On paper, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fighting Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are the latest legislative efforts to fight the scourge of human trafficking. Their goals – eradicating slavery and child sexual abuse – are undoubtedly noble. But in practice, the bipartisan bill package represents a dangerous display of ignorance.
Clearly, lawmakers failed to get input from those who will be most affected the bills – let alone anyone with knowledge of the internet’s role in the industry of sex work. If they had, they wouldn’t have penned legislation that will ultimately censor the internet, put sex workers in more danger and do virtually nothing to help find people who are being trafficked.
An amendment to the Communications Decency Act section 230, SESTA-FOSTA looks to severely punish anyone who uses the internet to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” The problem lies in this broad language of the bill. Rather than just targeting pimps and traffickers, the bill restricts anyone who consensually engages in sex work and all websites they use to communicate for sex work.
Repercussions for free speech online are staggering and have already begun: Microsoft has banned the use of “offensive language” and nudity from Skype, Xbox and other platforms, while Google has started searching for and deleting nudity from users’ Drive accounts. On Friday, April 6, the Department of Justice seized the website Backpage, and in March Craiglist preemptively took down its entire Personals section. Reddit banned a number of subreddits about escorts and sugar daddies and tech experts suggest changes could be coming to more social media sites and dating apps.
While all internet users will be impacted by this law, those most negatively affected are those it purports to help. SESTA-FOSTA doesn’t make it easier to find trafficked people or provide them any resources. In fact, the Department of Justice, who opposed the bills, says it’ll actually be harder to locate them.
Another population that is already being adversely affected are consensual sex workers, people who choose to provide erotic services in exchange for money. Some sex workers enjoy the flexible hours and relatively good wages, others have simply come to rely on this industry to pay their bills. The idea that most providers are coerced or forced into the industry is a myth that is not supported by research. A recent DOJ study found that not only were juveniles far less likely to be trafficked than anti-trafficking lobbyists have suggested, pimps were also far less prevalent.
Ironically, because of these laws, many lower income sex workers who have been operating independently online will need to turn to much more dangerous street-based work and the supposed protection provided by pimps.
Local porn performer and cam model Anna Moone has been engaging in education and activism in response to the laws.
“The main way I have personally been affected is through this culture of fear that has arisen,” Moone tells Philly Weekly. “Basically every day a new site clamps down on speech or shuts down entirely.”
She mentions Switter, a weeks-old sex worker-friendly social media platform that has already gathered more than 50,000 users. Cloudflare, the initial provider for Switter, has already terminated service in response to SESTA-FOSTA, a law it had lobbied against and continue to decry as dangerous for free speech.
“Twitter is the main way for myself and many other sex workers to engage with [our] customer base,” Moone add. “I have spent over a year tirelessly carving out a significant following there. The fact that I could lose it at any minute because of SESTA is a sword of Damocles hanging over my head. If Twitter bans sex workers, my career is over, as I will not be able to promote my films or my cam shows.”
For the anti-sex work lobbyists behind bills like SESTA-FOSTA, this is the real goal: end the sale of sexual services entirely. However, as sex historian Kate Lister points out, no law in human history has ever done that. Instead, she says, efforts to abolish prostitution or curb demand only increase stigma and have regularly led to increased violence against sex workers. Even the so-called Nordic model, which criminalizes clients but not providers, has resulted in more assault and murder of sex workers.
Well-meaning would-be clients might be deterred from seeking services, but those who are intent to harm or exploit a vulnerable population are not – and sex workers who face abuse or theft at the hands of a client are unable to turn to authorities for help, lest they be arrested.
Local cam model Rabbit is less alarmed by the new law and takes another angle. In an interview with Philly Weekly, she says the sites on which she works have not been affected. “Cam sites know the language, they know how to get around it. We’ve been doing this a long time.” She adds Backpage probably should have been shut down because it provides a false sense of security to providers. “A lot of young girls get into it thinking it’s easy money; but they don’t know what they’re getting into. You can’t really screen clients that way.”
The only solution to the problem of sex trafficking, she says, is decriminalization. Sex worker rights activists, academics who study the industry, as well as organizations like Amnesty International, UNAIDS and Human Rights Watch, all agree. Providers in regions that have decriminalized sex work, like New Zealand, Denmark and parts of Australia, are able to refuse questionable clients more easily, and report experiencing fewer assaults and thefts – from both clients and police. They are also able to more easily identify victims of trafficking and access resources without fear of arrest.
If legislators are genuinely interested in combating trafficking, they need to not only reverse course on this law but move toward a model of decriminalization. Or, at bare minimum, listen to sex workers.