Sex Workers Are Being Detained and Deported At The US Border. Ad Sites Are Concerned It’s Facial Recognition Software

Man behind desk pushing away a passport from another man
Credit: Elnur/Shutterstock

In the summer of 2022, Marcus* was invited by a German art institution to perform his queer, sex-positive work at an avant-garde festival in rural Canada. Excited by the prospect of international travel, he reached out to a few friends in New York and planned a trip to see them afterward, making arrangements to sleep on their couch. After the festival was over, Marcus excitedly took the Greyhound bus to New York as planned. Hours later, he found himself detained in what he describes as a traumatic, five-hour experience at the Canadian border.

Escorting is legal in Marcus’ home country of Germany, and he made clear on his ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) application—a fast-track visa waiver, which was immediately approved—that he was a full-time artist, traveling to the US for tourism. Yet soon after his passport was scanned at the border, officers led him into a holding room where he was extensively questioned. 

Marcus was eventually sent back to the Canadian border with a stamp saying he’d been refused entry. He was then given just five days to make new arrangements to leave the country. In total, he lost almost $2,000 in missed flights and unplanned accommodation costs. 

He was also barred from applying for the comparatively quick, cheap, and easy US visa waiver program for the next ten years. Marcus is “optimistic” he will be allowed back into Canada, but told Cashmere his detainment and deportation at the US border has taken a huge psychological toll.

The lasting impact of FOSTA-SESTA

Marcus’ experience isn’t uncommon, particularly since the US government passed its FOSTA-SESTA law in April 2018. In the US, it has long been the case that “any person US border agents suspect has sold sex in the last ten years can be denied a visa, refused entry, detained, deported and banned from the US for five to ten years.” Yet  FOSTA-SESTA has seemingly resulted in more sex workers being tracked and targeted.

The law was supposedly passed to help victims of sex trafficking, but even police acknowledge the legislation has made finding and fighting sex criminals more difficult. A 2021 report found the bill had resulted in just one prosecution in over three years.

What FOSTA-SESTA actually does is put sex workers in danger. It limits their options for advertising—far safer than street sex work—and bars them from sharing online safety resources. Sex workers have described the legislation as “overbearing” and “paternalistic,” increasing surveillance and criminalization of sex work while failing the trafficking victims it claims to protect.

Through her work at Sex Workers’ Union, a UK-based advocacy group, Audrey* has seen countless examples of detainment and deportation. Union members have been gathering stories in an attempt to find commonalities, but there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason as to who gets targeted.

“There is no set formula,” she told Cashmere via Zoom. “We’ve seen sex workers who are face-out and really quite visible online get through the border. On the other hand, one member doesn’t have any face pictures in her advertising. She deleted her accounts on all advertising websites and removed herself from any group chat mentioning sex work; she took every precaution so that she could visit her family in the US, but she was detained at the border, questioned extensively, and then deported.” 

Similarly, Marcus’s partner—also a sex worker—traveled to Florida in January last year and passed without question. When he flew to Florida again in July, he was detained and deported.

Are advertising sites snitching out sex workers?

The only certainty seems to be that online advertising is a surefire way to get flagged at the border. In interviews with Cashmere, sex workers have name-checked sites like Eros, RentMen, AdultWork, SessionGirls, HunqZ, and SleepyBoy, alleging that the sites have shared their information with the U.S. government.

Cashmere contacted all of the above, but only RentMen replied. A spokesperson confirmed the company was contacted by users of the site who had reportedly been “asked openly” by border authorities “if they are advertisers with RentMen.” The company noted, “Afterwards, [the alleged sex workers] are not allowed to enter the country of destination.”

RentMen’s spokesperson pointed Cashmere to the site’s terms and conditions. In short, the terms explain that RentMen is “registered by the German Federal Law and strictly follows several important and strict regulations, including the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) of the European Parliament.” The terms further clarify that under this law, the company is not permitted to provide any personal information about users, including “real names and date of birth, if such is not published in the publicly visible content of the users’ profiles.”

