Censorship and sex work: The realities of the modern-day sex worker

Online censorship has forced some sex workers in Montreal to navigate alternative means to attract clientele

Online censorship targetting sex workers has put the community in harm’s way. Graphic Stefania Bodea

Montreal is a vibrant metropolis for a variety of reasons. An inclusive student-friendly hub, it is a city dripping with opportunity and possibility; rich with talent and pizzazz.

But underneath the surface, not everything is as progressive and free as it seems. One community, in particular, continues to face backlash for seeking validation as a paying profession. 

In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, sex workers in Montreal are struggling to make a dime from the safety of their homes due to online censorship policies, which prevent them from selling their services.

Under the 2014 Bill C-36: Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), sex work was officially made illegal in Canada. 

Receiving sexual services in exchange for money is a criminal offence according to the bill, and those convicted may be sentenced anywhere between 18 months and five years in prison. 

Basically, Bill C-36 only protects those who advertise their own services, but advertising others’ sexual services is deemed illegal. Advertising sexual services in “print media, on websites or in locations that offer sexual services for sale, such as erotic massage parlours or strip clubs” remains illegal as well. 

Online publishers and administrators who run platforms and websites containing content that advertises the exchange of sexual services for money can also be charged for advertising sexual services. This is enforceable if the publishers and online administrators are aware of the content up for sale on their digital platforms.

Elizabeth Weisz has worked in the sex industry for nearly five years in both Montreal and Ottawa. As someone who relies heavily on platforms like Twitter and Instagram for branding purposes and advertising, her business has suffered immensely due to online censorship. 

“It’s become harder to book tours, advertise my availability, and sell porn I’ve begun to create during the pandemic,” said Weisz. “For example, when I first started on Twitter, I could post nudity. Now, if I post nude-coloured lingerie, I can be shadowbanned for up to a week, making me invisible to my followers.”

Weisz gave a recent example, where her Twitter account got locked after she uploaded an image of her lying in bed while wearing a thong. 

“[In the last few weeks], many sex workers decided to completely delete their Twitter feeds because Twitter had begun deleting sex workers’ accounts at random for old posts that are no longer allowed,” Weisz added. According to her, four of her colleagues lost their Twitter accounts—two of whom cannot reopen new ones. One was even forced to change their name and rebrand entirely. 

“Although there is an exemption that states that sex workers cannot be prosecuted for advertising their own sexual services, it’s almost impossible for a sex worker to advertise their own sexual services without engaging a third party to help, which automatically criminalizes the work,” said Jenn Clamen, the mobilization and communications coordinator at Stella, l’amie de Maimie, an advocacy and support organization for sex workers’ rights in Montreal. She also serves as part-time faculty in Concordia University’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute and Women’s Studies Department.   

Examples of third parties websites include hosting sites, like Zoom, Skype and OnlyFans—which have become increasingly popular. Translating websites and advertising sites, like Craigslist and Reddit, also make the cut.

Weisz claims that these restrictions took force following the creation of U.S. laws such as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or FOSTA-SESTA.

In April 2018, President Donald Trump signed FOSTA-SESTA into effect. This law made it illegal for online services to knowingly assist, facilitate or support sex trafficking on social media and various other online platforms. This law gained attention following allegations that Backpage, a classified advertising site, was facilitating sex trafficking online.

However, in an attempt to curb sex trafficking, lawmakers have since put sex workers in harm’s way. Its ramifications affect sex workers outside of the U.S., like Weisz and countless others. 

“Censorship impacts sex working businesses, but also sends a message to the public that there is something shameful about sex work that should not be visible and that societies need to hide,” said Clamen. “This kind of messaging impacts not only on the individual health, safety, and dignity of individual sex workers, but the capacity of societies overall to create non-discriminatory, healthy, and inclusive services, policies, and practices.”

“Our mission is based on an empowerment model where building sex worker leadership is fundamental to the social change we want to see.” — Jenn Clamen

“Some sex workers have moved online, but many cannot and will not because of safety and confidentiality issues, and because the technology is not available to everyone,” Clamen added. 

“Many sex workers have been changing their services to adapt to the current context by offering services they had not before—sexting, online Zoom dating, selling photos. Sex workers are very innovative people!”

Needless to say, the irony of it all is that even if sex workers are selling their own services legally, the purchase of their services remains illegal. Hence, widespread online censorship is largely in part because of these legal consequences.

Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, updated its community guidelines in February. Under Section 15 of the platform’s objectionable content clause—on the Sexual Exploitation of Adults—Facebook does not allow content that “facilitates, encourages or coordinates sexual encounters or commercial sexual services between adults such as prostitution or escort services.” Nudity is not permitted either unless it is considered art, or for specific circumstances. 

The recent updates to the terms of use of most social media platforms are no mere coincidence. These changes have been in effect since the birth of FOSTA-SESTA. 

For example, many forms of content related to pole dancing can get censored on Instagram if it comes from the accounts of sex workers.

