Chapter One: The Powerful
Do you remember on October 7th, 2016, a mere month before the 2016 elections when the Washington Post dropped a video and accompanying article of then presidential candidate Donald Trump and Billy Bush having a vulgar conversation about women back in 2005? Do you remember how Trump said,
I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.
Unsurprisingly, this behavioral assessment made by Trump himself exactly matches some of the 25 allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual assault and rape lobbed against our current president. There’s Jill Harth, who says that in 1993 she was attacked by Trump in one of the children’s bedrooms at Mar-a-Lago when he tried to rape her and forcibly kissed her on the lips. Then there was Cathy Heller who reported that in 1997 Trump grabbed her and forcibly kissed her. Same thing happened to Temple Taggart in 1997, Jennifer Murphy and Rachel Crooks in 2005, Jessica Drake and her two friends in 2006 and Summer Zervos in 2007. And these are just the ones we know about.
The point is that we live in an environment that is openly hostile to women. Our President is a rapist; there are two members of the Supreme Court who have been credibly accused of sexual harassment and/or rape; and then there are/were people like Roger Ailes, Jeffrey Epstein, Rob Porter, R. Kelly, Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and so so many more who for years were, and in a lot of unnamed cases continue to be, immune to any sort of real, lasting justice because we do not care about or value the experience of non-cis men. But it isn’t just about the justice system and it isn’t just about rape; this cultural toxicity travels through every single bit of our society and poisons just about everything, including but by no means limited to, education and art.
Chapter Two: The Law
A few months back my podcast cohost Jessy and I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Mistress/Master Leigh for Welcome To My Vagina. During our conversation, Leigh spoke to us about FOSTA/SESTA, a combined House and Senate bill that was designed to try to curb child sex trafficking but was worded so incredibly loosely that it threatens to change the internet as we know it – and it is already happening. What started out as a push to get the selling of underage children – primarily girls – off of Backpage.com turned into an all-out assault on the consensual sex work industry, forcing sex workers offline and therefore separating them from their number one means of safety: the ability to vet their clients prior to an in-person encounter. As we know, there is a difference between consensual and non-consensual sex work, and writing legislation without the input of those intimately aware of that difference – sex workers themselves as well as activists and advocates for sex workers – is highly problematic. It also ends up doing a disservice to victims of sex trafficking themselves. Backpage wasn’t the only place where they were advertised, it was just perhaps the most accessible. Now those same people who were advertised there are being advertised elsewhere. But on what websites? I don’t really know.
Although the safety of sex workers and sex trafficking victims is of course the highest priority here (and both those populations have been done a serious disservice by this law), there is also another way that FOSTA/SESTA fails us, a way that it fails all of us. What FOSTA/SESTA did so effectively was it poked a gaping hole in what was known as the “safe harbors” rule of the internet, AKA Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This is usually regarded as one of the most important pieces of internet legislation ever created. It reads,
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another content provider.
According to Aja Romano of Vox, “Section 230 has allowed the internet to thrive on user-generated content without holding platforms and ISPs responsible for whatever those users might create.” But FOSTA/SESTA creates an exception to Section 230 that shifts responsibility when it comes to advertisements for prostitution – including consensual sex work – from third party users to the websites themselves. The goal of the bill is ostensibly to make the policing of sex trafficking rings easier, although to be honest I am not entirely sure how this has that effect. However, the wording of the legislation is so sweeping and so vague that many websites immediately removed whole swaths of their services. Have you been wondering where the personal ads on Craigslist went? Or all of the porn that used to live on Tumblr? Websites across the internet have been forced to preemptively remove or censor tons of content before they get mired in costly lawsuits that puts them out of business. Keep in mind this is not because there is necessarily advertisements for sex work on all of these sites, but because monitoring every corner of their sites is simply too difficult and too costly. The onus is too big. So now anything that can be perceived as even vaguely pornographic gets tossed.
Chapter Three: The Creators
Have you seen our vulva? She is very cute, with giant unmatching eyeballs and beautiful long lashes. Marvel at her in all her glory. Isn’t she great? We think so. Unfortunately, the internet under FOSTA/SESTA does not agree.
This is where the issues with education and art that I spoke of earlier come in. What Jessy and I are working tirelessly to do through our podcast, and what Jessy has worked hard on for over five years with her YouTube series of the same name, is to use humor to educate people about topics considered taboo. This has included, but is certainly not limited to, interviews with a woman who suffers from endometriosis, the CEO of a wellness website, an incredible doula, a Puerto Rican trans-activist, as well as conversations about body hair, labiaplasty, the word hysteria and, you guessed it, the fact that our president is 100% a rapist. And what we want to do is to continue to create content and to broaden our audience because what we are doing matters. There are important conversations that are not happening in public and a gaping hole in our education system through which sex ed has plummeted. And this all effects everyone but it effects the marginalized more. Women, people of color, the impoverished, the LGBTQ community are not getting the information that we need through public resources and so the private sector is working hard to fill in the void. But FOSTA/SESTA is standing there, right in the way. How? Let me tell you how it has effected me and Jessy.
Take another look at our vulva. She is anatomically correct (minus the eyes) and she is a cartoon. She is not pornographic, or vulgar, or overtly sexual. She is simply a drawing of body part that more than half of the population has, a body part that is misunderstood and called by the wrong name, a body part on which heaps and heaps of shame are piled. And for as much as having a vulva has worked against us as individuals for so long, having a vulva as a logo is making our ability to reach more people and make some money off the hours of work we put in seemingly impossible. So far, we have not been allowed to pay Instagram to promote our podcast because our logo goes against their new community guidelines. Just to make this clear we cannot give Instagram money to broaden our reach because, under FOSTA/SESTA, our logo is vulgar. We also cannot give Spotify money to play our trailer unless we lose the vulva and “vaginal flatulence,” their words not mine. This leaves me wondering where they stand on anal flatulence, whether they have an in-house expert to distinguish between the two and whether anyone at Spotify has ever attended a yoga class. And just today Zazzle returned the money we sent them to pay for a few beer steins that we ordered because
the product contains a design that includes adult content…Zazzle will not fulfill orders of merchandise that may be viewed as pornographic, obscene and/or contain nudity that is not artistic in nature.
Put aside the fact that we ordered exactly 3 steins – one for each of us and one for our awesome producer, Cait. What Zazzle has done here aside from censor us, was that they became the arbiter of what is considered art, what is considered pornographic and what is considered obscene. Is our vulva not art because it is anatomically correct? Or is it not art because it depicts female genitalia? What is Zazzle’s definition of obscenity? And if someone happens to be turned on by a cartoon vulva with eyes, what’s the damn problem? No one is getting hurt here. No one is getting trafficked. And you know what else? No one is getting PAID. Not Instagram, not Spotify, not Zazzle and certainly not us.
And yeah, it’s frustrating, but it is also dangerous. Because as I said before, people need the information that we and thousands of others are providing and they need to be able to find it and with the way all this is going, that is becoming more and more difficult. And there will be people – because of lack of access to an income – who will be forced out of this field and that will have real consequences. Because let’s be honest, our schools are not teaching proper sex education and the information coming from our president, many of our elected officials and “news” analysts on TV is oftentimes wrong. The internet is supposed to be a place that can be used by the masses to educate ourselves and others. FOSTA/SESTA is making that increasingly difficult.
Chapter Four: This is all one fight
It might seem from the outside that this is all disconnected. What does Welcome To My Vagina have to do with president Trump? What does an unfilled order for a few vulva-decorated beer steins have to do with child sex trafficking? Honestly, everything.
This is all a story of power: who has it and who doesn’t. Donald Trump can post whatever he wants online because everything he does is considered “news worthy” and therefore operates above the law that all of the rest of us live under. FOSTA/SESTA has no impact on him. And it’s true, that a lot of children who are trafficked are targeted online and then sold online and that is really fucked up. I wish it didn’t happen. And I wish we could come up with a better way to keep kids safe. One step towards achieving that is through access to information. Kids, and adults, need to be able to find community. And they need to be trusted with the truth. Kids can learn to protect themselves from predators by learning what sorts of things to look for. And that information can be taught to them online, through trusted sources that are made easily available. There are a lot of other things that can be taught online. As I said earlier, we live in a society that is toxic to women – one of the ways it is toxic is that women are kept uneducated about their own bodies and are taught that they exist primarily to be consumed by others and to make babies. That is simply not true and we need access to counter narratives and imagery. We need to see more vulvas and we need to hear more queefs. Vulvas are beautiful and queefs, like farts, are fucking hilarious and I stand by that.
I guess in summation it just feels like a lot of times the most important things get swept under the rug. FOSTA/SESTA is potentially one of the most crucial, free-speech impacting legislative changes of our lifetimes and no one knows anything about it. But you will. Because it’s coming for you. It’s coming for all of us and it feels like we are completely powerless to stop it.