In this article, we discuss the founding of Cypher Sex in response to the 2018 US-based bill FOSTA/SESTA and describe the processes we adopted to create the first two digital self-defence guides for sex workers. Additionally, we discuss the importance of creating new localised guides that consider local sex workers' specific needs and self-defence strategies for the particular legal and social context where they operate.
FOSTA/SESTA: Censorship in Disguise
On 11 April 2018, then-United States President Donald Trump signed a combination of two bills, the "Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act" (FOSTA) and "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" (SESTA), into Public Law No: 115-164, more commonly referred to as FOSTA/SESTA. While this law was passed under the guise of fighting sex trafficking (and politically justified The Department of Justice's seizure of Backpage.com, despite the fact that it had already happened five days earlier), FOSTA/SESTA made an exception to Section 230, a law (originally part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which was a codified form of the Communications Act of 1934) that generally provides immunity for website platforms concerning third-party content. FOSTA/SESTA's stated aim is "to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to clarify that section 230 of such Act does not prohibit the enforcement against providers and users of interactive computer services of Federal and State criminal and civil law relating to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking and for other purposes". As Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, while Section 230 does provide legal protection for providers from their user's actions and statements, it does not protect an individual user's actions and statements online and does not protect companies that violate federal criminal law, such as is the case with the "sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking."
While most of these platforms now explicitly prohibit escort and similar services, Paypal's Acceptable Use Policy, for example, additionally prohibits "certain sexually oriented materials" and "items that are considered obscene". As Subha Wijesiriwardena wrote for GenderIT in 2019: "The language around 'obscenity' forms one of the key legal bases for censorship in many countries; the idea seems to originate from colonial-era laws around obscenity which aimed to criminalise sexual expression and sexuality-related material (which could include sexuality-related educational information) as it was considered 'harmful' to society," not to mention criminalising forms of sexual behaviour. This, in turn, not only directly affected sex workers' safety and ability to work online but, through the sexualisation of queer content and more, has had long-term ripple effects on the online representation of sex-positive and queer cultural activities more broadly.
Anti-Prohibitionism and Harm Reduction
In the fall of 2018, queer feminist hacktivists and net artists from squats and collectives all over Europe gathered at XM24, an established squatted and self-managed social centre in Bologna, Italy, that would be evicted just one year later. During this edition of the Eclectic Tech Carnival (/ETC), an attempt was made at creating a network of sex workers, ex-sex workers and allies "in order to create a permanent working group looking at sex work and online security". While many participants in this session already had a good approach to online self-defence, some solutions suggested in the workshop could not be applied everywhere. For example, acquiring anonymous phone numbers was possible in some countries but not in Italy, where an ID card is required to buy a SIM card. In the UK, some forms of sex work are legal, but users must submit a passport to use many online platforms. In another example, someone had thought of a solution to avoid being outed as a sex worker online that increased the risk of stalking by clients. While a working group on sex work and online security was not born immediately after, the complexity of localised contexts became clear.
Anti-prohibition-ism becomes a much more multifaceted and essential concept when organising events full of people cultivating an awareness of what risky activities could entail for themselves and others with the aim of minimising possible issues that could arise. Harm reduction is based on empathy, complicity and solidarity: we try to create safer spaces where we can enact our desires – however risky – while limiting possible damages through informed consent, collaboration and watching out for each other.
This made us reflect on our overlapping professional experiences developing websites for sex workers, digital security training for human rights groups and organisations, and our personal experiences as kinky, queer, polyamorous psychonauts. While starting to get involved with queer techno parties in Berlin, we got a more profound sense of the principles of harm reduction that are indispensable for the sex and drug-positive scenes those parties are fostering. Anti-prohibition-ism becomes a much more multifaceted and essential concept when organising events full of people cultivating an awareness of what risky activities could entail for themselves and others with the aim of minimising possible issues that could arise. Harm reduction is based on empathy, complicity and solidarity: we try to create safer spaces where we can enact our desires – however risky – while limiting possible damages through informed consent, collaboration and watching out for each other.
