By: Alice Little Many American ideals are based on the notion of a free market economy—you know, one where people are allowed to advertise what they are selling as long as it is legal. Most industries are able to use this freedom with abandon. And yet, there are two notable exceptions: cannabis and sex […]
By: Alice Little
Many American ideals are based on the notion of a free market economy—you know, one where people are allowed to advertise what they are selling as long as it is legal. Most industries are able to use this freedom with abandon. And yet, there are two notable exceptions: cannabis and sex work. Both legal in certain states, these two trades are subject to extra rules and regulations. Is it fair? No. Is it legal? It certainly is. Let’s talk about why that is and what we can do to move forward.
Cannabis Companies and Sex Workers Are in Similar Situations
Despite the legality of both industries, cannabis dispensaries and sex workers are in the same fight. Even when trying to abide by the many confusing limitations on where we can advertise, oftentimes, our efforts are struck down and silenced. Without hiring a lawyer or doing extensive solo research, simply trying to market your legal business is much harder for those in stigmatized-but-legal industries than it is for other companies.
For example, though cannabis companies can use billboards for marketing purposes in certain places, lots of different legal stipulations come into play. There may be a moratorium on billboard usage if a majority of the population isn’t over 21. But the truth is that no one is regulating whether the people who will drive past the billboard are 21—it’s just another method to make advertising more difficult for cannabis companies.
Google abides by federal law, so advertising cannabis isn’t legal there. They also forbid certain search terms which could affect how to optimize your content for search engines. Social media outlets, too, are overseen by federal law, which makes advertising on social media impossible. If a certain company doesn’t like your content or feels that you’re getting too close to overstepping, that platform can hide your content without facing any repercussions. And they can remove your company from social media completely, which could devastate a fledgling business.
Censorship, Marketing, and Legality
Censoring “inappropriate” sexual content has always been difficult because everyone has a different opinion about what is appropriate. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said that obscenity was difficult to define, but he knew it when he saw it. This grey area is still present today in how different state and federal laws as well as individual social media companies have defined what is okay as advertising. It’s difficult for companies and independent contractors like me to put together a cohesive marketing strategy when you never know what will get you removed from a site.
FOSTA-SESTA legislation (the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) made this situation worse. They lumped all sex work together—as if consensual sex work did not exist, and now websites are held responsible if anyone has an advertisement for sex work on them. This has motivated many websites to remove sex worker content for little to no reason.
Personally, I have been suspended from Twitter for violating their rules multiple times, and once, all of my YouTube content was removed for several days. My YouTube channel is solely sex education—there’s nothing remotely inappropriate about it. But since the standards are purposely vague and unevenly applied, sometimes I get flagged and removed. This upheaval doesn’t just cost me in terms of followers and engagement—it costs days of my time fighting to get my social media presence back. And this applies just to my social media presence, not to advertisements or marketing endeavors.
Cannabis companies face a lot of the same discrimination, which is often disguised as moral concern. They have to jump through hoops just to exist as a legal company on the Internet. Many cannabis marketing companies mention that you are allowed to run advertisements on social media as long as you don’t mention CBD, hemp, or cannabis at all. But if it’s legal, why can’t you mention it? These legal vagaries cost cannabis companies vast sums of money each year.
Digital advertising is essentially off-limits for sex workers and cannabis companies. Censoring dispensaries and sex workers on social media is no small inconvenience. According to some estimates, advertising dollars spent on social media have more than tripled since 2016, and ninety percent of companies use social media for advertising. The reason companies use these marketing tools is because they are so effective, and cannabis and sex work companies are unable to compete fairly because they are being excluded from these platforms.
For years, people have needlessly panicked about the legalization of sex work and cannabis. They imagined that cannabis would be a gateway drug that would lead to more dangerous addictions—but it’s not and it hasn’t. People worried that the legalization of sex work would lead to a moral downfall and a sex-crazed population—but it hasn’t.
And yet, lawmakers use the outdated language of moral panic to censor already-stigmatized industries, and they will continue to do so unless we stop them. If history has taught us anything, censorship typically leads to more censorship. Advocates of freedom need to band together and vote out politicians who think it’s okay to silence the marketing initiatives of companies that provide legal goods and services. Representatives must represent the voices of their constituents who have voted in favor of the legalization of sex work and cannabis. Politicians who make it harder for their constituents to do their jobs should examine their commitment to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Alice Little is a pro-cannabis activist, active social media influencer, sex educator, and a legal sex worker. Find her at thealicelittle.com.