Fosta-Sesta and The Art Of Not Listening

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This is sort of a “guilty obligation” comic.  :-p

By which I mean, it makes me furious that our pundit class – particularly those who pat themselves on the back for their commitment to free speech – spends an enormous amount of time worrying about the threat to free speech of wealthy campus speakers facing rude student protesters, while ignoring far more dire threats to marginalized groups, like undocumented immigrants, prisoners, and sex workers.

But then I had the thought, “have I actually done any cartoons focusing on free speech threats to  undocumented immigrants, prisoners, and sex workers?” A line of thought which eventually led me to this cartoon. (Doing cartoons about free speech and undocumented immigrants, and free speech and prisoners, remains on my “to do” list.)

As a Democrat, it’s embarrassing to me that every Democratic senator aside from Ron Wyden voted for Sesta.  It’s a terrible law, that assaults free speech on the internet and hurts those it claims to help. And because the group it’s attacking is so marginalized, who knows when or if the damages will ever be repaired.

Really, I could have done this same cartoon (or a very similar one) about either prisoners or undocumented immigrants. A danger of putting any group outside the law is, there’s very little motivation for politicians to think about, or care about, their well-being. That’s why the free speech rights of sex workers is so easy to crush – while the free speech rights of people like Christina Hoff Sommers and Charles Murray, while important, are not in any substantive danger.

And that’s what the “kicker” panel below the strip is about. The problem isn’t that politicians don’t know better. It’s that, even if they did know better, they still wouldn’t have any incentive to care.

When I see pundits get into a free speech panic over Charles Murray being protested, while people actually being shut up by the law get ignored, it’s hard not to see this as what Noah Berlatskycalls “chattering-class solidarity.”

When pundits denounce student speakers, they are engaged in a kind of chattering-class solidarity. Free speech, for pundits, often is indistinguishable from a call for free speech for pundits. They are saying, in so many words, People like me should be able to talk without interruption from people like you.

Pundits can easily imagine themselves being in Charles Murray’s shoes, but can’t imagine being an undocumented immigrant, a sex worker, or a prisoner. And that makes the very mild threat to Murray’s free speech seem much more urgent, to pundits, than the objectively much greater threat to the free speech of marginalized people.

From a technical standpoint, what worried me the most, drawing this cartoon, was establishing character recognition. The cartoon simply wouldn’t work if the senator in the fourth panel wasn’t recognizable as the same character from the previous three panels.

That’s why his head is odd. In the original drawing (see below), I drew him with the same globe-shaped head the other characters have. For me, globehead style is a very easy, natural and fun way to draw characters. But I decided to change his head shape entirely, to make it easier for readers to pick up on him being the same character. That’s why his head is shaped like a finger in the final cartoon.

I also wanted to draw sex workers that looked more like real-life sex workers I’ve seen interviewed on TV, than like the sex workers on TV dramas – in other words, not 100% young, white and thin.


This cartoon has four main panels, plus a tiny “kicker” panel below the bottom of the cartoon.

Panel 1

There is a large caption saying “THEN“.

Three women — one wearing a hoodie, one wearing a leather jacket, one wearing a pony tail and a “casual nice” office outfit – are talking to a middle-aged white man at a desk, who is wearing a vest and necktie. The women are of various ages and races, and are all looking at the dude in the necktie, who is a Senator. The Senator is holding up a finger in front of Pony Tail in a “wait just a sec” gesture, while he turns in the opposite direction and speaks to someone off-panel.

PONY TAIL: Senator, if the Fosta-Sesta bill becomes law, it’ll harm sex workers like us – the people this bill is supposed to protect!
SENATOR: Julie, bring me a sandwich, please.

Panel 2

The same set-up, but now Hoodie is speaking.

HOODIE: We use the internet to avoid pimps and screen clients. Fosta-Sesta will censor all that. Some of us will be forced onto the streets.
SENATOR: Make it roast beef.

Panel 3

Same set up, but now Leather Jacket speaks, looking angry and holding her hands extended, palms up, in a “come ON!” sort of gesture. The Senator is now holding a sandwich, which he eyes warily.

