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Busybodies Attempt To Sic The IRS On People Who Sell Sex Online


Over Thanksgiving, a group of busybodies started online-campaigning to get people who make money from sex audited by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Using the hashtag #ThotAudit, these troublemakers attempted to report attractive women to the IRS, presumably assuming that their targets are or have been engaging in mass tax evasion that the bored online hordes suddenly feel must be stopped.

Many conservatives and libertarians, including those here at The Federalist, spilled ink on this, some in support of the #ThotAudit instigators. In my opinion, though, there’s something nasty and immoral, from a libertarian perspective, about siccing a government agency like the IRS on people who have been routinely victimized by that very entity––the federal government.

The Market For Sex Work Has Not Been Eliminated

With the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, new legislation that basically holds third-party platforms accountable if ads for paid consensual sex are posted on them, internet pathways to arranging paid sexual encounters have been shut down or more heavily policed. This does not eliminate the market for paid sex, however, as some proponents fallaciously assume, it pushes it onto the streets, where it is invariably made less safe. When people who sell sex lose the ability to screen and gather information on potential clients via loss of use of an online platform, they’re less able to discern whether a potential client might jeopardize their safety and wellbeing. This has serious implications.

Regardless of your beliefs on the morality of selling sex, limited government proponents should take note of a few things: reporting potential nonviolent violators of federal law to a government agency so the government agency will do your moralistic bidding is not aligned with a true and principled belief in small government.

We can quibble all day about which government actions are just, but if you believe that taxation is theft––and therefore immoral––it’s oddly inconsistent to oppose it in most contexts, then attempt to wrangle up sex workers and Instagram models in order to subject them to something you profess is immoral. There’s something to be said in favor of government agents applying laws fairly and consistently (and we can have a broader philosophical discussion on that), but it seems contrary to limited government ideals to play narc by targeting specific groups of people you dislike.

Some conservative pundits have claimed that targeted efforts like the #ThotAudit are likely to encourage women to choose different lines of work and not engage in the presumed moral decay of our society. Understandably, many conservatives believe the sex industry contributes to sexual impropriety and immorality that harm our society writ large.

That worldview is perfectly valid, and probably a useful counterweight to many of the more hedonistic, overly-sexual strains of our society. But we must consider that an ideal society, by libertarian and conservative standards, is one where people are free to choose what they want, provided they’re not aggressing against others. If somebody wants to make a choice you personally find immoral on some distant corner of the internet, it’s not up to you to attempt to coerce that person, via the threat of government-imposed force or fines, into making a different choice.

Besides, if you truly want to convince someone not to engage in an act you consider to be immoral, wouldn’t a better approach be one of compassion or reason, not internet bullying and harassment with major real-world consequences? For the life of me, I can’t see what good might come of spying on each other and reporting people whose actions we disagree with to the IRS.

That means inviting the already-bloated, mass-surveilling federal government into our private lives even more than we have to, for them to increasingly play the role of nannies, censors, and hall monitors. This rarely ends well, and the same authority that helps you round up your political or moral opponents can so easily be wielded against you.

Foolish Assumptions Run Rampant

There’s also a potentially faulty and foolish assumption embedded in this: that because someone is making money from sex, he or she is also necessarily flouting the law and evading taxes. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes at Reason:

Plenty of solo sex workers, adult entertainers, and models do pay taxes, just like other independent contractors, and it’s silly to assume that just because someone is employed in a stigmatized industry they must also be skirting the law. Sex workers have the same incentives as everyone else to stay on the good side of Uncle Sam.

Surely some sex workers—like self-employed workers in many industries—do underreport or altogether avoid taxes. But somehow, the prospect of tax-dodging Airbnb hosts, YouTubers, freelance writers, and others hasn’t spurred the online audit squad to action.

Furthermore, reporting sexy women in debatably nefarious online industries to the IRS does not make sex workers and their ilk safer––or, better yet for social conservatives, change their behavior. The most likely end result is more federal government revenue, some women ending up with jail time, fines, or needless headaches due to government audits, and sex workers becoming increasingly incentivized to avoid a digital paper trail and stay far away from the countless online do-nothings looking to get them.

Meanwhile, if none of this concerns you, we’re increasing the degree to which we expect government agents to step in and adjudicate petty disputes within our online platforms. As evidenced by the absurd, arbitrary nature with which Twitter permanently banned then reinstated conservative pundit Jesse Kelly, I’m not sure we want to invite any more censoring, intrusion, or general narcing, whether it be to government agencies or to social media platforms. Let’s all take a step back and consider how to better further bona fide limited government values. Surely becoming vindictive cyber-tattletales isn’t the answer.