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Anti-sex trafficking law FOSTA is hurting online sex educators, too

O.School set out to be an inclusive sex ed platform, but now FOSTA and internal strife are tearing it apart

Illustrations by Garret Beard

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In April, three educators from the video streaming sex education platform O.School published posts declaring that they were no longer involved with the company. “Something is rotten in the state of O.School,” wrote one former educator, Bianca Palmisano.

Launched in 2017, O.School aimed to expand the scope of sex ed and educate its viewers on pleasure, consent, and whatever other questions they had about sex. It promoted itself as the “cure” to negative sex culture, Palmisano explained in her post, and “promised sex educators struggling at the economic margins a place to self-market and support ourselves.”

But “the reality for most educators on the platform is far less rosy,” she wrote. According to former educators at the site, while internal tensions have been brewing within O.School for some time, those issues hit a breaking point with the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), and the way that O.School has responded to it. Though FOSTA — which chips away at protections that shielded websites from liability for user-generated content — was touted as a way to fight sex trafficking, its consequences have been swift and dangerous for sex workers, who are being cut off from their online communities and valuable safety resources as companies hurry to protect themselves.

Last month, with FOSTA days from being signed into law, O.School did the same, adopting a new preventative internal policy that would remove all talk of sex work from its platform. In a subsequent official statement, organizers discussed the broader strokes of FOSTA, offering only one vaguely worded mentioned of how it would affect the platform directly: “Bills like FOSTA, SESTA, and SB1204 stand directly in the way of [creating and nurturing a culture of sex positivity], and directly impact our ability as a third party provider to provide a space to educate people about sex workers’ rights.”

Before FOSTA, O.School educators were encouraged to talk about sex work freely. Several educators regularly streamed talks specifically about sex work. But founder Andrea Barrica says that in the lead-up to the law’s passing, seeing sites like Craigslist shut down their personal sections made her start considering the possible ramifications for “a tiny, young company like ours”  — especially since “the law is written really far-reaching and ambiguously,” she adds. After consulting with her team, Barrica ultimately decided to cut the sex work-related streams from the schedule, though sex worker streamers could continue to discuss general sex ed topics.

“We did ask some of our professionals [to] not talk about sex work directly, just until we have time to consult our legal team, and also other sex workers, and get our plan together,” she says. “Understandably, this made some of our instructors really upset. Of course we as a company support sex workers and abhor this legislation, but at the same time, the way that this legislation came through it was really unclear all the risks there would be to the platform. We wanted to be cautious. We chose to be cautious.”

O.School’s choice to cut education around sex work was the final straw for some educators who felt that the decision, like several before this, had been handled without transparency and communication. Speaking to The Verge, they said that cutting sex work streams represented O.School’s overall handling of its most marginalized professionals, an approach that has been harmful to the very communities it sought to help.

“The conversations could be uncomfortable, but that’s why they need to happen.”

“It promotes itself as this place for inclusion,” says Andre Shakti, an educator who was vocal about O.School’s decision to cut sex work education and was fired shortly after, “as this place for marginalized communities to feel like they have a home, to feel like they have a voice, to see their voices elevated, to see the issues that are impacting them, to have them be discussed openly in a public dialogue, to be able to exchange dialogue with people who are in similar circumstances and come to us for advice.”

O.School’s choice is typical of the precautionary steps many websites are taking in response to FOSTA; as Cloudflare’s general counsel Doug Kramer has explained, companies have an obligation to comply with the law, despite how vague its language may be. Internally, Palmisano says, many were unhappy with the decision, voicing their desire for a more measured response. “We also understand why O.School may be taking a very conservative tact with the fallout from SESTA and FOSTA, and so we [wanted] to work together to move forward in a productive way and fix things,” she says. “The conversations could be uncomfortable, but that’s why they need to happen.”

Barrica defends the decision as necessary for the future of O.School. “We really wanted to still be around, because there are sex workers who make income on sex education on our platform,” she says. “We want to be around for a long time. We have a mission to help people unlearn shame and live happy, pleasurable lives … Our goal and our hope is to be part of the movement to end all the miseducation about sex, which is what prompted really ridiculous legislation like SESTA-FOSTA. We’re really focused on keeping the platform safe. It’s understandable people are upset with the things that we had to do. I had to make the difficult decision at the time.”

