When Laws Affect Art about Sex Work

09/26/2018

Legislation, even when it doesn’t directly impact art, can still profoundly affect how art is produced, marketed, and consumed. The current political and social climates in America are converging to create an environment that is increasingly hostile to many artists, and this may expand as more legislation is passed by the current administration.

Illustration of woman looking a computer screen locked with bars and keyhole

‘A perusal of my novel… will quickly reveal that it is not a work of erotica.’ Illustration by Josh Quick

In 2010, I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban. The premise came to me the previous holiday season, when I was listening to the Tom Waits song “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and thinking about Garrison Keillor’s work, and I thought, what if Lake Wobegon had sex workers? How would they ply their trade? I saw a lot of comedic potential in that scenario, but instead of focusing on sex, I built a coming-of-age story around my idea, one that used my premise to create both comedic and tragic moments.

Over the next few years, I revised the novel several times and sought a publisher for it. I placed well in a couple of competitions for unpublished novels, but few of the 150+ literary agents I queried sent me more than a form rejection email. Finally, following my mother’s passing in 2016, I self-published the novel to help me supplement my part-time teaching income. I sold more than a handful of copies, but my novel was far from a smashing success.

Earlier this year, however, I received a rave write-up from Kirkus Reviews, which stated that my novel “is an entertaining, provocative bildungsroman that successfully turns an unconventional premise into a thoughtful exploration of freedom and identity.” That kind of review can make the career of an independent author like me, so I decided to launch a small advertising campaign around the review to increase its visibility, using four online services that I’d advertised my novel on the year before: Twitter, Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Shortly after I placed an ad buy on Twitter, however, I received an email saying that my campaign had been rejected, because my linking to the Kirkus review of my book allegedly violated Twitter’s ban on “promoting adult products or services.” Since they’d accepted my advertisements just one year earlier, I assumed that there must have been a mistake, and that someone who reviewed their ads saw the word “prostitutes” in the title of my novel and incorrectly assumed that it was erotica. I filed an appeal with Twitter to get my ad buy reinstated, but not only did they not reinstate my ad, they also blocked my account from purchasing any advertising on their service.

 Notice from Twitter that add has not been approved

 

Letter from Twitter blocking author from using Twitter ads

Twitter policy regarding adult and sexual products and services

When I tried to place an ad buy on Amazon, I had to wait much longer than usual to get a response from them, and then they informed me that I could only advertise on their website, not on Kindle devices. Again, this had not been a problem when I’d placed ad buys on Amazon the year before. Despite their claim that they’d accepted my ad buy for their website, however, Amazon has yet to actually place my ad on their site, despite me bidding at over twice their suggested rate.

Image of Amazon account showing that nothing has happened with request

Similarly, although Google claimed to accept my ad buy on their service a few weeks ago, they have also failed to show my ad to a single person.

Google ad overview showing zero clicks and zero impressions

Only Facebook has allowed me to run new advertisements this year, but their return on investment for my advertising dollar is so low that I can’t justify spending more money there.

Facebook ad results showing low interaction

What changed since the last time I bought advertisements for my novel? Shortly before I received that Kirkus review, President Trump signed legislation that was purported to curb the child sex trade, often called SESTA/FOSTA after its constituent congressional bills, but which sex work advocates have argued will cause tremendous harm to adult sex workers, including those who participate in legal sex work, e.g. fetish video models and producers. The broad language of SESTA/FOSTA has already caused several websites to shutter out of fear of potential prosecution, and crowdfunding websites like Patreon are now suspending the accounts of people who they, at their own discretion, deem involved with sex work.

A perusal of my novel, or even that Kirkus review, will quickly reveal that it is not a work of erotica, but because I used the word “prostitutes” in its title, I am being blocked from many of the advertisement services that independent authors like me are reliant on for spreading the word about our work. I don’t have the marketing arm of a publishing house to help me with publicity, nor do I have the money to hire an independent publicity firm to promote my novel, so as long as I am effectively shut out of these services, my ability to sell my novel, and get the money I need to help me supplement my teaching income, is being smothered.

No one would claim that the 1980’s were a significantly more liberal cultural period in American history compared to today, but when the film adaptation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas came out in 1982, there was no suggestion that the film was “X-rated” simply because of its title. The film was marketed widely, and given the opportunity to succeed on its merits, which it did. My novel is not getting that opportunity.

If The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban can be shut out from visible spaces based on assumptions about its title, then any artist who uses sex work as a theme for their art is at risk of enduring the same problems that I’m currently facing. Worse yet, any new legislation that targets other aspects of American life could produce a similar effect on other works of art and other artists, and for anyone who cares about the First Amendment, that prospect is nothing short of chilling. If the advertising companies who make judgments based on these laws won’t change, then we need to change the politicians making these laws.

Sean Shannon (Guest Blogger)

Sean Shannon is the author of The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, as well as the 50 Critical Thinking Exercises for Humanities Classes books, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland. She blogs at seanshannon.org.