Click to enlarge
Sex Work is Work
In 2018, the United States government passed a package of bills called SESTA and FOSTA. SESTA stands for Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, and FOSTA stands for Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. They were advertised as a cure all for stopping the online sex trade, and making it easier for victims of trafficking to get justice against their abusers. The bills amend Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to allow prosecutors to penalize internet companies that “promote or facilitate prostitution.” Before, websites and internet service providers were not held liable for any user-generated content posted on their platforms. Now, the owner of any platform that hosts content involving sexual activity—including consensual sex work—can be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.
The idea was that if we could hold these websites liable for all 3rd party content, the website itself could be sued as an accomplice to sex trafficking. This way, victims could have some kind of justice for the harms done to them. The problem is that these bills are enabling trafficking and making life more dangerous for both consensual and nonconsensual sex workers. From FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost:
Within one month of FOSTA’s enactment, thirteen sex workers were reported missing, and two were dead from suicide. Sex workers operating independently faced a tremendous and immediate uptick in unwanted solicitation from individuals offering or demanding to traffic them. Numerous others were raped, assaulted, and rendered homeless or unable to feed their children. (Chaimberlain 2174)
Stuff like this isn’t even new. From Sex Workers of the World United:
Likewise, in England, the white slavery crusade led to the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment, designed to protect women from trafficking and exploitation. The law enabled the police to search brothels on a whim, and made street solicitation a serious crime. Promoted as a way to protect women, it ended up being a cudgel that allowed state authorities to criminalize, stigmatize, and lock up thousands upon thousands of marginalized women. (Stern)
The primary mechanics of the bills are about website hosts and allowable content. Many important websites that used to host sex workers were forced to shut down. With the loss of critical websites, sex workers lost access to important harm reduction tools. No more bad date lists, used for sharing info on clients. No more background checks on potential clients. No more advertising, no more private messaging, no more negotiating prices or services. Without these specific and tailored pages, sex workers are forced to be vague on social media or dating sites and hope for the best. Because those sites also prohibit solicitation, it gives potential clients a lot of room for pretending to be dumb and refusing to pay for services.
SESTA/FOSTAs assault on the internet means less income for sex workers. If the workers can afford it, they can create their own website and have it hosted overseas in order to avoid being under SESTA/FOSTA jurisdiction. That is an expensive option, and out of reach for most sex workers. Losing all of the internet resources meant losing a large percentage of clients. The remaining available clients demand cheaper services - or they outright refuse to pay - because they know workers are desperate. Sex workers also reported working for less reputable and more dangerous clients, and engaging in activities they aren’t comfortable with; because of the desperation that comes with the loss of these critical internet resources.
Websites banning sex-related content or shutting down completely means actual trafficking victims will be harder to find. When sex service ads could be posted online, the authorities could work with the website to study the situation and track the poster and even get some justice for the victim. Again, from FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost: Meanwhile, law enforcement professionals have complained that their investigations into sex-trafficking cases have been “blinded”—they no longer have advertisements to subpoena, digital records to produce for prosecutors, and leads that can bring them to live crime scenes full of evidence, like hotel rooms (Chaimberlain, 2175). Without the internet, everyone is forced outside.
Out on the streets there is no protection for either consensual or nonconsensual sex workers. They are at a huge risk of being robbed, being assaulted, being raped, and being arrested. Being forced to work outside, sex workers have been subjected to more assaults, more arrests, and more murders since the passing of SESTA/FOSTA. Savannah Sly, with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, testified to the Washington state Senate Labor & Commerce Committee, "What we're seeing is an uptick in violence across the sex trade since the passing of these bills."
Proponents claimed SESTA/FOSTA would save victims. This is an admirable position to take; trafficking is a big deal and victims need to be found and helped and the perpetrators ought to face some kind of justice. Forced labor is a human rights issue and stopping it would be great. From The New York Times: The bill “will grant victims the ability to secure the justice they deserve, allow internet platforms to continue their work combating human trafficking, and protect good actors in the ecosystem,” said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association (Kang). Unfortunately, many of these people think all sex work is trafficking. The proponents are anti porn, anti strip club, and anti sex in general. A few of the Christian groups who support SESTA/FOSTA are so blatantly anti sex to the point that they want to eradicate all sex work. From the World Without Exploitation: “We understand that we won’t end sexual exploitation until we end the demand for prostitution. As long as there is a global sex trade, ours will be an unsafe, unjust world.” Others claim porn and stripping lead to sex trafficking and sex crimes. From Citizen Magazine:
Lisa Thompson, liaison for the Abolition of Sexual Trafficking at the Salvation Army, points out the toxic side of porn for the user: “Pornography robs people from the ability to have an intimate, loving and committed relationship with their spouse where they can explore their sexuality within the safety of an exclusive union, because it programs the mind with debase, degrading, brutal and violent ideas about what human sexuality ought to look like. (DeMoss)
Stopping trafficking is a good goal, because forced labor is injustice; and victims deserve justice. They deserve legal protections. But these bills are not doing anything to stop trafficking. They are making it easier for trafficking to happen. When avenues for safer ways to work disappear, more marginalized folks are pushed out onto the streets. Repression always leads to greater danger and more male control. More control in the hands of pimps has, historically, led to more trafficking. SESTA/FOSTA "has suddenly re-empowered this whole underclass of pimps and exploiters," according to Pike Long, deputy director of the St. James Infirmary. (Stern)
Sex work is work, it is not trafficking. It shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place. Lots of marginalized people do sex work because they can’t or won’t participate in the regular economy. Many people chose sex work because of the higher hourly rates and flexible hours; people who are full time students, single parents, disabled, or have a criminal record. Gutting of social safety net programs always result in more people selling sex.
