Over the past few days, sex-work Twitter has been abuzz about a somewhat unexpected topic: taxes. A tweet from amateur clip producer and webcam model Mocha Puff that declared, 11 times and in all caps, that, contrary to some people’s assertions, “sex workers do pay taxes,” was retweeted over 1300 times; in follow-up tweets, Puff shared links to some sex-work-friendly tax professionals, as did other members of the sex-work community.
Why the sudden obsession with sex workers’ financial responsibility to the government? It all started with #ThotAudit, a harassment campaign that encouraged people to report sex workers — and, more specifically, sex workers who sell access to private Snapchat accounts — to the IRS for failure to pay their taxes.
On its surface, #ThotAudit is a bizarre and baseless campaign. There’s no reason to assume that Snapchat-based sex workers are skirting tax obligations, and even if they were, sending a screencap of someone’s Snapchat account to the IRS isn’t an effective way of triggering an audit or an investigation. Without someone’s legal name (or, ideally, their social security number), there’s no real way to look into whether they are, or aren’t, worth auditing; the IRS doesn’t have the resources to go off on a wild goose chase just because someone submits some suspicions and a Snapchat handle.
“The IRS is not going to act unless you’ve given them enough information for them to know that you know that someone is evading their income tax responsibilities,” says Nick Farr, staff accountant with Kroon & Mitchell CPAs in Grand Rapids, MI. “I can report all day long knowing that someone is getting paid a certain amount,” but without reasonable proof that someone isn’t paying taxes, a report to the IRS isn’t likely to go far. Farr finds the whole threat so laughable he’s publicly offered pro bono audit defense for anyone who actually winds up in the IRS’s crosshairs due to #ThotAudit.
For sex workers targeted by #ThotAudit, however, the knowledge that the harassment campaign was unlikely to end in action from the IRS was cold comfort. It was clear to them from the start that #ThotAudit was less about cracking down on tax scofflaws and more about harassing women who make their living being sexual online, cluttering their feeds with nasty comments and potentially subjecting them to the horrors of doxxing. And in that regard, they see #ThotAudit as a tiny blip on the broader landscape of harassment that sex workers experience online.
Online harassment of sex workers has existed as long as sex workers have been online — and it has often served as a harbinger of what’s to come for non-sex-working harassment victims. Three years before Gamergate — the campaign that helped bring online harassment into mainstream awareness — porn performers experienced a mass harassment campaign of their own. A database connected to what was then the leading health clinic for the adult industry was hacked and the personal information of hundreds of porn performers — including their legal names and home addresses — was posted online, exposing numerous porn performers to stalking and offline harassment, and even outing them to friends and family members.
“We’re not a protected class. I can’t say, ‘You can’t fire me for being a sex worker.’”
Sex workers’ experiences with harassment can get deeply upsetting. Porn performer and activist Arabelle Raphael told me about one person who pretended to be her husband on Twitter, using their account to tweet nasty insults and cruel comments about her supposed inadequacies as a wife. Porn performer Ela Darling has had trolls call her family’s workplaces to harass them about her sex work, an uncomfortable situation that would be vastly more painful if she wasn’t already out and accepted by her relatives. And when adult cam model and podcaster N’jaila Rhee found herself unemployed and at risk of getting evicted, hackers took down the fundraiser she’d created to raise money for rent and other bills — and dismantled her other websites in the process, hampering her ability to make the cash she needed for even the most basic expenses, like medication to treat her pneumonia.
While the tactics that harassers use to go after sex workers online are often similar to what other harassment victims experience — including crude sexual comments, violent threats, nasty slurs, and doxxing — the stakes for sex workers can be significantly higher, particularly if they’re not out to their families, or are using sex work to supplement their income from another, non-adult job. For Rhee, who works in corporate marketing, having her sex-work side hustle revealed to her employer could have devastating financial consequences. “We’re not a protected class,” she tells me. “I can’t say, ‘You can’t fire me for being a sex worker.’”
Distressingly, many sex workers find themselves with little to no recourse against their harassers. Reporting harassers rarely leads to any action being taken — and, troublingly, can even lead to the victims’ accounts being suspended. And few bystanders seem to have much sympathy for sex workers who come under assault.
“I think there’s this idea that because we work in sex, that we deserve to be sexually harassed, that it’s just part of the job,” says Darling.
“Even people who consider themselves liberal or open-minded still have this idea of, ‘Well, what did you expect?’”
The situation is exacerbated by the reality that, for many sex workers, just quitting the internet and social media isn’t an option. It’s hard to sell access to online clips or cam shows if you’re not on the internet, and for full-service sex workers, connecting with clients through the internet is significantly safer than street-based sex work. When social media platforms tolerate harassment against sex workers, it becomes an inevitable part of doing business, background noise to the daily grind of the labor that actually makes sex workers money.
But it shouldn’t have to be that way. “Harassment and sexual harassment are not part of any job,” says Darling. “Nobody deserves to be harassed in their workplace or as a result of their work.”