The only exceptions are if “an official request or subpoena comes through from state authorities, where the reason and specific data must be provided.” Yet, is this exception contributing to the discrimination traveling sex workers are facing?

A.I. spy

RentMen alleges that isn’t the case—“100% of [cases they’ve been notified about] are related to advertisers who are showing their face publicly,” they explain. “We strongly believe that with the advance of AI facial recognition, more governments are trying to use it at their border entrance points to screen all incoming traffic. If we were to make a suggestion to anyone who believes they are exposed to such a risk, it would be to not show their face online.”

Some sites are seemingly safer than others. Sex workers who advertised on Tryst, for example, never heard of the advertising platform mentioned by Border Control. 

In some cases, sex workers claim to have seen these names flash up on the screens of border control computers. Eddy, who goes by @edftmxxx online, was reportedly detained at an Atlanta airport late last year. 

“They took me to one side, made me wait for a long time, and then said they thought I was part of a ‘multinational escort ring,’” he told Cashmere. “I’m assuming my face was flagged through facial recognition because I saw RentMen flash up on the screen. I have advertised on other sites, but RentMen is the one that was flagged.”

While detained, Eddy chatted with another person being questioned—despite advertising on RentMen just once nine years ago, they said they had been detained and deported too.

Audrey says it’s almost exclusively full-service sex workers being flagged, but there are examples of online creators being targeted, too. In February, VICE spoke to a “virtual reality sex worker” who “streams from behind a virtual 3D avatar that tracks her movements, often wearing fuzzy animal ears and fantasy-inspired neon outfits.” It’s legal work, but it still got her denied entry into the US.

Cashmere contacted both the aforementioned advertising sites and US Border Control for comment on these allegations but was not met with a response in time for publication.

How are sex workers being identified?

These sites require ID for registration. “They have your legal name and a picture of your face, potentially the same picture you’re using to try and get into the country,” explains Audrey. “We don’t know whether people are being caught because sites are sharing that information, or because there’s some sophisticated facial recognition software. We’re in a tough position. We can give guidance, but there’s no hard or fast rule. Basically, if a sex worker books a trip to the US, it’s just like: good luck!”

The ads reportedly don’t even need to be live in order to be flagged. Madame Caramel, a dominatrix with her own dungeon in London, applied for a visa months in advance of her trip to New York. The application was quickly confirmed. In the meantime, she created an ad on Eros but had not posted it. 

A day before her flight was scheduled to leave, she received an email informing her that her ESTA status had been updated and declined. This left her with almost no time to appeal the decision or cancel bookings with enough notice and ended up losing thousands of dollars. 

“I’ve been a sex worker for 19 years,” she told Cashmere. “I’ve been to America, I’ve partied in Vegas and come back with no problem whatsoever, but this [recent experience] seems to correlate with the Eros ad.”

Madame Caramel thinks of herself as lucky. “I’ve heard that it’s very humiliating,” she says of the stories she’s since heard from other sex workers. “I was disappointed to say the least, and I lost a lot of money, but it really sounds like a traumatic experience at the border. I would have probably been arrested, to be honest. I don’t stand for people mistreating me.”

Deported, detained, and dehumanized

How horrific the experience is depends largely on where you’re detained. Because Marcus traveled on the bus, he found himself at a border control office in the middle of the forest. “You’re not allowed to use any of your stuff,” he explains. “You’re just sitting there thinking: what happens if I don’t get through? How do I leave here in the middle of the night? It’s nerve-wracking; it’s torturous.” 

After hours of waiting, Marcus was made to give a sworn interview where he was told he wouldn’t be allowed into the country. Then came another waiting period for transport back to the US border. “They used an armed car with metal bars on the window,” he recalls. “The seats weren’t regular car seats, they were these metal seats with very sharp edges and this pulverized material. It honestly makes you feel like a serial killer.”

Audrey says “inhumane” border questioning is standard. “We’ve heard of people who have had their phones taken off them, so they’re unable to contact friends and family; in some cases, authorities have threatened to out them.” 

