An Analysis of Terms of Service and Official Policies with Respect to Sex Work

Rasika Bhalerao, Damon McCoy

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


    Policymakers who design the rules that govern the internet and the technologists who implement them can often be disconnected from some of the populations affected by their products. In this study, we analyze the terms of service, community guidelines, privacy policies, and other documents officially issued by online platforms in the United States to discuss their implications with regards to a marginalized population of interest: workers in the sex industry, ranging in autonomy from sex workers with a high degree of autonomy to survivors of sex trafficking. While criminalized and stigmatized populations such as sex industry workers are underrepresented among technologists, we show how technological decision makers without subject matter knowledge or understanding of the motivations and effects on the population can unintentionally lead to harming sex industry workers. Our analysis is in line with sex industry worker-led movements to stop arresting sex industry workers, de-stigmatize sex work, and let sex industry workers remain and flourish in online life. We study over 100 online platforms from 13 platform types and discuss the laws, perceptions, and motivations behind their policies regarding the sex industry, and how these policies affect sex industry workers. We find that platforms generally view sex industry workers as either criminals, victims, spam, or entrepreneurs; we show how using the first three paradigms to characterize the entire industry can lead to stigmatization, overly general and restrictive rules, and decreased accessibility to online life. We use this study as an example to illustrate the need for a cultural shift in the technology community towards empathy and social education and provide concrete research directions towards a solution.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationISTAS 2022 - IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society 2022
    Subtitle of host publicationDigital and Societal Transformations
    EditorsT V Gopal, Laurie Lau, Lennon Chang, Greg Adamson
    PublisherInstitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.
    ISBN (Electronic)9781665484107
    StatePublished - 2022
    Event2022 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, ISTAS 2022 - Virtual, Online, Hong Kong
    Duration: Nov 10 2022Nov 12 2022

    Publication series

    NameInternational Symposium on Technology and Society, Proceedings


    Conference2022 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, ISTAS 2022
    Country/TerritoryHong Kong
    CityVirtual, Online


    • bias
    • community guidelines
    • policy
    • sex industry
    • sex work
    • terms of service

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Engineering
    • General Social Sciences


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