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RE-READING FOSTA/SESTA: Online Escorts' Earnings, Risk, and Safety Strategies

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Abstract

A PDF of our conference presentation describing the impact of AVSFOSTA on female independent sex workers advertising escorting services online in the U.S.
RE-READING FOSTA/SESTA:
Online Escorts’ Earnings, Risk, and
Safety Strategies
LSA – CRN6: Washington, D.C. 2019
RE-READING FOSTA/SESTA:
Online Escorts’ Earnings, Risk, and
Safety Strategies
LSA – CRN6: Washington, D.C. 2019
THE EROTIC ENTREPRENEURSHIP PROJECT www.eroticentrepreneurs.com
Kathryn Hausbeck Korgan: kate.korgan@unlv.edu – 702.895.0446
Alex Nelson: nelson26@unlv.Nevada.edu
Antoinette Izzo: Izzo@unlv.Nevada.edu
THE EROTIC ENTREPRENEURSHIP PROJECT www.eroticentrepreneurs.com
Kathryn Hausbeck Korgan: kate.korgan@unlv.edu – 702.895.0446
Alex Nelson: nelson26@unlv.Nevada.edu
Antoinette Izzo: Izzo@unlv.Nevada.edu
1
FOSTA/SESTA, a.k.a. ASVFOSTAFOSTA/SESTA, a.k.a. ASVFOSTA
Allow States & Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (ASVFOSTA) passed 4/11/18.
Final legislation after FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) passed Senate (3/21/18) and SESTA
(Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) passed the House of Representatives (2/27/18).
Landmark change to Safe Haven Provision 230 of Communications Decency Act, 1996: Magna
Carta of internet & “the most important legal driver of digital free expression” according to law
professor Alan Rozenshtein.
Made website owners & hosts criminally liable for user content & actions. Criminalized support and
assistance to anyone engaged in trafficking, but so broad as to include online escorts.
Allow States & Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (ASVFOSTA) passed 4/11/18.
Final legislation after FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) passed Senate (3/21/18) and SESTA
(Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) passed the House of Representatives (2/27/18).
Landmark change to Safe Haven Provision 230 of Communications Decency Act, 1996: Magna
Carta of internet & “the most important legal driver of digital free expression” according to law
professor Alan Rozenshtein.
Made website owners & hosts criminally liable for user content & actions. Criminalized support and
assistance to anyone engaged in trafficking, but so broad as to include online escorts.
Tales of sex trafficking capture the danger, exploitation, and abuse in some parts of
the global sex industry. They focus on a dark underbelly where women are
objectified and traded for sex and profit against their will. Anti-trafficking advocates
leverage these narratives to rail against all forms of commercial sex, ostensibly to
protect women. In so doing, they conflate the multilayered and complex realities of
sex work in the global commercial sex industry. Dangerously, this creates an
inhospitable climate for workers who sell sexual services by choice and reduces
their stories to propaganda and false consciousness. The most recent example of
this is the legislation known as FOSTA/SESTA, which was passed last year and
further criminalizes internet interactions related to ‘prostitution’ in the name of
combating human trafficking.
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METHODSMETHODS
Dataset (1730; 839 w/ rates)
Website analysis (50 IE sites)
Survey (115 + 9)
Interviews (19 + ongoing)
Dataset (1730; 839 w/ rates)
Website analysis (50 IE sites)
Survey (115 + 9)
Interviews (19 + ongoing)
In this paper, we examine FOSTA/SESTA from the perspective of erotic
entrepreneurs: women who have their own websites and work as independent
online escorts. Drawing upon survey data, interviews, and online ethnography, we
document escorts’ perceptions of danger and risk, as well as their strategies to stay
safe. Specifically, we explore their perceptions of the new risks that FOSTA-SESTA
poses, the strategies they are deploying to minimize those risks; and consider which
demographics within the online escorting market are most likely to be
impacted. Doing so provides a critical re-reading of FOSTA/SESTA and a basis to
advocate for legislation that better addresses the problems sex workers face across
the commercial sex industry.
3
Escorts’ Evolving Online ResourcesEscorts’ Evolving Online Resources
oBackpage seized by F.B.I. just days prior to passing ASVFOSTA in April 2018
oOther websites supporting the escort provider & client communities either
willingly shutdown or changed their platforms in response
oThe Erotic Review (TER) removed U.S. reviews & posts
oEROS: required facial photos, ID & credit card info for verification of
providers; strict rules baring explicit ad content as well as links to websites
or social media
oMonthly ad prices have greatly increased and the effectiveness of ads
decreased
Just Prior to F/S’s passage the most popular advertising site for online escorts,
Backpage.com, was closed down after a federal investigation. Following the passage
of F/S several websites either pre-emptively shuttered, or took steps to protect
themselves from possible liability. The second largest and most popular directory of
online direct sexual service providers, The Erotic Review.com, removed its reviews
for US based providers. Previously these reviews would be posted by clients
detailing their experiences with sex workers as well as providing detailed ratings
and links to escorts’ websites and advertisements. These reviews were an important
source of free advertising and a way for providers to establish themselves as
trustworthy and legitimate to both clients and fellow providers.
