On April 11, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which says websites can be held legally liable if their users post ads for prostitution, was signed into law. In the lead-up to its passage, the bill was responsible for the closure of a host of advertising and review sites used by sex workers, most prominently Craigslist Personals and Backpage, the latter of which was seized and shut down by the FBI.
The bill was intended to fight sex trafficking, but it has had a dangerous effect on the many sex workers who have consensually chosen the profession and who relied on the internet and its tools to keep themselves safe and make a living.
For many consensual sex workers, losing these free or low-cost advertising platforms means losing the ability to work indoors and the ability to screen clients ― two major factors that contribute to a sex worker’s overall safety. (People being forced or coerced into prostitution also benefit from client screening and not having to work on the streets, the bill’s opponents point out.)
Sex workers also rely on the safety tool of communal “bad date lists” ― websites where sex workers share information on bad or dangerous clients. Sex workers say these too are being shut down in the wake of FOSTA’s passage.
Many of the dozens of sex workers I spoke with for this feature said opportunistic clients and pimps are taking advantage of the rapid changes, hoping to prey on the stressed community and on the workers they assume are desperate.
“This bill will and already has been responsible for the murder, rape [and] arrest of sex workers and will further push trafficked people underground,” says Arabelle Raphael, a 29-year-old sex worker in California.
As Raphael points out, it is so far mostly free and low-cost sites that are disappearing, which she says largely affects those who can’t afford more expensive advertising platforms or who can’t “class pass” ― that is, adopt the markers of a higher socioeconomic class ― enough to get work on them.
The most marginalized groups (e.g., people of color, LGBTQ people, low-income people and the disabled) are most dangerously affected by the changes to the digital landscape. But the bill conflates sex trafficking with any kind of sex work, and its ripples are affecting consensual sex workers across the industry, including those involved in legal sex work, like porn performers.
Allie, 27, was surprised to find how much her work in pornography has been affected by the bill’s passage. Her archives were deleted by Google Drive, and her bank abruptly pulled out of processing payments for her website.
Spooked by FOSTA’s broad implications, many digital platforms are revising their terms of service or booting content of a sexual nature altogether. Microsoft revised its terms of service to ban “inappropriate content” like nudity and offensive language on Skype. Sex workers report having their accounts banned and shadowbanned on social media sites like Instagram and Twitter. Some website-hosting services are shuttering sex workers’ domains. As happened to Allie, Google Drive has begun reviewing and deleting users’ content directly.
For those with the privilege to do so, this has become a moment to diversify income streams, to pivot to new technologies, to learn about encryption and cryptocurrencies. For those without such resources, it’s a dire moment, when not only are their livelihoods at stake, but also their lives.
Below, nine sex workers explain in their own words what it’s like living and working post-FOSTA.
‘It’s forcing me to go back the streets, walking up and down trying to find clients’
Melissa, 32, Phoenix, escort
The bill has already affected me, and it’s nothing good. Because of this bill I’ve now been forced back to the one place I barely made it out of alive the first time, what [do] you think the chances are that I make it out alive again? It’s forcing me to go back the streets, walking up and down trying to find clients. Now I not only have to deal with the police, but now I’m forced to deal with tricks that know this bill is in effect, and trust me, they are taking full advantage of it by being more aggressive. And unlike being in the safety of my room, I’m in their car, I don’t have the option to leave or kick them out. I’m literally stuck in their car until they are finished with whatever it is they want from me.
Every night now before I start walking, I literally have anxiety attacks before I even get out there. My heart starts to race, I start to panic and when I look over at the street I start breathing harder and break down every time. I start shaking so bad that I literally have to call my friend and keep her on FaceTime so she can calm me down. I can’t be in that mentality while I’m out there. I need 100 percent of my focus to be keeping myself safe and in the moment. But with the PTSD I have from being out there, it’s not that easy staying in the moment. When you’ve been through the shit I’ve been through out there, it’s not something you forget about. I talk to my friend while I walk up and down the street, and every time I get in a car, I keep her on the phone, until I’m back safe in my room.
“This stupid bill literally has taken away the one thing I felt as if I had control over in my life.”