FOSTA represents a breaking point for O.School, but it was hardly the beginning, nor the end, of the company’s woes. It wasn’t FOSTA that pushed three educators to publish angry missives on the same day; it was what they saw as a pattern of neglectful behavior by the company’s higher-ups.

Rather than providing a supportive and equitable environment, “O.School subjects its contracted educators to constantly shifting administrative policies, silences dissent by firing educators, and offers sub-minimum wage compensation for our services,” wrote Palmisano, who is also the owner of Intimate Health Consulting, in her post. She hopes people will continue to support sex educators and the platform, but she says there’s no dancing around it: “O.School is a mess.”

Palmisano, Shakti, and sex blogger Sarah Brynn Holliday cite concerns about transparency in relation to O.School’s payment system. The company, which kept an open Slack channel for educators to discuss payment, promised economic sustainability. “When I initially onboarded with Andrea, she had talked about, ‘We want you to be able to do this 20 hours a week. It could be a significant source of your income,’” Palmisano says. O.School educators are not considered full-time employees or staff, but rather partners who earn revenue through viewer tips — usually $5 — that are then split between the instructor and O.School. Some instructors also received an additional $25 for each stream, though the circumstances of who got these extra funds was unclear to many educators.

As O.School grew, some educators felt like transparency began to shrink. Decisions were no longer discussed in general channels, and explanations, when they were given, were relegated to DMs. Eventually, the Slack channel dedicated to talking about payment was deleted, removing a core avenue for educators to discuss money openly. In April, staff members were informed that the bonuses would no longer be available to streamers, meaning their income would solely rely on tips.

Barrica says that the initial payment model was part of making sure the work on each side was balanced. “We wanted to make it a sustainable thing for both the platform and the instructors,” she says. The bonuses were handed out for a variety of reasons. “Sometimes it was people who were doing really intense work who we wanted to encourage more to stream, or who we didn’t think were generating the tips they deserved,” she says. “We wanted to build a rich or diverse community. Maybe this kind of seemed arbitrary to some of the instructors, and we’re realizing that now. We are standardizing and creating a lot more communication around it.”

Educators are still encouraged to discuss payment in general forums, she says, but the payment channel closure came down to a privacy issue. “While we want to have transparency ... we also have to balance the need for privacy for individuals for what they’re paid,” Barrica says. “Maybe that wasn’t the right move, but really was just an effort to make improvements.”

“we also have to balance the need for privacy for individuals.”

When streams on sex work were cleaved from the schedule in response to FOSTA, Shakti posted within the company’s Slack, commenting on both FOSTA and financial concerns. “The possible implications of SESTA-FOSTA are intimidating, but proactively censoring sex workers on a platform that boasts inclusivity, intersectionality, and ethical principles — without first initiating a roundtable discussion among those in charge and the pleasure professional community about taking potential defensive action in a way that will have the least damaging effect on the sex workers doing sex ed labor — is fucked up,” she wrote, shortly before being fired. “Honestly, if I could financially afford to boycott streaming on O.School until the censorship is lifted, I would.”

Following Shakti’s dismissal, where she was told her “values didn’t line up” with the company, Palmisano and Holliday quit in solidarity. In their respective posts, all three touch on their disappointment over the FOSTA fallout, but more importantly, they point to problems around communication regarding decision-making and payment as well as what they believe is retaliation for expressing dissenting opinions.

(Barrica declined to comment on the specifics of Shakti’s firing, but she contested that it was related to her speaking up. “The decision to part ways was not based on any of the feedback [Shakti gave],” Barrica says. “I think that Andre brought up some really great points around transparency and that we’re working toward and always trying to improve, so it wasn’t about the feedback. It was [that] several members of our team felt uncomfortable after some of the interactions. It was for that reason that we had to part ways. A lot of people on my team just weren’t comfortable moving forward in the relationship.”)

Palmisano points to a pattern that predates Shakti. “O.School fires educators with no explanation, transparency, or notification to others,” wrote Palmisano. “Kenna Cook was the first sex educator to be ‘fired’ from O.School, with no notice or avenue for recourse. She never heard from Barrica, but was terminated by another staff member who told her ‘she’s not a good fit for the platform.’ Multiple other educators have similarly been let go since.” Holliday echoed this sentiment in her post as well. “I’ve been increasingly unsettled after hearing from marginalized friends and colleagues who had been on-boarded as Pleasure Professionals and then dropped from without warning,” wrote Holliday. “... I cannot support a company that punishes people who speak up about critical ethical concerns.”