LEATHER: Fosta-Sensa will make more vulnerable to predators of all kinds. This bill will help pimps and traffickers!
SENATOR: Julie, there’s no mayo on this, is there?


There is a large caption saying “NOW“.

The Senator is pictured on his own, reading a newspaper. We can see a huge headline on the front page – “Report: Fosta-Sesta Helping Pimps and Traffickers.” The Senator, with a mildly distressed expression, has turned his head and speaks directly to the viewer. (The newspaper’s masthead says it’s called “The Useful Trope.”)

SENATOR: No one could have known this would happen!


The three women are again talking to the senator, the women looking stern, the Senator responding cheerfully.

HOODIE: So NOW will you listen to sex workers before making laws about us?
SENATOR: Definitely not.

This entry posted in Cartooning & comics, Elections and politics, Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc., Sex work, porn, etc. Bookmark the permalink. 

11 Responses to Fosta-Sesta and The Art Of Not Listening

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    This prompted me to look up Fosta-Sesta. Hm. I find troublesome anything that regulates content on the Internet. I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the problem that caused this to rocket through Congress is that the vast majority of the people who you point out are hurt by it – sex workers – are in fact engaging in illegal conduct. Now, you can argue that said conduct should NOT be illegal, and I have sympathy for that viewpoint, but the fact remains and has influence. They are a marginal group because they are a criminal class. People are generally not sympathetic to opposing legislation on the basis that it harms criminals.

  2. 2
    desipis says:

    RonF, the main criticism I’ve seen is about the effect on people doing legal things (e.g. amateur porn) that will block by major service providers (e.g. Tumblr via Apple) because those service providers need to avoid the risk of liability.

    Without the protections of section 230, the providers have a legal duty to police the content of their site (as they become a publisher of all content), and while they might be able to practically identify content at a broad level (e.g. sexual vs non-sexual content), they lack the resources to do so at the level the law makes distinctions (e.g. freely created content vs pictures of trafficked people) at the scale and cost levels that they operate.

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    People are generally not sympathetic to opposing legislation on the basis that it harms criminals.

    But, within reasonable limits, they should be.

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    Also, Ron, isn’t what you said pretty much what I said in the post?

    Really, I could have done this same cartoon (or a very similar one) about either prisoners or undocumented immigrants. A danger of putting any group outside the law is, there’s very little motivation for politicians to think about, or care about, their well-being. That’s why the free speech rights of sex workers is so easy to crush – while the free speech rights of people like Christina Hoff Sommers and Charles Murray, while important, are not in any substantive danger.

  5. 5
    Ampersand says:

    Zag, your comment doesn’t seem more than trivially related to the cartoon; it seems to be more about “Alas” in general. I therefore moved it to the open thread.

  6. 6
    Kelly Keck says:

    Ron F, I think there’s more nuance than “people aren’t sympathetic because it harms criminals.” There are illegal activities for which society seems happy to brand someone as a criminal for life, and those that people are far more willing to overlook.

    Sometimes, it actually makes sense based on the level of harm (not a whole lot of sympathy for murderers), but a lot of the time it seems a lot more related to existing power structures, or as an excuse for other biases. We seem, for example, much more willing to ruin the lives of sex workers, especially if they’re trans or non-white, than we are to impose even minor consequences on powerful men who assault and harass women.

    As another example, I know multiple people with DUIs. One has multiple DUIs and has done jail time. The other, I hope, learned his lesson with the first. Their lives continued pretty much normally after they served their sentences. The first was allowed to serve his sentence on weekends to keep his job. They haven’t been shunned or ostracized from society, or unable to find work.

    And yet, they put every person on the road with them in danger, while you can’t say the same about sex workers.

    That is, I don’t think there’s a consistent moral basis for a lack of sympathy toward “criminals.” I think labeling people as a criminal class is something we do with people we already view as disposable, as a justification.