Every morning I’m stressed because I have to choose between paying for my room or eating. Days when I used to be able to live comfortably and enjoy life, days that I was actually working through parts of my PTSD, now I’m barely making room money. I’ve had to go without things such as eating in order to keep a roof over my head. Or go back to my pimp who has stayed on my phone since this happened, promising me clients and his “protection.” What’s worse is the johns now know about this stupid bill and with Backpage being closed, they are taking full advantage of the situation, and it’s not right!
This stupid bill literally has taken away the one thing I felt as if I had control over in my life. The one thing that was allowing me to be a functioning, contributing member of society.
‘They want us out of sight, underground, dead or in the streets easy to arrest’
Kendall, 21, Los Angeles, escort
I think most sex workers would agree with what my friend and fellow sex worker Jessa Jones said about the current state of our industry: “We feel stifled, we feel scared, and we feel invisible.” And of course it’s been emotionally and mentally draining.
We have run out of practically ALL safe avenues of advertising and screening. We have to rely on poor screening, due to this. We are also having our blacklists shut down ― websites where the sex worker community would post and warn other providers about dangerous clients, from robbery, assault, rape and even murder! We mainly rely on our close-knit community and one another for our safety and well-being. Ripping that away from us puts everyone at risk ― especially the most marginalized groups, like women of color [and] trans, LBGTQ and disabled providers.
Providers with more privilege like myself can, fortunately, afford to make all the changes to encrypt everything and to advertise on the existing platforms. But for MANY, especially minorities ― people of color, LGBTQ and disabled ― they are facing homelessness, they are going without food, they have to lower their rates, they are having to take unsafe risks when meeting clients, considering our screening process is in shambles now! I have seen providers lower their rates or offer extreme discounts. Many providers are getting texts from pimps promising them clients. There have been reports now of fellow sex workers missing. Many have gone completely under the radar, or even changed their identities. Many are very depressed, even suicidal.
“You have to consider, for many this is our livelihood -- and it is being ripped away from us as if we are not even human beings and not worthy of equal protection.”
You have to consider, for many this is our livelihood ― and it is being ripped away from us as if we are not even human beings and not worthy of equal protection. They want us out of sight, underground, dead or in the streets easy to arrest. That is precisely what this bill will produce.
Overall, as mentioned, we are scared. We wake up every day not knowing what is going to happen next ― is my website still up? Are sex worker resource sites still working? Have they deleted any of my social media platforms? Where do I go, how do I continue working? What if this date is dangerous? Am I somehow going to get in trouble? Will I be able to provide, not only for myself but for my family, this week? This month?
‘This bill is killing us. We can’t screen clients like we used to, which is what was keeping us safe’
Lexi, 27, Florida, escort
FOSTA-SESTA has affected me to where I’m wondering if I’m ever going to get calls again. There are other places to advertise, but they’re either too expensive or they require approval. I’m now scrambling to make myself a new website and get new photos taken since all of my content was wiped offline. It’s not only time-consuming but hugely expensive. I have a toddler and I’m always worried now how I’m going to provide for him. Backpage gave me a lot of extra income to do that and spend as much time as I wanted with my son.
“I have a toddler and I’m always worried now how I’m going to provide for him.”
It has definitely made me more depressed. And my anxiety has gone up more than it ever has been. I’m always worried about bills and how I’m going to pay them.
The effects this bill has had on my community are horrendous ― mothers not able to feed their kids, the lights getting shut off in lots of sex workers’ homes, a lot of people not knowing how they’re going to pay their rent or getting eviction notices because they can’t. Women now having to walk the streets just to get clients and being put in dangerous circumstances that they never had to deal with before. This bill is killing us. We can’t screen clients like we used to, which is what was keeping us safe.
‘We’re trying to figure out how many of us are literally dying because of this law that’s supposedly trying to keep us safe’
Colette, 36, San Francisco and L.A., dominatrix
I think it’s making me and all of us sex workers think twice about everything we do. From how we promote our work (e.g., we’re careful to not call what we do by its name, we censor ourselves on social media, we’re checking into the terms and agreements of every company we employ, from our banking to our website hosting) and how we communicate to each other and our clients (e.g., we’re ditching Gmail, Skype and regular texting and switching to ProtonMail, Wire and Signal).