The dissatisfaction with the company’s practices stems in part from the idea that O.School had sold itself to a marginalized community as a more transparent, radical thinking company than other corporate options — and then failed to live up to those values. After all, if an educational platform cannot offer a safe place to speak for those curious about sex work and its professionals, who else will?

“If I had signed up to work for a big business corporation — I don’t expect that every company I work for has complete financial transparency or even a modicum of financial transparency because that’s generally not how companies work,” Shakti says. “However, what drew so many of us into working for this particular platform are these principals of intersectionality, of transparency, of morality, that were touted as making O.School different from any other company.”

Former educators describe the company as being unprepared to deal with FOSTA. They were discouraged not just by the decision O.Scool made, but also by how quickly it was made, without an open discussion among the pleasure professionals who teach as part of its service. “One of my major issues with what the company did was to completely decide to stop posting any educational content about sex work without consulting any sex workers from the platform themselves,” says Holliday. “If you are making policy decisions at your company that impact some of the most marginalized folks at your company, you absolutely must include them.”

“When we take away community forums for sex workers, we isolate them.”

When asked about these concerns, Barrica acknowledges that sex education, let alone education around the sex worker community, is a difficult field. She says she built O.School in order to help those educators make income, but their needs must be balanced with a business model that promotes growth. “I absolutely understand why they’re upset,” she says. She calls O.School a tool, a platform not unlike Twitch, for educators to use. “As a small startup, we absolutely accept that we’re not going to be able to support everyone who comes to us,” she says. “We just hope to keep growing and improving every day.” The payment channel has since been re-opened, Barrica adds, and there have been no further incidents from educators. “We never expected that it would be seen in terms of limiting transparency,” she says.

She adds that O.School has made many changes based on feedback from its instructors and those who left who have improved the company. “When you’re a start-up, you have to move fast, and you don’t always understand all the implications of every decision,” she says. “You learn as you go. I do wish we’d been able to have more direct conversations with them because with complicated issues, nuance get lost.” Reading their posts now, Barrica says, it feels like both the company’s goals and those of the educators who left are not so far apart. “The issues they were concerned with are ones we are as well,” she says. “Despite the fall-out, it was really moving to see how much they cared about the platform, and how much they believed in it. I’m sorry it ended the way it did, and I hope they keep doing the work they’re doing. They’re incredible teachers, and the world has a lot to learn from them.”

Regardless of FOSTA, educators who practice sex work aren’t going disappear from the world at large even if online spaces that welcome them are disappearing. For many, the cost of being pushed off a platform is both an invisible and an emotional one, to say nothing of the dangerous and continued stigmatization that drives all sex workers further into sidelined communities and out of the public eye.

Palmisano notes that “sex worker” and “sex educator” are often overlapping roles, adding that “it feels a bit like a betrayal when a platform tries to cleave the two.” Instead, O.School becomes yet another place that fails to be inclusive to those who need it most. O.School is a live forum for streamers to educate anyone with internet access, in real-time. It’s a place where people could ask well-meaning questions about sex work. “We drew in all of these people who otherwise would never on their own have sought out information about the sex industry, because they believe what they see on TV or they believe what they read in the newspapers,” Shakti says. “... It was a way to — I don’t want to say trick normies into getting some sex work education — but that kind of is what was happening.”

The impact of FOSTA on O.School highlights not just the internal problems of one particular sex ed startup, but the law’s messy, potentially destructive impact on sex workers, sex educators, and small organizations like O.School trying to increase public awareness about sex. And whether the current state of O.School is a consequence of FOSTA or a combination of the law and its own inner strife, the result is the same: the platform and the community it aims to serve have been robbed of access to a safe space and education that could feasibly save lives.

“When we take away community forums for sex workers, we isolate them, and that’s how sex workers die,” says Shakti. “Because they stop having access to those avenues of information, of resources, of blacklists for dangerous clients, how to keep themselves secure in terms of their identity online… Taking those streams off of O. School put sex workers in danger, period, the end.”