More of the Same from Polk County’s Thought Police

Sheriff Grady Judd and his crew is at it again. Now they’ve turned their sites on some hapless gas station owner in Dundee, Florida, for allegedly selling some girly videos. Little did she know that the all powerful local government knew better than her what kind of entertainment the delicate citizenry of Polk County could tolerate. So now Minakashiben Patel sits in jail, apparently on a no-bond status, facing charges of obscenity. This isn’t the first time that this Central Florida jurisdiction has tried to enforce its version of “decency” on its citizens. The following article gives a pretty good history of Sheriff Judd’s efforts to promote Christian values in Polk County government: http://orlandoweekly.com/news/church-and-state-1.1109454. The First Amendment never stopped a skilled politician like Grady Judd, however.  He takes pandering to a new level, and destroys lives in the process. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects the New York Times the same way as a small gas station owner, when it comes to dissemination of free speech. We shall see how this case plays out, but their random obscenity prosecutions are certainly a threat to civil liberty, and the whole effort demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the changing societal mores in this country. Just look at how fast 50 Shades of Grey flew off the shelves. In year 2013, I think we can tolerate the sale of a few adult films sold in a local gas station.

Dangerous Intersections

Can a webcam model also be a paid escort and an active member of a “hookup” dating site?  Naturally, the answer is “yes,” but at what costs?  Blurring the lines between these adult-themed user categories creates an uncharted hybrid of legal exposure for both the individual model/escort and those operating the associated websites.  However, more and more frequently we’re seeing this sort of crossover in the live webcam, escort, and casual dating industries.  Historically, escort sites have operated on the legal assumption that their advertisers do not engage in sexual activity for hire, but simply offer paid companionship services.  Live webcam operators routinely engage in sexual activity on cam, but are typically prohibited from any “real world” meetings with users, so as to avoid concerns with prostitution and solicitation.  Finally, adult dating sites have avoided prostitution-related issues based on the fact that they merely serve as a forum for social interaction, and should any sexual activity occur between users, it is not in exchange for money or anything of value. However, when the same individual acts as a webcam performer, an escort, and a hookup site user, these important legal distinctions and assumptions can start to break down.

Importantly, no law prohibits an escort from having a normal, romantic dating life, complete with sexual activity.  Similarly, live webcam models are not legally prohibited from offering companionship escort services, or submitting profiles to casual dating sites in search of an occasional tryst.  The legal danger arises in the not-so-rare scenario, linking all of these activities together in some way. For example, escorts who provide sexually explicit performances via webcam must be careful to separate any discussion of escort activities or reference to online escort profiles, to avoid sending the wrong message to users.  Without clearly distinguishing between webcam and escorting activities, the government will likely argue that any explicit webcam activity is indicative of the services the model might provide when acting as a paid escort.  Whether such argument would be successful in a court of law is another matter, but the risk exists.  Escorts should be similarly cautious when linking to any dating site profiles that reference sexual activity, so as to avoid conveying any misconception regarding the limited, non-sexual nature of the activities that the escort is willing to engage in during a paid session.

While compelling legal arguments can be made in support of the legality of live webcam sites, escort sites, and hookup sites, those legal arguments can be negatively impacted by linking such activities together in some manner. In a perfect world, escorts would never engage in sexual activity, webcam models would never meet users offline, and adult dating site participants would never be compensated for anything having to do with erotic interaction.  Unfortunately, however, reality is messy.  Escorts and webcam models are entitled to a healthy sex life, like anyone else.  But as the escort, webcam, and adult dating business models become more popular and profitable, site operators will be forced to make difficult but important decisions regarding the extent to which any co-mingling of activity will be permitted or referenced on the site.

In the immortal words of The Offspring: “You gotta keep ’em separated.”  But with many operators permitting posting of user generated content with limited or no pre-publication review, along with real-time social network feeds, the ability of a site operator to control the intersection of these three areas of online adult entertainment can be challenging.  That said, pre-publication review of user posts/profiles creates its own set of complications, and may negatively impact the legal protections afforded to online service providers under federal statutes like Section 230, the DMCA, and Section 2257.  Thus, actively attempting to control linkage of these various activities could impact the site operator’s legal defenses to claims arising from the publication of this third-party content. Coherent operating policies should be adopted in connection with the publication of any such material, taking into consideration all of the factors.  However, given the serious legal consequences attached to the promotion of sexual activity for hire in the United States, site operators, escorts, and performers should be forewarned regarding these dangerous intersections. 

Update: The passage of FOSTA in April, 2018 has significantly impacted the legal issues addressed in this post.