“There’s obviously just a huge amount of awful, demeaning, and stigmatizing behavior from border authorities too. They might make comments within earshot, or go through people’s luggage. It’s almost like the border is a legal gray space, where authorities can say and do whatever they want—and they do, because if you’re a sex worker, or just a migrant in general, they know you have basically no rights.”

Social media isn’t anonymous 

Not everyone Cashmere spoke with had their social media tracked, but while going through the Boston port, Canadian sex worker Tara* was confronted with an old tweet. 

“It was a meme, an animation of a girl sitting on a guy’s face, with a caption that says something like: ‘if he dies, he dies,’” she recalled. She was pulled into a side room where officers in latex gloves rifled through her luggage and asked her to explain why she had packed lingerie and restraints. 

One of the officers said he knew she’d advertised on a site called SessionGirls. “He was asking about muscle worship, flexing, posing, fantasy wrestling, all this stuff that you can tick off if you offer that service, and he was creating his own crazy stories from that.”

In reality, Tara wasn’t there to work. Her friend had recently died of cancer and she was traveling to meet friends and figure out what to do with the ashes. While she was being interviewed, the officer repeatedly told the typist transcribing to stop typing whenever she spoke about her friend. 

“He would cut me off, ask her to start typing again, and then he’d say stuff like, ‘you’re really here to have sex in a hotel room for $200, right?’” Tara describes him as a “classic fucking narcissist, like an interrogation scene in a movie where they twist everything to the point that your brain is mush.”

Tara was promised transcripts of the interviews and documents she was asked to sign, but she never received them. She hopes to appeal the decision but says “it’s hard to make a move without knowing what they have written about you.” As a pro bodybuilder, her work has taken a serious hit, too—she was planning to move to the US to compete more regularly, but can’t anymore.

Is there any recourse to these bans?

There are ways to appeal the denial of entry. If your ESTA is denied but you never actually travel to the US, you can go through the TRIP process.

This happens rarely. In most cases, ESTA applications are approved far in advance; Madame Caramel’s story is unusual in that her application was canceled before she left the country, meaning she had the choice not to travel. In most cases, sex workers are detained at the border, where their ESTA gets denied. Both leave insufficient time to go through the TRIP process. 

Kitty* offers pro bono legal help to sex workers challenging visa denial, but calls it “extremely difficult.” 

“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but without a very sophisticated and private immigration attorney, you’re pretty much fucked,” she said. Instead, she sends FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to the US government to “find out exactly how they know that this person’s real name was associated with their work name,” in the hopes of finding out whether advertising services are actively collaborating with the authorities.

So what do we do?

It is unclear how the US government is identifying sex workers. It could be facial recognition, it could be advertising sites working with the government. The fight right now is for transparency. “Sex workers are giving all this money to advertising sites to make these people rich; meanwhile, they have zero policy in place to protect the privacy of sex workers, and that’s a huge fucking problem,” says Kitty. 

“We have to wake up to what’s actually happening because this can be corrected. We may not be able to stop facial recognition software, but we can hold accountable the companies who are getting extremely rich from sex workers, and then turning over Xerox copies of their passports to the feds. There should be more accountability.”

Audrey explains that some websites disclose that they cooperate with law enforcement, but don’t specify how. These statements are often buried in opaque terms and conditions, and no site is forthcoming in terms of speaking to the media.

Sex workers are overwhelmingly advocating for decriminalization, which Audrey describes as “the only model which is evidenced to reduce harm against sex workers.” By contrast, the Nordic Model—which criminalizes clients—increases harm.

With the help of organizations like Sex Workers’ Union and activists, sex workers like Marcus are beginning the lengthy, expensive, and frustrating process to appeal their bans. “The hope is that Homeland Security will reveal the process of its working data, which they might not want to do,” he explains. “All of this costs money and takes forever, but the hope is that they either reveal information or they lift the ban.” 

It’s a long shot, but it’s a battle that he’s determined to win.