Other popular platforms changed their terms of service. Eros, an expensive but
popular national advertising mall for escorts, began requiring providers to submit a
picture of their face and of their government issued ID, as well as their credit card
information, to verify that advertisers were not under the age of 18. They also
enforced strict rules baring discussion of explicit sexual content in escorts’ ads and
barred providers from linking to their websites or social media which escorts use to
better differentiate themselves from one another and provide details about
themselves, their services, and their expectations of clients.
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New platforms have arisen to take the place of those that have shuttered. However,
concerns over the security and effectiveness of these new sites keep the most risk
averse providers from utilizing them and our interviewees who do continue to
advertise report that the cost of advertising has greatly increased while the number
of client inquiries they receive from their ads has decreased.
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Post-FOSTA/SESTA:
Providers’ Perceived Risks
Post-FOSTA/SESTA:
Providers’ Perceived Risks
“the fear is th- the fear of ... I suppose this was always the case, but what am I going to
do if something goes wrong during a date? Like the ante has been raised that much
more that like now I've ... Like I can't reach out and get help. It certainly didn't feel like I
could reach out and get help before, but now that this is a federal crime, there's a lot
more on the line for me to, you know, to reach out for help if I needed it now, whereas
before I'd pay my fine and have a misdemeanor and move on with life. You know, these
are federal charges now. So that, that fear, the fear is definitely real and I think it's just a
matter of time.”
-- Independent Escort, Southwest
Independent online escorts report that they and their peers feel increased fear and
anxiety over FOSTA/SESTA not because they are aware of actual arrests resulting
from the legislation but rather because of the perception that their activities could
now be under investigation by the FBI and prosecuted as felony charges for
promoting prostitution and sex trafficking, where as formerly local vice squads and
the threat of a misdemeanor for soliciting prostitution were their principle concern.
The prospect of felony charges and the unknowns of whether and how those
charges may be pursued has increased sex worker’s anxiety and led some to take
preventative measures to ensure they won't be the easiest targets for any new law
enforcement initiatives.
5
Post-FOSTA/SESTA:
Changes to Providers’ Practices
Post-FOSTA/SESTA:
Changes to Providers’ Practices
oLess online advertising
oHeightened reliance on TWITTER, despite risks
oMore expensive and less effective advertising
oNot doing SEO so they are not easily found by LE (law enforcement)
oChanging website content (text, photos, etc.)
oAdopting new personas to disconnect from “risky” info, images, reviews
from former escort persona
oTurning to agencies & other 3
rd
parties instead of independent work
Escorts are reporting making a number of changes to preemptively protect
themselves from investigation or loss of access to important resources for their
businesses. For instance, it was common practice for escorts to maintain a page on
their website with links to other providers they are willing to work with or
recommend to their existing and prospective clients. These links are sometimes
based on face-to-face relationships and local communities of sex workers who pool
resources and information while offering one another emotional support and
camaraderie. These networks share services such as running background checks on
one another's clients, recommending clients to each other when they receive client
requests they can’t accommodate, as well as working together when clients wish to
hire two escorts for a single session. Although such banner exchanges are useful
resources that helps drive new clients to their websites, providers fear that such
links could make them liable for promoting the prostitution of others under FOSTA-
SESTA.
Twitter is also an important resource for many escorts. Providers use Twitter posts
as a form of advertising by sharing photos, messages and links with their current
and prospective clients, as well as fellow sex workers, in order to display their
personality, distinguish themselves from the thousands of other online providers,
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and stay on the minds of prospective and past clients. Even prior to FOSTA-SESTA
Twitter had been known to close or temporarily freeze sex worker’s accounts or
shadow-ban users deemed to be breaking the site’s terms of use. Because FOSTA-
SESTA now makes Twitter potentially liable if it’s found to allow prostitution services
to be advertised on its platform, sex workers are anticipating an imminent crack-
down and are preemptively adjusting their use to make themselves less of a target.
Providers believe Twitter uses an algorithm to determine who to ban, and that this
algorithm is more easily triggered by using hashtags. Based on this assumption some
escorts have ceased using hashtags and are being mindful not to post explicit
content, such as nude photos. These measures generally reduce, or fail to increase,
their Twitter followings but this is considered better than losing access to the
platform all together.
