If you have been on the internet for more than a week, you have by now heard about the big deal interview that adult film actress Stormy Daniels gave to Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes. After months of rumor, second hand stories, and speculation, we finally have heard from Stormy herself as she describes her single sexual encounter with Donald Trump back in 2006. It was a consensual encounter that Daniels says she regrets now, and she was quick to differentiate her experience and work with the growing openness around discussing sexual violence perpetrated by powerful men associated with the #metoo movement.
“This is not #metoo” said Daniels in her interview with Cooper.
This is not just an important distinction made as a way to center the horrors of sexual violence, but also an acknowledgement of the realm of labor Daniels operates in. While she may be a star in the porn industry, she is a sex worker who sells her labor in the form of some kind of sexual activity. This fact has been used as way to attack her from the right, with many of the chuds who make up the MAGA coalition calling her a “whore” and a “slut” (which she hilariously reacted to on twitter saying “yes”.) The doomed liberal attempt to use her as a cudgel to show the hypocrisy of Republicans also wallows in a deeply problematic view towards her sex work is something inherently sinful. To mainstream discourse, either left or right, sex worker is a tragic and sinful act.
So it should not be a surprise that in the same week the political media has been abuzz with excitement around this interview with a pornographic megastar, the Senate has passed by a vote of 97–2 the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA. As with most bills that get nearly unanimous bipartisan support that don’t involve naming post offices, it’s terrible. For a bill that in attempting to protect sex workers, it will lead to less safe working conditions, making them more prone to exploitation, and disempowers independent sex workers, requiring them to work with an agency or pimp in order to sell their labor.
From The Verge: “The bill would hold websites liable for hosting sex tracking content by making a change to a key part of the Communications Decency Act. Some free-internet activists — as well as some tech company representatives — have argued that the bill places an unrealistic burden on small website operators, and will ultimately chill online speech.” SESTA would hold the platform owners responsible for trafficking activity that takes place on their website, as opposed to the previous standard that limits their legal liability.
Soon after the bill’s passage, Craigslist announced that they will being shutting down the personals section of their website. This is after Craigslist voluntary closed the “erotic services” section of the website in 2010 as an aid to fight sex tracking. This may have been a mistake, as noted by journalist Allison Bass in Huff Post, because a study from Baylor and West Virginia universities found that the existence and use of the erotic services page led to a 17 percent reduction in female homicide. By giving sex workers low cost or free tools to advertise online as opposed to soliciting in public, sex workers can screen clients, work independently, and communicate with fellow sex workers safely. SESTA will make it even harder for sex workers to achieve this level of autonomy without a radical change in the laws concerning sex work.
If the moral case is not enough, there is a technocratic case as well. By arming sex workers with tools like the Craigslist personals and erotic services pages, over 2,000 murders were prevented every year. According to the previously mentioned study, this would require over 200,000 new police officers, at a cost of 20 billion dollars a year. Besides the astronomic cost, putting more cops on the street will add to the general psychic stress put on communities of the most disenfranchised by police, working class people of color. By putting workers in control using technology in a non-profit motive way (Craigslist was started by literal communists), sex workers lives were saved for practically no cost to society.
This trend of worker disempowerment follows the ever present trend of inequality. The level of sex worker whose lives will be harmed by SESTA are not at the same level of fame and notoriety as Stormy Daniels. Daniels won’t be caught up in a sting sending her to jail because she had to work as a street walker to help pay her rent and feed her children. Daniels won’t have to carry a weapon to defend herself when she meets with a new client. Most importantly, Daniels’s children won’t be woken up to the news that their mother didn’t come home last night because she was murdered by a serial killer, a class of criminal who have always targeted sex workers from Jack the Ripper to the Green River Killer. Poor and working class sex workers, regardless of gender identity, will pay that price.
This is the kind of issue leftists of all stripes must organize around. Sex workers operate at the intersection of some of the most malicious forces in society: worker exploitation, patriarchy, crime, and race. In capitalism, almost all of us have to sell our labor to survive. So while many liberals tweet about #stormydanielsday and objectify her physically and politically, it is the job of the left to do what liberals seem unwilling to do: stand with workers of all kinds where they are, not just when it is politically convenient.
If we are interested in fighting tracking, there are numerous ways, most notably lifting the material conditions for all workers, fighting the viciousness of capitalism, and decriminalizing sex work. These workers don’t need us to save them. They need us to respect them, give them the tools to survive, and act in solidarity with their struggle.