Next Monday, the Senate is set to vote on a bill that proponents believe would protect people who exchange sexual services for money. In reality, FOSTA-SESTA would do precisely the opposite. It would endanger sex workers of all kinds, no matter how willingly or unwillingly we work.
FOSTA-SESTA is designed to prevent sex trafficking by making websites liable for online speech that may enable it. (The bulky acronym combines the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.) The bill’s Senate sponsors, Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), describe it as a “milestone in our fight to hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve.”
Strangely, though, the bill does nothing to help trafficking survivors confront their actual abusers, i.e., the traffickers. It focuses its ire on the websites viewed by the bill’s proponents as enablers of the sex trade.
The law would effectively force sites to censor any user content that alludes to the exchange of sex for money. It would target ads for sexual services, which in reality can help sex workers by minimizing their reliance on pimps and public spaces to find work. It would also demand that sites censor information that people in the sex trades share among themselves to help each other avoid violence or even escape abusive pimps or partners. Under FOSTA-SESTA, this content, even if it’s just shared among sex workers on Twitter, could be construed as conduct that “assists, supports, or facilitates” sex trafficking.
The bill’s supporters, playing on feminist sympathies toward those who have been forced to perform sexual labor, imagine that it will eradicate the most vicious, coercive forms of sex work. In fact, by eliminating digital resources that protect all kinds of sex workers from violence, FOSTA-SESTA would drive sex work into more obscure and dangerous territory.
The bill targets Backpage.com and any similar advertising site that may emerge in its wake, out of a conviction that penalizing these sites will somehow eliminate sex trafficking or give trafficking survivors a sense of justice. The much greater likelihood is that trafficked persons will be pushed into streets, bars and makeshift brothels to find work, along with sex workers who are not being trafficked. The more openly we can talk about our services online, the better equipped we are to protect and support each other. But this legislation would foreclose the possibility of sex workers supporting sex workers.
FOSTA-SESTA offers a stark contrast to decriminalization initiatives, which aim to assist trafficking victims without damaging their and other sex workers’ ability to make a living and which have the approval of Amnesty International.
In addition to making sex workers of all kinds less safe, FOSTA-SESTA is part of the federal government’s growing effort to curtail what we can say, do and see online. The bill aims to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which generally protects those who run online platforms from being liable for content posted by their users. FOSTA-SESTA would effectively gut this provision and force sites to eliminate any content that could “promote or facilitate prostitution.”
That language is broad enough to cover not just ads from sex workers seeking clientele, but also “bad date lists” that warn about violent customers, harm reduction resources describing tactics for self-protection and even legal advice directed toward sex workers. We know this because similar legal language regarding the promotion of prostitution has long obstructed sex workers from meeting in groups and organizing offline without a thick shroud of secrecy.
Above all, it does not appear that this bill would even help those investigating sex traffickers. The free flow of information on the internet is a valuable source of evidence for preventing and solving crimes. Police departments have received tips and identified trafficking rings thanks to the availability of online ads.
Sex workers across the country, including survivors of sex trafficking, are vehemently opposed to FOSTA-SESTA. But lawmakers are not listening to us.
They need to listen because our government seems to know little to nothing about transactional sex. This is apparent in the House’s report on FOSTA-SESTA, which describes prostitution and sex trafficking as “inextricably linked” in an effort to justify further criminalizing the promotion of prostitution. But there’s a difference between people who are forced to have transactional sex through trafficking and people who choose independently to have transactional sex. Laws concerning sex work fail to make the distinction, producing a mess of contradiction about sexual agency, coercion and culpability.
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.
Don’t get me wrong: Brutally trafficked sex workers exist, and anti-trafficking campaigns are responding to an entirely real and horrific problem. But they are not the whole story.
Even sex workers with pimps or abusers possess a degree of agency, and some simply want safer and more independent conditions to work in. Many are distrustful of the police and the state, and would prefer the help of other sex workers. These perspectives go unheard, dismissed as trauma and brainwashing. In supporting measures like FOSTA-SESTA, anti-trafficking policymakers are denying that any voluntary forms of sex work exist or are worth considering. They’re denying that sex workers have any power to derive pleasure from their work, because the policymakers only conceive of it in its most austere form.
“Sex workers across the country, including survivors of sex trafficking, are vehemently opposed to FOSTA-SESTA. But lawmakers are not listening to us.”
Meanwhile, state and local prostitution laws continue to treat all sex workers ― including trafficked ones ― as criminals, culpable for violating laws against exchanging sex for money. These laws see us as having agency, but only to punish us for exercising it. They encourage the entrapment and harassment of sex workers by police departments and make little pretense of protecting us from anything except our own indecency. They are implemented largely in the name of “broken windows” policing, which disproportionately targets trans people and people of color. And at their core, they function to prohibit consensual sex between adults just because it is explicitly transactional.
What both kinds of laws fail to understand is that we work under a combination of force and free will, and constantly make decisions out of a limited range of options. We often choose sex work over service or retail jobs, or do it in addition to other underpaid work. Many of us are forced into sex work, not by a pimp, but by dismal wages and abusive bosses or by unaffordable housing, education and medical costs. Taking down Backpage and other resources will not alleviate the systemic conditions that draw people into dangerous forms of sex work. It will just make all forms of sex work more dangerous.
FOSTA-SESTA ignores the truth, which is that sex workers are asking for the same things other laborers have always asked for: payment for our work, safer conditions and the freedom to help protect each other as a collective. By advancing a bill that would remove sex work from the Internet, lawmakers are undermining all those goals.
Few of us engage in sex work with total freedom or under total bondage. We do any kind of work not purely because we want to, but because we live in a society in which we are made to, whether it is by a pimp or a landlord or a collections agency. In spite of this crushing structural weight, we find ways to make choices, even if they are constrained and difficult, even if they are small. This bill, which is being sold as a path to justice and freedom, will only make our choices smaller.
Ty Mitchell is a queer culture writer, drag queen and gay porn performer based in Brooklyn, New York.