Why sex workers are pissed at Amy Schumer, and what internet laws have to do with it

Olivia Staser/Staff

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You might think that this story begins with a dead stripper, but it doesn’t — it ends with one.

Fans of the popular sketch comedy series “Inside Amy Schumer” may recall an episode that came out way back in 2015, during the show’s third season: “Cool With It.” This episode features one sketch that, according to members of the sex worker community, simply went too far.

In the sketch, Schumer gets drunk when trying to impress her male coworkers during a night out at a strip club, and one of the boys accidentally chokes a stripper to death when some frisky foreplay gets too intense. But Schumer’s “cool with it” — she takes the stripper outside to bury her, before delivering a cheeky PSA about equal pay for women in the workplace.

Maxine Doogan, who said she has worked as a prostitute for 28 years and is president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, or ESPLERP, believes putting a dead stripper in the punchline of a joke goes beyond problematic.

“I would say that they’re outright violent toward people in our sex industry,” Doogan said of the jokes. “When you see somebody like Amy Schumer doing a joke about burying dead strippers, it just gives the same amount of license to the public to think and act that way toward us too.”

Schumer is set to perform a headlining set on Saturday as part of the San Francisco comedy festival Clusterfest, and ESPLERP will be there too, to protest her set.

But what’s interesting is that ESPLERP’s bad blood with Schumer isn’t just about politically incorrect humor — it actually has much more to do with Congress.

The story starts, more or less, on Backpage.com. The website has historically been a hub for sex workers to advertise themselves, but it was raided recently by the FBI after a U.S. Senate report alleged that the site was facilitating child and adult sex trafficking.

The result was widespread alarm and a couple new pieces of legislation — the House bill Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as FOSTA, and the Senate bill Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA which were eventually combined into one hybrid bill, known as FOSTA-SESTA that was signed into effect by President Donald Trump just this April.

FOSTA-SESTA took aim at a small legislative loophole that has kept the internet afloat for decades. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that internet platforms (anything from Facebook to Craigslist to smaller, more niche websites) weren’t legally responsible for the content users posted or the acts users committed while using the platforms. FOSTA-SESTA amended Section 230 by adding a stipulation that internet platforms were indeed liable for users posting content related to sex trafficking.

This is, roughly, where Schumer comes in. An upwelling of support for FOSTA-SESTA can be attributed to a Jessica Chastain-narrated film called “I am Jane Doe,” which documented the Backpage.com trafficking scandal. Part of the film’s marketing campaign was a PSA video advertising the film and telling folks to vote “Yes” on FOSTA-SESTA. The PSA features appearances from a handful of celebrities, including Seth Meyers, Tony Shalhoub and yeah, Schumer.

“This is actually really, really messed up. Today you can go online and buy a child for sex. It’s as easy as ordering a pizza,” Schumer says in the PSA, who also holds up signs reading “#IAmJaneDoe” and “Amend CDA 230.”

As “I am Jane Doe” built momentum, backlash toward FOSTA-SESTA also began to emerge. The law’s stated intention was to make it more difficult for sex trafficking to operate online, but a huge number of these sites were also hosting advertisements for sex workers. One by one these sites — including Craiglist’s personals section, Pounced.org and Cityvibe — shut themselves down amid worry of potential lawsuits, in turn forcing sex workers into more dubious waters.

“These bad laws basically manufacture the public’s consent to strip the public of their own free speech,” Doogan said.

Without a stable online platform, sex workers are no longer able to filter their clients safely and aren’t able to communicate with each other about dangerous encounters. Operations have been forced underground, and sex workers now have, as a result, even less access to equal protection under the law than they had before, Doogan explained.

“We don’t have the ability to negotiate for our own labor and our own safe work conditions,” Doogan said. “It’s just not fair that they ignore us, and that they pretend like we don’t exist, or that we shouldn’t exist, or that we’re not going to exist — because we do exist.”

What’s more, the sites hit hardest were those that hosted particularly marginalized groups — trans sex workers, for example; now, they could be at risk for violent encounters at the hands of clients, according to The Daily Beast.

You were told that this story ends with dead strippers. But, then again, this doesn’t have to be the end.

“And that’s why we’re going to go protest Amy Schumer,” Doogan said on the topic of Schumer’s upcoming Clusterfest set, before letting out an exasperated laugh.

A number of articles came out about the controversial impact FOSTA-SESTA was having on sex workers (along with debates over whether or not it even effectively combatted sex trafficking), and both Meyers and Schumer were regularly referenced in them as supporters of the legislation. It’s unclear how much research Schumer did on FOSTA-SESTA before appearing in the PSA, though she certainly isn’t the only one supporting a potentially harmful law — it was, after all, nearly unanimously approved by the Senate, and received “Yes” votes from both California senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Interestingly, another “Yes” vote came from New York senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer, who happens to be Amy Schumer’s cousin.

All this, coupled with the three-year-old dead stripper joke, painted a target on Amy Schumer’s back. She, in many ways, has come to represent a certain political ignorance, and a dangerous willingness to wield her power without first educating herself on the consequences of her advocacy.

“She has to stop using us as her punchline and she needs to make direct reparations to our community. She needs to be making some donations to our organization, and she needs to make a public apology,” Doogan said. “She needs to make some amends, and she needs to acknowledge the harm that she has done to our community publicly.”

Shannon O’Hara covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected].