A virtual reality sex worker claims she was denied entry to the U.S. on the basis of “prostitution,” despite doing online, legal work.
Hex makes a living in virtual reality. She’s an online sex worker, hosting shows and posting photos and videos from social VR platform VRChat to her Fansly account, a subscription site for erotic content. She streams from behind a virtual 3D avatar that tracks her movements, often wearing fuzzy animal ears fantasy-inspired neon outfits.
Hex had plans to travel from the UK to visit her friends in the U.S. this year, and applied for a tourist visa. But in late January, she said, she received a letter stating that she was permanently ineligible for admission to the U.S. The reason given was the code for “prostitution.”
“My reaction to the notice was honestly ‘what the hell? How is this possible? What I’m doing is completely legal,’” she told Motherboard. “I was very upset and confused, it baffled me completely and it still does.”
Clement Lee, the Associate Director of Immigration Legal Services at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, told Motherboard that sex workers confronting barriers to travel and obtaining visas is “all too commonplace.”
When someone applies for a tourist visa—and then again when they apply for admission at an airport or border, he said—U.S. immigration authorities analyze the traveler’s immigration history and criminal history, and look for any evidence to determine whether the person could be denied admission to the states.
“‘Inadmissibility’ is a legal concept that constitutes a broad array of immigration violations that can cover anything from polygamy to substance abuse to what immigration calls ‘engaging in prostitution,’” Clement said. “When sex workers have criminal convictions under laws that criminalize sex work, we regularly see that those people may encounter intense questioning by immigration authorities to see if there exists grounds to deny them entry. But even when people DON'T have criminal convictions related to sex work, they may be subject to similar scrutiny.”
The Sex Workers Project has seen an increase in individuals being stopped at borders because of their online presence, he said, and interrogated about whether they’ve engaged in “prostitution.”
“Even if the person is ultimately allowed into the country, the hours of interrogation by immigration can be scary and humiliating,” Clement said.
He and his colleague often argue that their clients aren't ineligible for admission to the United States even if they have engaged in sex work, “because there's an additional requirement that the sex work must be continuous and regular and within the past ten years, amongst others,” he said. “Usually we as lawyers can find some kind of way to argue that our clients' lived experiences as sex workers don't match the rather narrow outmoded definition of sex work that immigration uses, but when a person has no lawyer (which is usually the case when stopped by immigration authorities at the airport), folks can often by pressured into making admissions that hurt their chances of getting into the country.”
The immigration office, Hex said, has been unhelpful throughout this process. “They’ve been very vague about it to me, it’s honestly upsetting,” she said. To obtain a visitor visa, applicants typically must attend an interview with a consular officer, where they review the application.
“When I was at the interview, I told [the officer] everything as my Fansly is virtual reality content from a game called VRChat, I do post IRL pictures of me via a paywall and I do not meet anyone IRL from that platform,” Hex said.
“The woman gave me a very dirty look when I explained everything to her,” Hex said. “I told her it was a virtual game and I use a VR headset, she didn’t understand anything I said, all she said to me is, ‘so do you meet these people on this website.’ I said ‘no absolutely not.’” The officer nodded, Hex said, and told her that she was denied but that her application would be processed. Then she received the letter with the decision to deny her entry, which she posted to Twitter.
The definitions immigration laws use to define prostitution are outmoded, according to Clement, defining the term as "engaging in promiscuous sexual intercourse for hire."
“Because online sex work almost by definition can't include the sort of physical contact that's a prerequisite for ‘sexual intercourse,’ doing exclusively online sex work, on its own, is unlikely to trigger the visa bar,” Clement said. “However, as a caveat to that, there's nothing legally preventing U.S. immigration authorities or the Department of State, with very little evidence or no evidence at all, from presuming that a person who does online sex work may also do in-person sex work as well, leading to a denial of a visa to the United States for ‘engaging in prostitution.’” For tourist visas, the government can deny them for any reason at all, or even without a reason, Clement said.
The state department can deny a visa because “they simply feel like it,” he added, and “there's remarkably little recourse for someone who is denied a tourist visa,” usually even lacking in written explanations for the reasons of denial. Typically, people just have to wait, and complete a new application, and hope for a different outcome next time.
Some countries are more discriminatory against sex workers than others—including the U.S. and Japan. According to a 2019 policy brief by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, many sex workers chose not to travel to these countries at all. They can apply for a waiver of inadmissibility, which can be a costly and time-consuming process, but even that can be denied.
“I want to clear my name and get this resolved as it’s unfair and not true,” Hex said. She received an email on Tuesday from the London non-immigrant visa office, she said, so she’s hopeful but still confused.