the thinking to curating a show versus another form of publicity and protest?
EMILY: We wanted to act quickly to plump up the emergency fund as much as we could. From idea to conception was about three weeks and we raised more money than we could have imagined.
ALLISON: There were practical reasons that lead us to curate an art show; we are both artists, we've produced similar events before and feel comfortable within that community. We also wanted to bring the artistic community in to help spread awareness.
EMILY: We wanted to bring attention to SESTA-FOSTA because its effects were so disastrous so quickly yet very few people outside of the sex work community had even heard about it. So, we were witnessing people in an anxious panic, people returned to working outdoors, people were reported missing, people were experiencing physical violence, people were trafficked, all as a result of SESTA-FOSTA. In the face of very dark news, turning to art, community, music, and celebration of freedom of expression felt like a needed form of protest. We needed some light.
* How is this law impacting artists?
EMILY: These laws are so insidious because they are so broad. This law amended Section 230 of the CDA which previously stated, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider". Now, websites are criminally liable for hosting third-party material related to prostitution. Because of the fear of potential liability and litigation and the open-to-interpretation bill language, websites are rapidly self-censoring. The government has outsourced their censorship to private companies.
There's a whole conversation to be had regarding what we consider art, who we consider artists, the line between pornography and other forms of erotic imagery. Websites have already begun rapidly censoring themselves, banning users, and deleting content due to updated TOS, even to individuals who are doing legal sex work. If we allow this to continue without protest, do we realistically believe that websites are going to take the time to comb through their users to distinguish who is using erotic content for "art" versus sex work? This law should horrify artists, individuals who thrive off freedom of expression, individuals who celebrate transgressive content.
In the digital age, many sex workers rely on the internet not only to stay safe, by means of hosting blacklists of violent clients for example, but also for creative expression. Some sex workers are artists too, and many continually produce content that is just as inspired as any other form of art and that content deserves a venue, too. In an internet of pirated porn, allowing sex workers to ethically produce, publish, and make a living off their work is imperative.
* How can people opposed to this law best help their sex worker friends?
EMILY: Check in with your sex working friends, offer them space to be heard, and ask them how you can be a better ally. Ask yourself, how can you pool resources from your life to help with this resistance? Identify yourself as an ally to sex workers, as someone who recognizes their humanity, their labor, and right to safety. This is especially important in environments where sex workers are less able to be safely visible. Allies can use their privilege to further destigmatize sex work by communicating their support for workers, their anger about SESTA-FOSTA, and their knowledge that sex work is work. Donate money to sex work related organizations, especially emergency funds who work directly with individuals. It's super important to keep spreading the word and to uplift marginalized voices by offering them platforms to be heard.
ALLISON: Fundraising for those in immediate crisis is important and we're so proud of what we've been able to contribute, but most people have no idea what SESTA-FOSTA even is or what impact these laws have on the way that sex workers have been able to work safely and independently. Talk to your friends, your family, and most importantly, your elected officials.
* Do you think this law might create a crisis to push decriminalisation ahead? Would that be the ideal goal and outcome since the passage of this law is set?
EMILY: The sex worker rights movement is nothing new, it has a long, tough, inspiring, and global history. The draconian reach of SESTA-FOSTA and how it's rolling back the online safety measures many sex workers now rely on could have the potential to ignite an even louder demand for decriminalization. The issues that SESTA-FOSTA purported to tackle are issues that necessitate the immediate need for complete decriminalization. For example, human traffickers utilize illegality to frighten and intimidate victims and criminal records can prevent those who want to exit the industry from doing so.
The internet allowed workers to screen their own clients, work indoors, put space between themselves and potential clients. When you remove online tools that workers use, when you take away their income over night, their bills still need to be paid, their children still need to eat. These laws have actually created a vulnerable environment that abusive third parties, like pimps and traffickers, are using to their advantage. With abusers as the target, consensual sex workers were caught in the crosshairs. Their voices and concerns were ignored even though these laws would effect them the most. Their income, well-being, safety, and even their lives were treated as expendable, collateral damage. Individuals who experience intersections of oppression, like POC, trans people, immigrants, LGBTQ+, the disabled, the poor, these individuals experienced the biggest blow the quickest.
Liara Roux, an activist and sex worker said recently that, "Honestly, in the midst of all this horribleness, it does seem like the abolitionists have finally poked the hornet nest one too many times - sex workers are out in force and pissed as all hell. And guess what? There are fucking millions and millions of us." We need to listen to people in the sex trade about what's best for them and decriminalization is what's being demanded, loudly.
* What has the response been to the show?
ALLISON: The response to One Night Stand has been overwhelmingly positive. Emily and I had never produced a fundraising event so we weren't really sure what kind of reactions to expect. A lot of the people we reached out to were artists who had no idea about SESTA-FOSTA but immediately understood the gravity of the situation. Other artists had connections to the sex worker community, or had heard about SESTA-FOSTA without knowing what to do about it until we reached out, and were really happy to have some concrete way of responding to the situation by getting involved with us. In the end we had over seventy people involved in the entire event, and the turnout was really huge.
EMILY: A friend of ours recently reminded me that resistance to SESTA-FOSTA will be a marathon, not a sprint. We chose the name One Night Stand purposefully, knowing that it was going to be one of many. We are along for the fight. WM
Ana Finel Honigman is a writer and critic. She writes about contemporary art and fashion for magazines including Artforum.com, Art in America, V, TANK, Art Journal, Whitewall, Dazed & Confused, Saatchi Online, Style.com, Dazeddigital.com, British Vogue, Interview and the New York Times's Style section. A Sarah Lawrence graduate, Ana has completed a Masters degree and is currently reading for a D.Phil in the History of Art at Oxford University. She also teaches a contemporary art course for NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development students. You can read her series Ana Finel Honigman Presents.
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