The point where a harm reduction approach enters the online world is where digital tools are used by or with marginalised folks practising activities such as sex work, networking with other kinky people, or simply using a dating app. When our bodies or desires are exposed, the border between the digital sphere and our physical safety is so porous that our only protection is trust in our community; for example, trust that a removable sticker covering a phone camera is going to protect us from being filmed in a dark room and outed on social media. By organising queer parties, we try to promote community building and this sense of trust. But for some less privileged people, trust cannot be sufficient, and self-defence strategies become necessary against prevalent stigmas, queerphobia, transphobia and misogynistic patriarchal threats. In cybersecurity terms, these threats include outing, doxing, stalking, defamation, non-consensual publication of intimate media, and hate speech.
Cypher Sex for Digital Self-Defence
When the consequences of FOSTA/SESTA became clear for sex workers in the United States, they began organising and circulating tips on safer tools that they could use to protect themselves and their online accounts and media. Besides being hosted on Google Drive (where content was already being censored) or spread in PDF form (which was impossible to edit and update), these first lists of recommendations offered no explanations on why and how each tool should be used. In this form, "digital security" became a package of rules people felt they needed to apply regardless of their circumstances. Many times these lists offered a promise of anonymity where no anonymity was necessary (or possible) and did not include any threat model or details on what each tool could be used for.
Finding no comparable existing resource, in 2019, we founded Cypher Sex (a play on "cypher" as a nod to encryption and "safer sex") to develop a digital self-defence guide for sex workers in response to the challenges facing our marginalised communities post-FOSTA/SESTA. We wrote the first guide featuring the digital dominatrix "Eve Pentest" and her digital self-defence strategies based on multiple interviews and discussions with sex workers in the United States. After answering urgent requests by our contacts, we asked them questions to obtain a clear picture of what risks they were mainly worried about and what they needed to protect. This helped us define a persona, "an archetypical description of a user that embodies their goals" that "can also be useful for identifying threats, vulnerabilities and likely areas of risk in their given environment". Thus Eve Pentest was born the user persona of a professional dominatrix who works in the United States post-FOSTA/SESTA.
Shortly after, we got in touch with Hydra e.V., a sex worker advocacy non-profit association in Berlin, Germany, and began offering workshops in collaboration with tech-savvy sex workers who wanted to acquire more digital security skills. For these workshops, we applied a participatory threat modelling approach where an introductory round also served as a brainstorming session on what participants perceived as digital threats in their work and life. We then analysed those threats together to find protection strategies that could work for the people in the room.
While the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns halted techno parties, kink events, and most legal sex work, the need for digital self-defence information only increased. Despite strict social distancing and compulsory face masks, the workshops at Hydra Cafe attracted even more participants as they wanted to find ways of earning money through online sex work and to learn about new threats they might face with this shift. After seven workshops at Hydra, as well as a dedicated session at the 22nd International WomenLesbianTrans*-Inter* BDSM Easter Conference in Berlin (held online due to Covid-19), a second guide for Berlin-based sex workers was developed and released in December 2021 featuring "Ava Tarnung", a gender-fluid escort.
Despite strict social distancing and compulsory face masks, the workshops at Hydra Cafe attracted even more participants as they wanted to find ways of earning money through online sex work and to learn about new threats they might face with this shift.
Using specific personas helped us create a compelling narrative and convincing scenario for our self-defence guides. Having identified what our contacts most needed to protect, we described protection strategies that could be applied to each scenario based on an overarching principle of multiple identity management. Through this human-centred approach, we could convey the reasons for using specific tools rather than offering techno-optimistic instructions that focused on ultimate solutions for security and "anonymity". In this way, we hope the reader can figure out for themselves what strategies they need for their activities. In other words, we have tried to empower our audience so they have the information they need to decide whether they want to use the tools listed in the examples of our guides or choose something else. Thanks to this approach, the Cypher Sex guides could be used virtually by anyone with a similar threat model and needs.
Lost in Translation
Following the guide for Berlin-based sex workers and a presentation at the TransHackFeminist Convening at Calafou last August, Cypher Sex received many requests for translating these first two guides into other languages for other contexts. Despite our open-ended approach that leads from goals and motivations to protection strategies based on a specific threat model, a digital self-defence guide for sex workers cannot be easily translated or used by any sex worker in any other country or context. Although there are four main approaches to sex work in national laws (criminalisation, full decriminalisation, partial decriminalisation, and legalisation), the condition of sex workers can vary depending on many factors, including the way national regulations are applied locally as well as the kind of sex work they practice (and hence their social class), religious beliefs, the general perception of sexuality and sex work, the role of women in society, accountability of law enforcement agencies, and so forth.
