Sex work, drug use, harm reduction and the internet

26 Nov 2019 11:30h - 13:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

‘I think the Internet provides a wealth of information to seek advice about the harms that you face being a human being, as well as to talk about stigmatised issues.’
– Mr Alex Cominos (Research ICT).

The session focused on sex work, harm, and the intersection between the two. The main topics revolved around how to ensure regulation regarding online sex work, drugs, and cybersecurity, that fosters less harm for sex workers, drug abusers, the LGBTI+ community, survivors of abuse, and human trafficking victims.

Ms Lola Hunt (Assembly 4) introduced one of the bills in the sex worker regulation which nominally seems like a beneficial regulation; the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). This bill holds platforms liable for content placed by third parties and prohibits any content that seem to facilitate or promote prostitution. As a result, we are seeing women, people of colour (PoC), members of the LGBTQI+ community, and sex workers banned from, denied access to, and erased from mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, and others.

Stressed throughout the discussion was the fact that harm reduction can mean different things for different people. It is important to listen to the people whom legislators, activists, and society are supposedly helping, in order to understand what is harmful for them, and also to find a solution. On the one hand, it involves knowledge, but it also means localising knowledge, so it is actually useful for communities. Harm reduction is always about finding different steps, steps that people can take into their own lives that will help them achieve the vision they have for their lives. Ultimately, it is about empowerment and helping people find solutions that are comfortable for them where they are right now, rather than focusing on a broader agenda of trying to abolish certain types of behaviours. Implementing blanket censoring leads to many problems being overlooked and important conversations being prevented.

The people who are punished the most are often the ones who have the least power. As an example, the differing US legislation on cocaine (associated with the rich) with lighter sentences, and crack cocaine (associated with the poorer strata of society and PoC) which is punished more severely, was brought to the table by Ms Maggie Mayhem (Harm Reducts). How does a specific group of people vulnerable to exploitation?

The session discussed a false dichotomy regarding drug use and sex work, that they are bad, and therefore deserve the consequences that they may face; and people who do not use drugs are by default good and therefore will experience health. These binary concepts do not accurately define the human experience when it comes to experiences and conditions which bring people to drug use and sex work.

Speakers argued that topics being presented together in legislation often have different roots and meanings. At the moment, there are different legal definitions between smuggling and trafficking, and there is a great deal of very interesting philosophical differences. If you are someone who is bringing a consensual worker across a border to work in a different country, it is considered to be smuggling and this scenario usually refers to male workers. A woman who is brought into a country is by default considered as being without agency, revealing a space of unquestioned bias.

With large scale platforms, it is of key importance to prevent broad sweeping policies based on hypothetical concerns and manufactured fear. Being aware that laws are enforced through racialised, gendered, and classed mechanisms, it is clear that the people who are going to face the harshest enforcement are always going to be the people who are likely to be more stigmatised and at the lower strata of society. In order to approach legislation regarding vulnerable groups of people, sex workers need to be offered a seat at the table and, more importantly, actively listened to.

By Darija Medić