    The other bizarre thing about FOSTA/SESTA is that the ostensible purpose was to help one small subset of sex workers, those who are being trafficked. It doesn’t even do that. All the risks it imposes on people doing sex work voluntarily also apply to those who are being trafficked.

    Arguably, it’s worse for people being trafficked because, by definition, they’re not there voluntarily. A non-trafficked sex worker can decide that sex work is too dangerous and, at least in theory, try to do something else. (Whether they realistically *have* other options is another question.)

  7. 7
    Kelly Keck says:

    This is a first-person account of someone who was trafficked by an abusive boyfriend, explaining how Back Page probably saved her life.

  8. 8
    Malparkage says:

    I think this misses the mark a bit. The critics we heard from were largely higher-end escort types with social media followings, whereas the supporters of the (obviously wrongheaded, bad) bill were concerned with the sex workers we don’t see because they’re currently being trafficked.

    The theory was that the “sex worker advocate” class we heard from before the bill became law was unrepresentative. I’ve read enough “I escort to pay for my masters’” articles to see their point. There are a variety of people who claim to be standing up for a variety of classes of sex worker, and many have different policy solutions, so you really do have to choose who to listen to.

    That said, I don’t think the bill helped the trafficked either.

  9. 9
    KellyK says:

    I’m not sure having a social media following makes someone a well-off sex worker or immune to being trafficked. (Based on the fact that I know one sex worker with 5000 Twitter followers who’s homeless, and another who’s popular on Facebook but broke, despite having another business. And I only know these people *through* social media.)

    The criticism that someone who chooses sex work isn’t representative of someone who’s being trafficked is valid, but the answer in that case is to talk to people who *have been* trafficked to get an idea what would help them. (Some of them are the very same advocates being criticized as too well off to be representative.) We may not have access to people currently being trafficked (though we’d have more if harm reduction efforts weren’t also being criminalized), but people who have been in that situation and gotten out are the next best source of info.

    I think we’ve already pre-emptively put sex workers in general into the category of “people we don’t need to listen to,” and the justifications just change based on the specific sex workers. If they’re there voluntarily and doing okay, then they don’t know what it’s like to be trafficked and also they’re criminals, so hell with them. If they’re poor but not trafficked, then they’re probably too lazy or not smart enough to get legal work, and they’ve screwed up their own lives too much to be listened to. Again, criminals, so any harm we choose to do to them is their fault. If they are being trafficked (and it’s so blatantly obvious that we don’t assign them to the other categories anyway), then they’re sweet innocent victims we should rescue, but they’re confused about what would actually help them, so we don’t need to listen because we know best.

    Maybe that’s over cynical of me. If I’d seen criticism of sex work advocates or support of FOSTA/SESTA specifically making the argument that relatively better-off sex workers are wrong about what people being trafficked need (ideally supported by someone who had been trafficked or some other actual data), it’d be easier for me to believe this was a good faith but ill-informed effort to help trafficked people, rather than a paternalistic attempt to *look like* they’re helping trafficked people, without much regard for what those people want or need.

  10. 11
    Sebastian H says:

    RonF, the Fosta/Sesta thing is a lot about framing. It was FRAMED as being for the protection of sex trafficking victims, but its ENFORCEMENT is against speech platforms.

    The problem is that the way it was drafted opens up platforms to enormous liability if they ever allow communications which can be construed as ‘soliciting’ for sex. This has already caused me to have experienced repeated short term bans on facebook for being only slightly more open about my sexuality than I am here. (Identifying as openly gay and talking about what you like in partners is considered by facebook as “soliciting for sex”. I’ve been banned for a picture of two guys embracing and kissing while fully clothed). Is facebook overreacting? Maybe, but they definitely don’t want to test it on a multi-million dollar lawsuit, so if they are overreacting it is a textbook ‘chilling of free speech’ case. Further, the framing makes it so that the people most able to contest it court under free speech grounds (Apple, Facebook, Tumblr) are unwilling to do so, because they don’t want to be branded as the “pro sex trafficking” advocates. Its a really nasty thing.