6
Post-FOSTA/SESTA:
Changes to Providers’ Practices
Post-FOSTA/SESTA:
Changes to Providers’ Practices
oLess online advertising
oHeightened reliance on TWITTER, despite risks
oMore expensive and less effective advertising
oNot doing SEO so they are not easily found by LE (law enforcement)
oChanging website content (text, photos, etc.)
oAdopting new personas to disconnect from “risky” info, images, reviews
from former escort persona
oTurning to agencies & other 3
rd
parties instead of independent work
Additionally some escorts are reporting they are no longer advertising because of a
lack of trust of new and existing venues given the uncertainty of how FOSTA-SESTA
will be deployed by law enforcement. These providers are now relying on their
regulars and social media and generally have well established client bases as well as
savings and other revenue sources that enable them to take this cautious approach.
One interviewee reported that in addition to ceasing advertising she has stopped
performing Search Engine Optimization on her website so that she won’t easily be
found by law enforcement officers. Providers are also adjusting the text of their
websites, to make themselves harder targets for investigation although they believe
these changes will likely make them less attractive to new clients.
The survey responses we have received suggest that a number of escorts have also
created new personas in response to FOSTA-SESTA, perhaps to sever links with past
ads and reviews that they may fear to be in the hands of law enforcement. Some
have begun working at escort agencies which tend to have high visibility and are
helpful for drawing new clients but which also take 40-50% of the escorts’ earnings.
In this sense FOSTA-SESTA could be said to be driving some escorts into the hands
of third parties even though that is the opposite of the legislation’s supposed
intentions.
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Hierarchy of Vulnerability to AVSFOSTAHierarchy of Vulnerability to AVSFOSTA
oMarginal groups at significantly greater risk & higher impact: non-cis
gender, lower socio-economic status, absence of professional network,
racially/ethnically marginalized, etc.
oTER & Backpage closure: those who advertise on here, especially
Backpage, have significantly lower earnings and posted rates than those
who did not
oThe loss of these two platforms harms providers who are just starting their
escorting businesses and those who relied heavily on a business model
dependent on attracting a steady stream of new clients and seeing a
large number of clients for short and relatively inexpensive sessions
.
For a number of reasons, it is a certainty that those most impacted by FOSTA-SESTA
are those who were previously most vulnerable and economically precarious. The
biggest direct effect on the industry has been the closure of The Erotic Review, the
largest review site for escorts in the US, and that of Backpage, the largest
advertising portal for escorts. Although Backpage was closed just prior to the
passage of FOSTA-SESTA, public awareness of the platform was a major impetus for
creating the bill in the first place. These two sites were often avoided by the highest
earning and best established providers, but were key resources for those at the
bottom of the market and those just entering the industry. Our larger research
project conducted just prior to the passage of FOSTA-SESTA illustrated that those
who advertise on Backpage had significantly lower earnings than those who did not,
suggesting they may have relied on a high volume of new clients, putting them at
greater risk for burnout, and yet they still were not making equivalent earnings to
those providers that avoid backpage, which was a somewhat stigmatized platform
among escorts who wished to differentiate themselves from the more affordable
segments of the market.
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Earnings Data:
Most marginal = greatest risk
Earnings Data:
Most marginal = greatest risk
Average monthly earnings of those who advertise on backpage.com
Never: $12,451 / Sometimes: $11,475 / Frequently: $7,750 / in the past: $7,762
Average hourly rate of those who advertise on TER
On TER: $414 / Not on TER: $446
Average monthly earnings by average session length
1-Hour: $6,729 / 2-Hours: $11,319 / 3+ Hours: $11,188 / Variable: $11,561
We found that those who have profiles on The Erotic Review had lower rates than
those who did not, but not necessarily lower earnings, which suggests that
reviewed providers depend on seeing a higher volume of clients than their non-
reviewed peers. Reviews are a divisive feature of online escorting, both a useful tool
for signaling legitimacy and an invasion of privacy from the perspective of providers.
However, many escorts relied heavily on The Erotic Review for their advertising,
particularly when they were just beginning to establish a client base. The reason
The Erotic Review was so central to the industry was that it contained profiles of
every escort ever reviewed, regardless of where they advertised, and so it was
essentially a one-stop-shop escorting mall, whereas advertising platforms have
limited selections by comparison, often barring down market providers through cost
barriers on expensive platforms, while up-market providers avoid cheap platforms
for fear of brand degradation. The loss of these two platforms then is most likely to
harm providers who are just starting their escorting businesses and those who
relied heavily on these platforms before the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, particularly if
their business model relied upon attracting a steady stream of new clients and
seeing a large number of clients for short and relatively inexpensive sessions.
