Misogynists online are threatening to send the Internal Revenue Service after sex workers, in a viral harassment campaign known as #thotaudit.
Many sex workers have “premium” Snapchat accounts, where they share exclusive photos and videos with people who send them money (usually through PayPal, Venmo, or a cryptocurrency.) Unless reported as income to the IRS, this income is off the books. Recently, trolls have begun harassing sex workers by saying they're going to report them to the IRS, and many sex workers are worried that they'll be audited.
Some of these trolls are sending follow requests to the sex workers’ paid platforms, like Snapchat or friend requests on Facebook, to access more of their information. From there, the harassers say they’re using the IRS official whistleblower program to report them for tax fraud.
This harassment campaign seems to have originated last week, with a joke someone posted to Facebook about being audited for income made through a Snapchat account. From there, it was picked up by misogynists and trolls on Facebook and spread to Reddit and 4chan. It gained more traction on Twitter over the weekend, with the hashtag #thotaudit. As more people piled into the conversation to defend or degrade sex workers, it kept spreading.
We weren't able to confirm whether trolls are actually reporting people to the IRS, using the whistleblower program as a threat, or just saying that they are doing these things to harass sex workers. To report someone through the whistleblower program, you need a lot of their personal information: Physical address, full legal name, date of birth (or approximate age), and taxpayer identification number, according to the IRS’s page about the program. You also have to have to have specific information about the type of fraud being alleged as well as how much money the person being reported has earned; it’s clear from the forms and information about the program that this is generally intended for people within companies to whistleblow about tax evasion that they have very specific knowledge of tax evasion and documents that prove it. You also have to physically mail all of this information to the IRS, because it does not accept any of this information by phone or email; one of the whistleblower programs specifically states that anyone submitting information does so under the threat of perjury.
“It is essentially a cesspool of hatred, degrading, and exploitation.”
I asked Christopher Kirk, attorney and master preparer at Safeword Tax Service, for his perspective as someone who helps sex workers through the tax preparation and auditing defense process.
“While I am not aware of the frequency with which sex workers get audited as a result of trolls reporting them, I suspect it's not high,” he told me in an email.” Even if the reporting person had all of the information they needed about their target, the IRS has bigger fish to fry, Kirk said. “Most sex workers tend not to earn enough to catch the notice of the IRS. With their limited staff resources, the IRS tends to go after larger operators.”
Whether people are actually going through the process of reporting sex workers to the IRS or not, they’re definitely using the threat to shame and intimidate, and boost their own social karma within toxic communities. That doesn’t make it less dangerous. Outing a sex worker is a serious threat to their lives and livelihoods, as is the psychological toll of being harassed in this way.
“I think it was all a big joke at first that went way out of hand, because now this large group of men are reporting sex workers to the IRS for tax evasion, and all of these women are shutting down their accounts now in fear that they’re going to be arrested for doing sex work,” Cammie, an adult streamer, told me in a Twitter message. “I don’t know if it actually matters or not, but a lot of girls are now losing their primary source of income because they’re afraid they’re going to get charged.”
Alice, a now-retired cam model, told me in an email that when she responded to some of the viral, toxic posts circulating on Facebook, her post received more than 13,000 comments and thousands of shares. “Even now as I type this email to you, people are still commenting on my post,” she said. “It is essentially a cesspool of hatred, degrading, and exploitation.”
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Some of the sex workers I spoke to over the weekend in Twitter direct messages and emails told me that it doesn’t matter as much whether the threats are valid or not: It’s still hurting them by deterring them from making a living and putting them at risk for outing. “To mess with someone’s livelihood and potentially hand them a felony out of spite is awful,” one woman, a full-time student who uses money she makes on Snapchat as her main source of income, told me in a Twitter message.
She recently received a notice in the mail that she’s being audited by the IRS. It’s not clear whether she was audited because of this harassment campaign, but it’s unlikely, since a report to the IRS usually takes a while to be processed. But her situation illustrates the harm being reported can do—and the gray area that exists in making income on social media platforms and how these platforms leave their users uninformed. Platforms like camming sites and subscription sites like Patreon issue a 1099 for filing purposes when a creator makes over a certain amount through their platforms. There are rarely 1099s associated with sex work on Snapchat, Reddit, or other platforms because performers are paid on separate platforms.
“Had I known there were rules and regulations for premium snaps I would have willingly claimed taxes on it,” she said. “But for the most part it’s untouched territory.”
“I halted any and every subscription I had because I don’t want to get into any more trouble than I’ll already be in if it does go through,” she told me. “Internet culture is honestly at its worst and these people are potentially ruining women’s (and a few men’s) lives by getting them into trouble with the law as a joke. They are doing it solely because they think it’s funny to ‘cleanse the internet.’”
“Turning people on for a living already requires bravery, vulnerability, and exposure, with a host of job-related hazards."
Many sex workers do pay taxes, and adult industry-focused journalists like those at Tits and Sass offer information about how to file taxable income as a sex worker. But some, for varying reasons, might not pay taxes on what they earn.
”No doubt a huge number of sex workers operate in grey and black markets, meaning their income is not always officially accounted for, especially workers who are paid in cash,” Lola Davina, author of Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry who has been in the sex work industry for 15 years, told me in an email. “But the notion that all sex workers do not report income, or have it reported for them by third-party platforms, is simply false. Many, many sex workers operate like any other internet-based small business owners, reporting income, and paying federal, state, and Social Security taxes on that income.”
It’s so much like any other small business, Kirk told me, that sex workers should be aware they can claim deductions on work-related purchases like anyone else—on lingerie, condoms, health and beauty treatments, anything that helps them do their job.
“The IRS does not care about the source of a taxpayer's income, and deductions are largely allowed, even in an illegal business,” Kirk said. “Except for businesses engaged in the manufacture, distribution or sale of controlled substances in violation of state or federal law (for which deductions are disallowed under a particular section of the Internal Revenue Code), any business may deduct its ordinary and necessary business expenses. Thus, a sex worker can deduct expenses like travel, advertising, and supplies such as condoms.”
But whether someone pays taxes or not is beside the point. We live in a society that jointly shames and criminalizes people for making money with sex work, and punishes them for not obeying the law with what income they do earn. The people claiming to report sex workers to the IRS are unlikely to have any idea whether sex workers are properly reporting their income for tax purposes, and are feeding on the stigma that already exists about sex work.
“The stigma for sex workers remains strong and it is something that many women, men, and transgender people have grouped together to fight for the liberty and freedom to make a safe, consensual living,” Alice told me. People making memes and spreading hate, even as a joke, toward sex workers are just making it harder to exist, she said. “It saddens my heart that we still live in a world of such malice, but many people have been banding together to try to stop this and to support one another even stronger.”
Davina told me that she has “no doubt” this harassment campaign is taking a toll. “Pretty much everyone, regardless of what they do for a living, has a knee-jerk fear of getting audited—for those operating in the adult industry, that fear is even stronger,” she said. “Turning people on for a living already requires bravery, vulnerability, and exposure, with a host of job-related hazards—getting outed, stalked, robbed, attacked. #thotaudit is just the latest in a long line of weapons used to make sex work feel more dangerous, more marginal, more criminal."
Update: This post has been updated with additional comment from a tax attorney.