The battle for sex worker's rights online: Proposed SESTA-FOSTA law in USA

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All sex work protest photos courtesy of Michael Cruz/Coyoteheaven Photography

All sex work protest photos courtesy of Michael Cruz/Coyoteheaven Photography

An unexpected duo, tech bros and sex workers, banded together in February in opposition of two bills meant to curb online sex trafficking. Despite their efforts, the bills, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), were incorporated into a conglomeration of the two, called the FOSTA-SESTA package. With a bipartisan approval of 388-25 in the House of Representatives and 97-2 in the Senate, the bill is now on its way to President Trump to be signed.

An unexpected duo, tech bros and sex workers, banded together in February in opposition of two bills meant to curb online sex trafficking.

The bill was set in motion as prosecutors realized sites like Backpage, a popular alternative to Craigslist known for advertisements of sex, could not be prosecuted under the previous state of the Communications Decency Act. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the bill “marks an unprecedented push towards Internet censorship.”

 

The bill allows third party platforms to be held accountable for the content of their users. So social media sites like Facebook, apps like Instagram, feeds like Twitter— all are now being highly incentivized, by fear of prosecution, to censor the voices of their users.

 

The bill undermines an integral legislation to the free-flow of ideas on the internet: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act passed in 1996. For the most part, this section made sure platforms could not be held liable for their user’s speech. The original bill was introduced in August of 2016 by Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman in an effort to make it easier to sue Backpage.com, a popular craigslist alternative that had a bustling online community of adult advertisements, for counts of prostitution advertised on their website by sex workers on their site. Sex worker activists assert the bill is not conducive to finding trafficking victims and will only throw the sex industry and trafficking market deeper underground.

Sex worker activists assert the bill is not conducive to finding trafficking victims and will only throw the sex industry and trafficking market deeper underground.

The EFF believes the bill unnecessary, citing the fact that there is currently no law prohibiting the prosecution of internet companies that knowingly aid sex trafficking. With this new bill, even if a platform doesn’t know it is the cause of sex-trafficking, it can be held accountable for those traffickers’ actions.

 

Susan Lopez, co-founder and former director of the Desiree Alliance, said, “These pieces of legislation would actually make hosting a blacklist (bad date list/ugly mug list) a felony. Those lists are how sex workers check on a potential client to make sure they’re safe to see. If someone has had a bad experience (violence, rape, robbery, etc.) at the hands of a client, that client will end up on a blacklist. Sex workers check these lists to avoid seeing someone who may hurt them or rob them.”

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All sex work protest photos courtesy of Michael Cruz/Coyoteheaven Photography

All sex work protest photos courtesy of Michael Cruz/Coyoteheaven Photography

Professor Alexandra Levy, who teaches Human Markets at the University of Notre Dame's Law School, wrote “The war on Internet platforms is pageantry: a kind of theater designed to satisfy people’s need to identify and fight bad guys without regard to nuance or long-term outcome. But from a tactical standpoint, it is more than a distraction. Censoring these platforms means forfeiting a resource that naturally facilitates the recovery of victims. Ironically, no one makes a more compelling case for their power to fight trafficking than the very organizations trying to shut them down.”

Censoring these platforms means forfeiting a resource that naturally facilitates the recovery of victims.

“The array of online services protected by Section 230, and thus hurt by FOSTA, is vast. It includes review sites, online marketplaces, discussion boards, ISPs, even news publications with comment sections,” wrote Joe Mullin in his article for EFF. For online dating websites too, this could be a big blow as the risk of prosecution is too great to allow such sites to continue. 

 

The heat of this bill is already being felt by websites. Craigslist took down it’s personal ads section just two days after the bill was passed by the Senate. The personals section is still available outside of the U.S.

 

According to EndSexualExploitation.org, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE)’s website, other websites have also shuttered their U.S. services. Action has been taken by The Erotic Review (TER), an escort review site, and Reddit. Reddit shut down multiples of its forums for sex workers while TER shut down it’s U.S. pages. Eros, a popular website for high-charging escorts to advertise their services, has been raided.

 

“Even sex workers would say review boards suck for us.” Vanessa Carlisle, host of the sex, gender and politics podcast titled On the Dresser, said on her episode about SESTA. “I’m not defending review boards. But I do know that any place that sex workers can interact with each other online is a place where we can be safer.” Carlisle asserted that to target review boards and online forums of sex workers (such as Reddit threads) does take away these particular places where sex workers can get information that can be very helpful in learning more about potential clients from other providers and advice on staying safe.

I’m not defending review boards. But I do know that any place that sex workers can interact with each other online is a place where we can be safer.

Another dissenting voice against the bill is the Department of Justice. Stephen E. Boyd, the Assistant Attorney General, wrote a letter to the chairman of the House, Robert W. Goodlatte, stating the bill will actually make it harder to prosecute sex-traffickers. Proponents of the bill include The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the organization Enough Is Enough, whose mission is to “make the internet safer for children and families.” Some proponents assert that the Communications Decency Act is antiquated and this added liability to third-party websites will help fight sex-trafficking by taking away their in-plain-sight accommodations.

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All sex work protest photos courtesy of Michael Cruz/Coyoteheaven Photography

All sex work protest photos courtesy of Michael Cruz/Coyoteheaven Photography

In a written statement on Enough Is Enough's website, CEO and President of EIE Donna Rice Hughes wrote, “The overwhelming bipartisan vote is a critical step towards draining the cyber-swamp of commercial sexploitation.” Or as Motherboard’s Samantha Cole put it, “The internet just became a more hostile place for sex workers, victims of sex trafficking, and fans of internet freedom.”

The internet just became a more hostile place for sex workers, victims of sex trafficking, and fans of internet freedom.

Like most bodily policing in the United States, laws regarding prostitution have roots deep in racial and economic inequality, usually to bipartisan support. For almost as long as there has been “The United States” there has been anxiety over sex work, specifically prostitution. To this day, as the existence of SESTA/FOSTA demonstrates, moral policing of sex work is being done through a conflation between sex work and sex trafficking. Prostitution is even often included in statistics of sex trafficking, skewing the public’s understanding of the span of trafficking in the states.

 

However, despite continuous backlash, movements across the United States to protect sex workers and their rights are flourishing. Activist groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Program are groups by and for sex workers that push for the decriminalization of sex work. There has even been annual conferences held by and for sex workers, the most prominent being the Desiree Alliance.

 

More and more women are getting involved in protecting sex workers because the violation of their rights is an issue that is often overlooked by more mainstream versions of feminism. Like many controversial issues, however, there are many different approaches to the safety of sex workers. The most common one today is of course what the United States has in place: criminalization.

Activist groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Program are groups by and for sex workers that push for the decriminalization of sex work.

Alternatives to criminalization policies include legalization, decriminalization and the “Nordic model.”  The “Nordic model” criminalizes only the buying of sex work, but still places sex workers at risk and takes away their means of income. While it may make sense at first that sex workers support legalization,  most sex workers and their allies support decriminalization because legalization can cause over regulation which often disproportionately harms minorities and low-income workers.

 

As seen, SESTA-FOSTA is an example of superimposing hyper-regulatory laws. In the United States of America, the battle for the rights of sex workers has only just begun.

In the United States of America, the battle for the rights of sex workers has only just begun.