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Earnings Data:
Most marginal = greatest risk
Earnings Data:
Most marginal = greatest risk
Average monthly earnings by frequency of giving discounts to favorite clients
Never: $13,875 / Rarely: $10,484 / Sometimes: $7,774 / Frequently: $7,143
Average monthly earnings by frequency of negotiating rates with clients
Never: $11,110 / Rarely: $9,357 / Sometimes: $7,111
Earnings by comfort turning down clients when I don't want to do something with them:
Rarely: $2,525 / Sometimes: $11,875 / Frequently: $10,245
Earnings by frequency of letting repeat clients take the lead during sessions
Never: $19,000 / Rarely: $10,205 / Sometimes: $10,656 / Frequently: $5,803
Earnings by frequency of negotiating unsafe sex for a price
Never: $11,027 / rarely: $6,022 / Sometimes: $8,100 / Frequently: $6,500
Our Pre-FOSTA-SESTA survey data suggest that providers in the hourly market earn
less on average than others and that this lower earning demographic tends to more
frequently compromise their personal autonomy with clients, presumably in order
to retain regulars or increase their revenue in times of need. Specifically, we found
that providers who more frequently negotiate their rates with clients, negotiate
unprotected sex, let regular clients take the lead during sessions, and feel
uncomfortable turning down clients who want to engage in acts that they do not
wish to or see clients that they would rather not, reported significantly lower
earnings than those who report less frequently having these experiences.
Additionally, those who reported the greatest concern over law enforcement also
had significantly lower earnings than providers who were less frequently concerned.
The same was true with concern for sexual health. Together, these findings are
suggestive of providers with lower earnings choosing to engage in riskier behaviors
for their mental, physical and sexual health out of economic need. And because
these providers are also those who were more dependent on new clients, one-hour
sessions, and the platforms that were closed by FOSTA-SESTA, it appears reasonable
to predict that they are experiencing economic hardship in response to the
disruption in the market caused by FOSTA-SESTA, even if they are not taking the
10
precautionary measures of more privileged escorts who can afford to reduce their
advertising and visibility until greater certainty returns to the market. These findings
suggest that such economic hardship and uncertainty in turn is associated with
reduced sex worker autonomy and greater health risks for both providers and clients
if economic needs are indeed driving more providers to negotiate unprotected sex to
receive supplementary payment or to appease regular clients whom they are now
more dependent on because of the difficulty of effectively attracting new clients in
the post FOSTA-SESTA market.
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Earnings Data:
Most marginal = greatest risk
Earnings Data:
Most marginal = greatest risk
Average monthly earnings of African American providers
African American: $5,675 / not African American: $10,728
Average hourly rates of African American providers
African American: $361 / not African American: $427
Average monthly earnings of transgender providers
Transgender: $2,750 / CIS-Female: $10,568
Average hourly rates of transgender providers
Transgender: $302 / CIS-Female: $424
Our survey responses and archival data recorded from escorts’ websites suggest that
African American providers both charge significantly lower rates than their non-black peers,
and report earning significantly less than non-black providers. The same is true of
transgender providers whose rates and earnings are lower still, suggesting that these two
populations may be particularly at risk of compromised autonomy stemming from the
pressures of inadequate earnings when struggling to consistently attract or sustain an
adequate client base and income stream.
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ConclusionConclusion
oIt seems unlikely that the FBI or local vice squads will mount large efforts to
track down individual independent escorts in large numbers.
oThe absence of such campaigns will allow the current cautionary stances
and fear to subside with time and for new advertising tools to start earning
the trust of providers and clients.
oFOSTA-SESTA has already caused harm to sex workers while there is no
evidence that it has significantly reduced sex trafficking.
oIn fact, given that the market is now more dispersed, it is more difficult for
law enforcement to identify sex trafficking than prior to FOSTA-SESTA
.
The FBI and local vice squads seem unlikely to mount large efforts to track down
individual independent escorts in large numbers, and eventually the absence of
such campaigns will allow the current cautionary stances and fear to subside and
for new overseas-based advertising tools to start earning the trust of providers and
clients. However, our data suggest FOSTA-SESTA has already caused harm to sex
workers while there is no evidence that it has reduced or discouraged sex
trafficking, its purported purpose. In fact, given that the market is now more
dispersed, it is likely more difficult for law enforcement to monitor for and identify
patterns in sex trafficking than it was prior to FOSTA-SESTA.
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Reach Out – We’d Love to ChatReach Out – We’d Love to Chat
Kathryn Hausbeck Korgan: kate.korgan@unlv.edu – 702.895.0446
Alex Nelson: nelson26@unlv.Nevada.edu
Antoinette Izzo: Izzo@unlv.Nevada.edu
WWW.EROTICENTREPRENEURS.COM
Kathryn Hausbeck Korgan: kate.korgan@unlv.edu – 702.895.0446
Alex Nelson: nelson26@unlv.Nevada.edu
Antoinette Izzo: Izzo@unlv.Nevada.edu
WWW.EROTICENTREPRENEURS.COM
13
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