Consensual and nonconsensual sex workers already had a difficult time seeking justice before SESTA/FOSTA. Reporting a rape often meant being arrested for prostitution. Sex work is primarily a cash only business, without sufficient paper trails to show to prospective landlords. Even strippers get discriminated against when trying to find housing, because sex work is seen as a moral failing and a dirty job. If a sex worker wants to find a different job in a more civilian arena, they will be discriminated against due to either a huge gap in employment or because they put it anyways and few bosses want to hire someone with that kind of history.
As long as it’s illegal to do sex acts for money, there is a risk of being arrested for having that kind of history. Being arrested means gaining a criminal record, which is another barrier to housing and employment. If one already has housing assistance, being arrested means losing housing assistance. Even when sex workers try to combine forces and work together to stay safer, or when they talk to each other about clients or anything, that kind of communication and camaraderie is illegal due to FOSTA’s criminalization of any internet discussion that “promotes or facilitates prostitution.” Trafficking victims who fight back against their captors or try to get help also get arrested.
SESTA/FOSTA hurts way more than it helps. It took away income and pushed workers who had access to harm reduction tools into less safe work environments, increasing their financial insecurity and exposure to violence. Pushing people out of online spaces and into the streets results in a loss of consistent income, which leads to more stress and more trauma and the potential for a loss of housing. Sex workers rights are human rights. SESTA/FOSTA successfully took away the rights of these workers, and the rights of the real victims. As long as these bills are active, more marginalized people will be harmed.
As an anti-trafficking package, SESTA/FOSTA fails miserably. As a way to ruin people’s lives, SESTA/FOSTA has been a huge success. But I think that’s actually the point. Anti-trafficking laws have always been put into place so people can harass sex workers. They aren’t trying to stop sex trafficking, they are trying to end all sex work. If they really want to save “victims” then they should give us all a monthly universal basic income so we won’t have to do these jobs that are so publicly reviled. A minimum wage 9-5 isn’t a rescue, it’s a punishment.
Albert, Kendra, et al. “FOSTA in Legal Context” Columbia Human Rights Law Review. Issue 52.3. 2020-2021. hrlr.law.columbia.edu/files/2021/04/1084_Albert.pdf. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022
Blunt, Danielle and Wolf, Ariel. “Erased The Impact of FOSTA-SESTA” Hacking//Hustling. 2019-2020.
hackinghustling.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/HackingHustling-Erased.pdf. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022
Chamberlain, Lura. “FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost” 87 Fordham Law Review 2171. 2019. https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5598&context=flr
COYOTE-RI. “Impact Survey Results” 2018. docs.google.com/presentation/d/1KBsVBQh7EsRexAyZacaf_fUvvsVb2MR1Q30_gV7Je gc/edit#slide=id.p. Accessed 1 March 2022
DeMoss, Bob. “A Sinister – And Growing – Business Model” Citizen Magazine. April 2011. s3.documentcloud.org/documents/4407844/Sinister-Business-Model-apr11cz.pdf. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022
Kang, Cecilia. “In Reversal, Tech Companies Back Sex Trafficking Bill.” The New York Times. November 2017. www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/technology/sex-trafficking-bill.html Accessed 23 Feb. 2022
Oliver, John. “Sex Work” Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. February 27 2022. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gd8yUptg0Q. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022
Romano, Aja. “A new law intended to curb sex trafficking threatens the future of the internet as we know it.” Vox. July 2018. www.vox.com/culture/2018/4/13/17172762/fosta-sesta-backpage-230-internet-freedom. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022
Stern, Scott W. "Sex Workers of the World United: LAST YEAR'S SESTA/FOSTA LEGISLATION AIMED TO LIMIT SEX TRAFFICKING-BUT IT'S JUST THE LATEST IN A LONG LINE OF POLICIES DESIGNED TO CRIMINALIZE THE OLDEST PROFESSION." The American Scholar, vol. 88, no. 3, summer 2019, pp. 40+. Gale OneFile: Criminal Justice, go-gale-com.libproxy.pcc.edu/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=T003&resultListType=RESULT_LIS T&searchResultsType=SingleTab&hitCount=1&searchType=BasicSearchForm¤tP osition=1&docId=GALE%7CA589798939&docType=Essay&sort=Relevance&contentS egment=ZCUC&prodId=PPCJ&pageNum=1&contentSet=GALE%7CA589798939&sear chId=R1&userGroupName=pcc&inPS=true. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022
World Without Exploitation. 2018.
s3.documentcloud.org/documents/4359818/WWE-SESTA-Talking-Points.pdf. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022