All these variables also affect the threat model of sex workers, whether in the digital or physical sphere. For example, they will likely wish to hide their online activities from authorities in a state that criminalises sex work. At the same time, this need may be less urgent in a country where sex work is usually tolerated. And while some sex work activities like camming are practised only online, some sex workers hardly ever use online services and only need a phone and a messaging app to stay in touch with their clients. Therefore, a simple translation of these context-specific guides would not prove particularly useful in a different social and legal context. Given the multiplicity of possible scenarios, guides for sex workers need to be shaped together with the community that needs it while identifying the specific threats they face to create a persona that matches their context, activities and goals. This is why, after creating the first guide for the US context focused on professional dominatrixes, we then wrote a second guide addressed to sex workers in Berlin.
While some of the recommendations provided in both guides can be applied to most situations (e.g. how to create strong passwords), most of the strategies suggested in the Cypher Sex guides vary based on differences in the workers' economic condition and the solutions that the local community applies to protect themselves from risks connected to their psycho-social security (stalking, outing and harassment – both physical and digital), as well as to their legal situation (e.g. prohibition in the US, legalisation in Germany).
While some of the recommendations provided in both guides can be applied to most situations (e.g. how to create strong passwords), most of the strategies suggested in the Cypher Sex guides vary based on differences in the workers' economic condition and the solutions that the local community applies to protect themselves from risks connected to their psycho-social security (stalking, outing and harassment – both physical and digital), as well as to their legal situation (e.g. prohibition in the US, legalisation in Germany). This is why Cypher Sex is now working on a manual for writing localised guides with basic outlines, resources, links, suggested approaches and interview questions relevant to different international locations that advocate self-empowerment through online identity management and other digital self-defence strategies.
Not Done Yet
More than five years after its enactment, FOSTA/SESTA has largely been deemed a "miserable failure." As Melissa Gira Grant explained in 2021, "In the first in-depth legal analysis of SESTA/FOSTA and its impact, published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Kendra Albert, Elizabeth Brundige, and Lorelei Lee concluded, in part, that 'though the exact legal applicability of FOSTA is speculative, it has already had a wide-reaching practical impact; it is clear that even the threat of an expansive reading of these amendments has had a chilling effect on free speech, has created dangerous working conditions for sex-workers, and has made it more difficult for police to find trafficked individuals.'" Despite this, anti-porn lobbyists recently began pressuring Reddit to shut down all of its NSFW communities. And while last autumn the stopsesta.org coalition "filed their opening brief in a case that seeks to strike down the law for its many constitutional violations," the EU Commission (again, under the guise of fighting child exploitation) is currently considering a law, commonly referred to as chat control, that would enable law enforcement access to encrypted chat messages. In other words, these forms of censorship in disguise, implemented with the excuse of "protecting women and children", are not going away any time soon but are, in fact, expanding. Whether you are part of a marginalised community directly affected or not, what you can access, share and pay for online has already been heavily censored.
 Section 230 states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." (47 USC § 230(c)(1)).
 Paypal's Acceptable Use Policy also has limitations on "Mature Audience Content", including "adult DVDs, magazines and other adult-themed products or services" and online dating services. In another example, Mailchimp's Acceptable Use Policy additionally prohibits not only pornography and sexually explicit content but "hookup, swinger, or sexual encounter sites or services" as well as "adult entertainment" and "novelty items."
 While popularised in relation to drug use, many harm reduction advocacy groups also recognise overlaps with sex work and other "risky" activities. In the BDSM community, this typically involves detailed discussions around consent models.
 Both Cypher Sex guides were magnificently illustrated by the queer duo Bella Merda Design.
 The guide for Berlin sex workers has been recently localised into German for the Swiss context by Projet Évasions in collaboration with ProCoRe (Prostitution Collective Reflection), a national network advocating for the interests of sex workers in Switzerland.