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How the FOSTA/SESTA bill puts sex workers at risk

By Sara Kloepfer

Sex workers have been protesting the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) for months, warning that the bills claiming to prevent sex trafficking would actually eliminate the resources that protect all kinds of sex workers from violence, and put trafficking victims at greater risk by driving the industry deeper underground. Despite their efforts, the bills passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives and the Senate and were signed into law by President Donald Trump on April 11th. The bills received heavy support from celebrities like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers.

On the surface, this seems rather obvious. No, of course we don't support sex trafficking. Yes, of course we'd like to stop it.

But that's not what this bill does.

So what does FOSTA/SESTA actually do? 

SESTA makes websites liable if they “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking,” while FOSTA goes one step further to conflate sex trafficking and sex work. FOSTA amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protected online intermediaries from being held liable for their users’ speech. Now, under FOSTA it is a federal crime (punishable by up to 10 years in prison) for websites to host content with “the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” 

The new legislation effectively forces websites to censor any user content that alludes to the exchange of sex for money. In their wake, multiple sex work forums have shut down, Reddit deleted its escort and sugar daddy groups, and Craiglist’s personal ads, which were responsible for a drop in female homicide rates, disappeared. Many sex workers reported missing or locked Google Drive files, and Microsoft warned customers using Office, Xbox, and Skype that they will be prohibiting “offensive language.” Two days before Trump signed the bills, federal authorities seized Backpage, one of the main advertising sites targeted by the legislation. The legislation’s vague language could also potentially affect social media accounts such as Twitter or Instagram, from which sex workers are already routinely suspended or banned. 

According to Liara Roux, a sex worker, independent porn producer, and organizer, SESTA is already having a devastating effect on sex workers. “Since our safety resources have come down, SESTA has a body count,” said Roux. “This legislation has removed vital safety resources from a community already at high risk of violence. It has taken a career away from people who were paying their rents and feeding their kids. Every organizer you talk to can tell you there are verified reports in their immediate community of sex workers who have come to harm as a direct result of the FOSTA/SESTA fallout.”

FOSTA/SESTA targets websites purported to be trafficking hubs, when it is precisely those sites that not only enable sex workers to do their work safely and independently, but also make it easier for authorities to find and investigate possible trafficking cases. Online advertising sites like Backpage and Craigslist help sex workers screen clients, negotiate terms in advance, and minimize their reliance on pimps and public spaces to find work, while community forums allow spaces for sharing safety resources.

The bill will hinder, not help, its purported goal of curbing trafficking 

This legislation will force sex workers onto the streets, where they face more harassment and violence. Moreover, the bill will hinder, not help, its purported goal of curbing trafficking — closing down these sites only pushes trafficking further underground. In fact, the U.S.’ largest network of anti-trafficking organizations, The Freedom Network, has warned that FOSTA will compromise the very tools that are most useful for finding traffickers. As Roux puts it, “The reality is, decriminalization of sex work allows people in the sex trade to come into the light and ask for help from the government and law enforcement when they need it. Right now trafficking victims are as likely to be arrested, or abused by the police, as they are helped.”

Want to learn more about SESTA/FOSTA?

Here are some articles and podcasts where sex workers share their experiences and explain their concerns about SESTA/FOSTA:  


1) “If You Care About Sex Trafficking, Trust People in the Sex Trades — Not Celebrities”  by Alana Massey — writer, editor, and former sex worker.

“The very websites that these bills enable law enforcement to criminalize are precisely where I found the generous communities and actionable advice I needed to get out of and avoid exploitative sex work situations going forward. Though the bill is meant to target sites hosting sex work advertisements, it covers online forums where sex workers can tip each other off about dangerous clients, find emergency housing, get recommendations for service providers who are sex worker-friendly, and even enjoy an occasional meme.” 

2) “If Lawmakers Want To Protect Sex Workers, They Must Listen To Us” by Ty Mitchell — queer writer, drag queen, and porn performer.

“On one hand, anti-trafficking policies tend to view all sex workers as absolute victims, flattening their tremendously diverse experiences into a uniform narrative of abject exploitation. In this view, we’re all children too traumatized to speak on our own behalf, and we require the voice and protection of the state to save us.” 

3) “Sex Workers Are Canaries In The Free Speech Coal Mine” by Emily Smith — writer, activist, and sex worker.

“The difference between what sex workers and their advocates say — that trafficking is a relatively minor issue in their industry — and what anti-sex trafficking legislators believe reflects the country’s long held reluctance to believe women when they tell the truth, especially when it involves sex. One place where that truth is told daily is the internet communities where sex workers reside in safety and solidarity, and SESTA is designed to break up these communities.”

4) “SESTA-FOSTA Proves Lawmakers Don't See Sex Workers Like Me As Human” by Andre Shakti — journalist, educator, performer, activist, and sex worker.

“Trust me, sex workers want to see an end put to sex trafficking just as much as anyone else. But instead of working with us to effectively identify and eradicate trafficking — which would require them to see us as human beings — government officials are seizing and shutting down the very online platforms that we use to make a living and keep ourselves safe.”

5) “Congress Is Preparing to Harm Queer Sex Workers Like Me” by Alexander Cheves — writer, activist, and sex worker.

“Sex work doesn’t go away when you shutter a site — nor, it must be said, does sex trafficking. We don’t just stop working, and pimps don’t just call it quits. We resort to less regulated and more dangerous ways of conducting business — ways that hurt victims and hurt us.”


1) Stuff Mom Never Told You, “How SESTA is Putting Sex Workers at Risk”

Host Bridget Todd discusses the impact of FOSTA/SESTA with sex work and trafficking policy researcher and Reframe Health and Justice partner Kate D’Adamo and sex worker and sex workers rights advocate and activist Erica Kane.

2) Reply All, “No More Safe Harbor”

Host PJ Vogt talks about SESTA/FOSTA with Caty Simon, co-editor of Tits and Sass and a sex worker; sex worker Trinity Collins; Scott Cunningham, one of the authors of the study on Craigslist’s erotic services; and Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of anti-trafficking organization ECPAT-USA. 

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