Sex Workers Want In On Conversations About Protecting Children Online

Pornography is a hotly debated, often morally ambiguous part of our culture. The notion of pornogrophy elicits jokes, pleasure, outrage and sometimes — as Nicholas Kristof has written about in The New York Times – trauma. 

Kristof’s ‘The Children of Pornhub’ — an opinion piece dropped as 2020 was winding to a close — detailed disturbing stories of children whose pornographic photos and videos were uploaded onto Pornhub without consent. Some of those videos included depictions of rape and violence. This April,  he released another article, this time directly asking, “why are corporations allowed to profit from rape videos?”

Both pieces confront the failings of internet companies to address child exploitation. In ‘The Children of Pornhub,’ Kristof said, “The issue is not pornography but rape. Let’s agree that promoting assaults on children or on anyone without consent is unconscionable.”

There is no argument there – the exploitation and rape of human beings is never OK. Kristof’s solution to the problem was clearly laid out near the end of the piece: “1) Allow only verified users to post videos. 2) Prohibit downloads. 3) Increase moderation.” While he said that those measures wouldn’t “kill porn,” it has already begun to, and sex workers, who depend on sexual services online for their livelihoods, are feeling the repercussions. 

There is no doubt about it — children are certainly some of the most vulnerable people in society and should be protected from online exploitation and trafficking. But protecting helpless and vulnerable little ones doesn’t necessarily have to come from sweeping legislation and widespread content moderation.

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The dialogue started in Kristof’s work triggered the removal of millions of videos from Pornhub and led to both Mastercard and Visa cutting ties with the adult industry giant — one that just three years ago went mainstream, garnering positive headlines for giving Kanye West free premium porn access for life after the producer-turned-rapper-turned-reality-TV-meltdown praised the site on Jimmy Kimmel’s show.   

There is no doubt about it — children are certainly some of the most vulnerable people in society and should be protected from online exploitation and trafficking. But protecting helpless and vulnerable little ones doesn’t  necessarily have to come from sweeping legislation and widespread content moderation, which endanger the safety and income of sex workers. Exploitation of children should never be tolerated but can be fought without destroying the income and safety of sex workers.  There needs to be an inclusive forum of diverse voices raising concerns and planning solutions to ensure children are protected online while also not endangering sex workers.  

Religious and anti-trafficking organizations — like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and Polaris, which both are representative of the long history of opposition to sex work — cling onto the tragic stories revealed in Kristof’s opinion pieces as ammunition for their campaigns to end all pornography and sex work, claiming sex work and pornography are the root cause of this gross exploitation of children.  These claims leave sex workers, who depend on their jobs for survival, fearful of the implications on their livelihoods.

Sex workers want to protect children online, but most think there are other, more effective alternatives than sweeping legislation that makes conservative policy makers feel good about themselves. Jon E Standard voted for stricter laws against prostitution, only to have been accused of paying for sex. Matt Gaetz allegedly had sex with a minor. Pat Meehan was accused of using taxpayer’s money to pay off a former aide who had accused him of sexual misconduct. Sex workers are fed up of being ignored by politicians who say one thing and do another. They want in on conversations about how to tackle trafficking and exploitation of children online, instead of being ignored and bearing the brunt of decisions made. 

Bella Robinson, executive director of the sex-worker led advocacy group, COYOTE RI, tells The News Station her concerns about the misinformation around trafficking described in Kristof’s article: “No one seems interested in calling out the fact that he isn’t a trafficking expert, he hasn’t conducted any evidence-based research, and that he is making huge profits by sticking with the government’s narrative.” She feels his articles are created for shock value and thus detracted from real solutions to trafficking and exploitation of children, like ending poverty and ensuring victims of domestic abuse and exploitation are provided better support at all levels of government.  

“My fear surrounding the crusade Kristof has spread is escalating violence toward sex workers,” Emy, a sex worker in California who was herself exploited within the sex industry, tells The News Station. 

While financially dependent on a former boyfriend, Emy (whose identity we’re protecting for obvious reasons) was coerced into doing sexual favors for his friends in exchange for rent money. 

“He threatened my pets and family and posted my nudes to degrade and embarrass me,” Emy recounts. 

