People in online misogynist communities are reporting sex workers to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for tax fraud as part of widespread a harassment campaign. The harassers find sex workers through their premium Snapchat accounts, which are used to send images and videos to people who pay them through Venmo or PayPal.
Vice’s Motherboard reported Monday that the harassment campaign appears to have begun last week. By using Snapchat and other social media platforms, online misogynists can find information about sex workers to report them to the IRS’ whistleblower program, which requires a date of birth, taxpayer identification number, and address. Those doing the reporting also have to describe their relationship with the taxpayer.
The campaign may be responding to the recent elevation of the voices of sex workers, who are still largely marginalized, in media and politics. As sex work is often portrayed as work done only by women (despite the fact that people of all genders take part in it) online misogynist communities tend to focus their anger on intimidating and mocking sex workers — an umbrella term which includes cam models, strippers, people who engage in domination work, and people who solicit clients on the street or in hotels. These harassers, most of whom are men, have voiced anger over sex workers fighting for labor rights and advocating for decriminalization. As BuzzFeed News reported, one of the men participating in the campaign posted a video on YouTube explaining his reasoning.
“These women are marching in the streets yet again saying, ‘Sex work is real work’ and protesting this. It’s funny because when you say it’s real work, then it should be taxed like every other work,” he said.
While it is unclear which specific march the user was referring to, sex workers have taken to the streets to advocate for greater safety and worker protections. In February, New Orleans sex workers, many of them strippers, marched on Bourbon Street, in protest of a police raid of eight strip clubs in the French Quarter. Marchers held signs reading “Decriminalize sex work now,” and “Stop fucking with our livelihoods.”
In June, sex workers and allies marched in Las Vegas to declare that sex work is work and that the government must decriminalize it. At the march, one woman, Amber Bats, who spoke to Broadly, said she began doing sex work to get out of a domestic violence situation and found it to be a reliable stream of income for her family.
“I have two wonderful kids I was able to raise because I was a sex worker. And along with that, I had insurance. l was able to pay my bills. Once I was arrested, that shit went away. Now I work minimum wage and I have to take food stamps,” Bats said.
Many sex workers have advocated for decriminalization, as opposed to legalization, which means that authorities can’t interfere with sex work and its transactions unless laws unrelated to sex work can be applied. Sex workers say legalization would still criminalize the most marginalized sex workers, such as undocumented workers, who can’t meet all of the requirements that the state imposes on them.
Sexworkers want our jobs DECRIMINALIZED, not LEGALIZED. Why? Legalization means sexwork STAYS a crime, but state creates loopholes *only for rich business owners*, not workers.
Decriminalization means: removal of all criminal penalties for one-to-one exchange of sex for money.
— Mistress Matisse (@mistressmatisse) April 10, 2018
BuzzFeed News reached out to the IRS for comment, but the agency has not responded. Sex workers have told media outlets that they’re not sure whether the harassers are actually reporting them for tax fraud or aiming to intimidate them. While it is unclear whether the IRS would follow up on those threats, the campaign is still damaging to sex workers. It intends to impede their work, psychologically abuse them, and put their safety at risk by collecting and releasing their personal information.
One adult streamer, Cammie, told Motherboard, “I don’t know if it actually matters or not, but a lot of girls are now losing their primary source of income because they’re afraid they’re going to get charged.”
Lorelei Lee, writer and porn performer, tweeted that the harassment is scary because it implies that sex workers could be stalked.
Threats to call the IRS on sex workers are actually really frightening, NOT because we don't pay our taxes, but because what is implied are actual threats of doxing and stalking
— Lorelei Lee (@MissLoreleiLee) November 26, 2018
This campaign comes in the wake of the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, legislation that sex workers and their advocates argue would put them in greater danger. The legislation, which became law in April, allows online platforms to be held criminally and civilly liable for facilitating or supporting “sex trafficking of children or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion.”
Although the law claims to be focused on sex trafficking, in practice, a website where sex work is discussed or advertised could also be held criminally and civilly liable. Sex workers use these online platforms to screen clients for to work in safer conditions. Without them, sex workers are often pushed into dangerous situations in order to keep paying the bills.