The problem lies within the technicalities stated by the social media hub. If creators or celebrities post videos of pole dancing for the sake of “pole fitness,” or for music videos, the content often remains visible to viewers. If sex workers do the same, however, their content is subject to getting shadowbanned. 

Similarly, Tumblr, a popular online blogging and networking service, banned all forms of adult content in 2018 following allegations of advertised child pornography. 

As a result, options to garner a steady clientele have become scarce for sex workers today. In Montreal especially, the ramifications of the exemption from advertising could be harmful.

“In order to avoid detection of law enforcement—for fear of being outed, losing custody of one’s children, losing one’s home, and the many other consequences of criminalization—sex workers are not able to openly advertise in a clear and meaningful way,” said Clamen. “This has huge impacts for the way sex workers can work and the safety mechanisms sex workers can employ.”

Stella, l’amie de Maimie was founded in 1995. It aims to improve sex workers’ quality of life, working conditions, and their capacity to live and work safely and with dignity. 

“Our mission is based on an empowerment model where building sex worker leadership is fundamental to the social change we want to see,” said Clamen.

According to her, sex workers are constantly being affected by online censorship, but not only because of the social and legal consequences they risk encountering. The stigma typically associated with sex workers affects their ability to be open about their work, thus, making it harder to earn money.  

Professor Francine Tremblay is a part-time professor at Concordia University. She has done extensive research on sex work in her dissertation and her book, Organizing for Sex Workers’ Rights in Montréal: Resistance and Advocacy.

She worries that the current pandemic will leave many sex workers in a state of despair.

“With the pandemic, the most vulnerable sex workers in Canada depend on their clients. Many sex workers do not declare revenue; why would they? They do not exist or are [seen as] criminals.”

Tremblay was herself a sex worker back in the late 1960s to the late 1980s. According to her, transitioning away from her old profession into a new field was not simple in the least. 

“It took me over twenty years to make a decent salary, and this is after spending over 80,000 dollars on my education. The world outside of the industry is far from being safe. Many of us need to hide, and once out of the industry, many of us lose independence.”

If this was the scenario some 30 years ago, when digital advertising wasn’t available, one can only imagine how much more limiting sex work has become with censorship and criminalization of sex work in general—especially during a pandemic.

“It has been very scary navigating sex work during a pandemic.” — Elizabeth Weisz

Legislations like FOSTA-SESTA in the U.S., the Canadian PCEPA and the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada guidelines have made it increasingly difficult for sex workers in Canada to get paid. 

“Some platforms, such as PayPal, have made it their mission to find sex workers and seize money,” Clamen added. “Visa and Mastercard, as well as other credit card providers have also often removed access for sex workers by cutting off support for the website and platforms sex workers use.”

This has forced many to rely on cryptocurrencies and various other obscure forms of payment. For most, these methods are not necessarily accessible. 

According to Clamen, this has forced some sex workers to reveal their legal names and addresses online in order to be able to receive direct deposits and mail-in cheques from clients. In doing so, their lives are being put at risk of exposure.

“It has been very scary navigating sex work during a pandemic,” said Weisz.

According to her, many sex workers hoped that the pandemic would be over by the end of last summer. By then, many had to cut bookings and had to come up with new ways to screen clients. “Unfortunately, many of us have been cut off from our regular client base.”

Clamen adds that the crackdown on human trafficking has created a form of hysteria around the notion of sex work, which has negatively impacted the presence sex workers hope to achieve online. 

The Stella coordinator worries that this increased surveillance may push sex workers to work in unsafe conditions.

“Regulations on websites and the internet in general risks putting a lot of sex workers out of work and into increased poverty. Most recently, the hysteria around Pornhub and the subsequent parliamentary discussions and bill proposals in the Senate risk curtailing the privacy rights of sex workers and clients.” 

When asked whether she thinks concern over human trafficking will continue to criminalize sex work both online and offline, Weisz’s response was less than enthusiastic.

“I feel like as long as [human trafficking and sex work] are conflated as one, this will always be an issue,” she said.

Weisz believes that if sex work were decriminalized, many sex workers would be more likely to go to police if they thought their colleagues were being trafficked. Sadly, legal restrictions have stopped many sex workers from seeking help. It could result in their arrest. 

“From every sex worker I’ve spoken with, none of them want someone to be doing this work if they don’t want to,” she added. “This is why we advocate for decriminalization, so that there can be services out there for those that want to exit even if they entered the industry voluntarily at some point.”

Sex work advocacy groups in Canada, like Stella, Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, The Safe Harbour Outreach Project, and PEERS Victoria continue to light their beacons of support for sex workers’ rights to be acknowledged by the federal government. 

Decriminalizing sex work would likely open doors to safer practices for the sex working community, and would in fact lessen the criminality rate as a whole. But until Parliament addresses this notion, the fight for sex workers’ rights lives on.

This article originally appeared in The Gender & Sexuality Issue, published March 10, 2021.