Her now ex-boyfriend was arrested on an unrelated charge, giving Emy a chance to begin again, which she unashamedly did:

“I started sex work to try and take back my autonomy,” Emy says.  

Emy was already concerned about Pornhub’s negligence in addressing exploitation of children and rape on their platform

“I deleted my Pornhub account long before the article came out,” she says.  

Yet, she feels the conversations regarding solutions need to involve the voices of sex workers, and she’s disheartened by being excluded: “None of us were asked for comment” in response to the findings of the articles. 

“Treating child sexual abuse as a moral failing is the wrong approach and is harmful to sex workers.”

Jeremy Malcolm

In 2018, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), was signed into law to hold platforms accountable for third-party content dubbed “human trafficking,” whether it was or not. To avoid legal implications, platforms massively censored any content that might be classified as exploitative. As a result, sex workers no longer had forums to warn of violent clients, were forced to work the streets and lost huge amounts of income. 

“FOSTA was well intentioned,” Emy tells The News Station, “but didn’t actually curb abuse – just aided in the harm of sex workers.” 

Like many, she worries anti-porn rhetoric — i.e. the foundation of  Kristof’s pieces — will continue leading to mass censorship online and only drive exploitation and trafficking underground. 

“Treating child sexual abuse as a moral failing is the wrong approach and is harmful to sex workers,” Jeremy Malcolm, director of the child protection organization Prostasia Foundation, tells The News Station. “Treating child sexual abuse online as a public health problem and dealing with it through a harm reduction lens is far more effective and less likely to involve unintended side effects on marginalized communities.” 

Trip Richards is a trans man sex worker whose work has been affected as a result of the repercussions from Kristof’s pieces. In an interview with The News Station, he describes the impact Kristof has had on his work: “As it currently stands, I cannot sell my videos despite having complied with all rules and regulations. I have lost a significant amount of income.”

He isn’t just fearful about lost income — a real problem he lives with daily — but also for the safety of fellow sex workers. 

“The anti-sex worker sentiment which Kristof has elevated to a nation stage is terrifying to me. Since his articles were published, there has been a wave of new legislation and regulation against sexual labor, and also increasing violence against sex workers,” Richards says.

“To be clear, human trafficking, underage content, ‘revenge porn’ and non-consensual sexual activity are all terrible things, and we should work to eliminate them and support victims,” Richards says. “But a ban on adult labor only causes further harm. It removes economic opportunities, contributes to dangerous stigma, and disproportionately harms minorities.” 

To address the problem of child sexual abuse online, Blair Hopkins — the deputy director of the grassroots social justice network, SWOP Behind Bars — describes to The News Station the process policy makers need to employ. 

“It is not a flash bang bill type solution. The issues around how and why people end up in exploitative solutions are so delicate, complicated and interrelated – it takes an entirely different paradigm than the one we currently use to legislate,” Hopkins says. 

Hopkins suggests treating the internet as “whole society adjacent to a non-digital society” and applying preventative, educational and minimally invasive interventional policies to problems. 

“You would never expect a single law to do all things for the non-digital world, so why do we do it for the digital one?” Hopkins asks. 

A part of that starts with educating children themselves. 

“Children need to be resourced and taught about safety online,” Jeremy Malcolm of Prostasia Foundation tells The News Station. Malcolm is working with a wide range of tech experts and child protection advocates, but also sex workers, to develop solutions to better protect children online without damaging marginalized communities.

He advocates for robust age verification, photo DNA (to quickly detect images of child abuse) and preventative work focusing on education around sexual consent. Finally, he proposes more research into how to get to the root of the reason why people – both children and adults – post and view pornographic material depicting children because “misunderstanding the problem guarantees you’re not going to be able to solve it.” 

Kristof’s articles were written to unsettle readers and spark action to protect children online, but there is a way to protect children without harming another vulnerable group – sex workers. Solutions need to stem from conversations where the voices of victims, parents, professionals and sex workers are included – not just government officials or religious affiliates who tout Kristof’s articles as a reason to end the sex trade, not the problem he clearly lays out, that of exploiting kids — something we all agree on. Now it’s time for a real conversation — one that includes all the stuff society has trained us not to talk about, even if sex work isn’t going anywhere any time soon. 

Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

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