In mid-December, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) introduced the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act, or SISEA, claiming it can and will reduce sexual exploitation online. In reality, however, the bipartisan bill is poised to remove vital platforms and resources for sex workers, effectively ending consensual online sexual content and even endangering sex workers' lives. If you're thinking such steps won't affect on your own life, consider that if you consume online adult content—any adult content—Merkley and Sasse's bill impacts you directly.
For starters, SISEA would criminalize downloading adult content, create legal loopholes for underage sexual content, place impractical demands on adult content platforms and dictate platforms which carry adult content must operate "a 24-hour telephone hotline that an individual or an authorized representative of an individual, or a law enforcement officer, can contact to request removal of a pornographic image from the platform if the individual appears in the pornographic image and has not consented to the pornographic image being uploaded to the platform." At first blush, that mouthful sounds reasonable, perhaps even preventative of revenge porn scenarios. But such far-reaching potential damages mask dense legal language cloaked in flowery assertions that the bill would prevent and fight online sexual harm while it's actually discouraging platforms from hosting adult content creators in the first place.
Broadly, SISEA sets high goals that are outright disconnected from the reality of how the internet functions. One provision, for example, would establish a requirement for the verification of identity and age before uploading adult content, but also applies retroactively. This means your adult content site of choice that struggles to comply might be wiped of decades' worth of content.
SISEA would also require a two-hour deadline response for the removal of reported content, a step that would require more manpower than many platforms have on hand. The bill is further unclear about the verification process for those reporting content, which could lead to online attacks or trolling via mass reporting. This also means that if a platform finds that adult content warrants too much manpower as a result of SISEA, they may ban it outright rather than risking noncompliance. Anyone recall the great Tumblr adult content purge of 2018? Picture it on an internet-wide scale; thousands upon thousands of adult content creator accounts could potentially disappear overnight, massive archives disappearing alongside time.
Adult content is the most obviously impacted form of sex work today, but online advertisements encompass an even more vulnerable group—full-service sex workers, who provide direct sexual service. In the time of COVID-19, such workers are already more vulnerable than ever. Perhaps most frustrating is that we've already experienced similar harmful government oversight before. When Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA/SESTA) in 2018, unintended consequences included sex workers losing contact with their customer base, as well as the ability to screen clients safely and discreetly from home. This vetting inclued anything from proof of sexual health screenings to background checks for violent crimes. When those resources were lost, some consensual sex workers were forced to move to street-based advertisement, leading to prostitution charges, violence, more sex trafficking and even death. The advertising vacuum also led to male managers and promoters, essentially pimps, swooping in on vulnerable sex workers and taking a cut of the profits for dubious protection services while exposing sex workers to dangerous situations up to and including direct participation in sex trafficking. San Francisco, for example, saw sex trafficking triple within a year of FOSTA/SESTA passing, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and the dual bills created such unfathomable liability for some businesses that they removed all mention of the subject itself, and with it, any platform for victims to reach out for help. Cyber-trails of proof to convict traffickers, for example, disappeared.
SISEA also impacts those uninvolved with sex work—even teenagers. The bill's language stipulates users must "verify their age is not less than the minimum age required to consent to sexual acts under the law of the State in which the user resides." In 40 states, the age of consent is under 18. Should SISEA pass, it would create confusion about whether such vaguely written laws would legalize pornographic content featuring underage teenagers under the guise of "stopping exploitation." It also states directly that "a covered platform may not permit the download to a retrievable data file of any pornographic image from the platform." This means that even a consensual sex worker on OnlyFans will no longer be able to conduct business, since downloading their content would essentially constitute a federal crime. Adult content as we know it would cease to exist online, with legally obtained sexual material created by consensual sex workers evaporating due to the criminalization of downloads.
This may not be that concerning for those who have moral or ethical objections to sexual media or sex work, but this doesn't mean sexual materials will simply vanish. Instead, consumers and sex workers will be forced to the dark web, that unregulated sub-internet infamous for horrifying content such as videos and images of abused or sexually enslaved women, child porn and sex trafficking. The more consenting adult content creators are cornered, the more immediately dangerous the industry becomes—and the more the dark web market of abuse and exploitation grows.
The fault lies with lawmakers ignorant to how sex work and the internet function practically, as well as evangelical anti-pornography groups which oppose sex trafficking rescue efforts and sex work activists. As the new Congress has been sworn in, the bill appears to be stalled for now, but you can count on it being reintroduced, possibly under a new name. More attacks are launched on adult content on the internet all the time—the question remains what we're going to do about it.
Stephanie Thompson is a painter, sex worker and security guard in Santa Fe, an almost-graduate from the defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design, a leftist and a bottle blonde.