We’re checking our Twitter feeds daily to get the latest update on which companies are changing their terms and agreements and taking down their forums on which we once advertised. We’re trying to collect information on how many of us sex workers are being pushed to the streets or to profit-driven pimps to find work. We’re trying to figure out how many of us are literally dying because of this law that’s supposedly trying to keep us safe.
“The political just got really personal.”
If we’re not dying from the unsafe conditions that we’re being pushed to, we’re dying because some of us have been pushed to their limits and have chosen to end their life because all of this feels like too much. It feels like we’re heading toward or living in some fucked-up dystopian world that’s growing more emboldened to oppress us.
Before this bill, we were already marginalized, censored and shadowbanned, but now after this law has come to pass, our work is becoming criminalized and abolished under the guise of stopping sex trafficking and keeping us safe. The political just got really personal.
‘It has made me feel very hopeless’
Dii, 26, Colorado, full-service provider
I am a full-service sex worker and FOSTA-SESTA has affected my work by limiting the venues I can use to advertise. I used Craigslist Personals and Backpage mostly.
I’ve always taken what I can get, so it doesn’t affect my safety too much, but I’ve gotten messages from blacklisted numbers and people I refuse to see because I think they expect I’m desperate.
“People are panicking. Indoor workers are going out on the street. Some of them are disappearing.”
People are panicking. Indoor workers are going out on the street. Some of them are disappearing. People I know are getting contacted by pimps and abusers more because they know we are desperate. People’s business is slowing down or screeching to a halt in some cases.
I used to work on the street and I’ve been working indoors for a long time now. I’ve had to branch out and start exploring every avenue I can, which has been really stressful and taxing.
It has made me feel very hopeless, because I wanted to retire from sex work and do something else but now I don’t think I will have the financial stability to transition away from it anytime soon.
‘We’re losing access to resources that literally keep us alive’
Mistress Velvet, 29, Chicago, dominatrix
Mainly some of the websites that I use a lot no longer are available. Backpage has had problems since last year, but I was still able to find ways to advertise on Backpage, and now it’s completely gone. I was able to find people through Craigslist even if I wasn’t posting ads there, and now all of those Personals are gone. And then I used this website called The Erotic Review to find other providers and talk about their experiences with a potential client or find different kinds of reviews, and now that’s gone.
Last month I wanted to have a session with a couple. They gave me the name of a dominatrix in L.A. as a reference, so I messaged her. She said really good things about them, but I also wanted to verify her. She gave me her Erotic Review profile so I could see her through there. And that day I went to look at it and found out The Erotic Review was shut down. So I wasn’t able to verify the domme, and because I’m just so paranoid and I didn’t have the resources that I’m used to, I ended up not seeing the couple, because there were just not enough of the things that are bringing me security.
For myself, I have a full-time job, so I have that kind of backbone or leeway. But this full-time job is recent. Back when I wasn’t doing that, I would just kind of take those risks and see someone, even if I wasn’t 100 percent sure or feeling OK about it.
“I think that we’re all trying to help each other in whatever way that we can. A lot of us can’t even help each other because we’re struggling and surviving ourselves.”
I’m in a support group of us that have dinner on a regular basis and kind of bitch and moan and complain about the things that are going on, so I’ve been hearing a lot of different stories. We’re losing access to resources that literally keep us alive.
If I didn’t have some sort of support group or something, I wouldn’t know what I would do. It can feel very isolating, and even with a support group, you sometimes feel like you’re kind of in this by yourself. In the first couple days after SESTA-FOSTA, I was being really inundated with stories of people who were missing, and I was really crying a lot and talking to my therapist a lot about it. I’m in a different stage of grief now that’s turned more to anger. And also, “OK, what can I do for myself and what can I do for the people that I’m in community with?”
There’s been a lot of empathy in community in the sense that we’re all experiencing this in different ways, but they’re kind of coming from the same kind of foundation or system of oppression. I think that we’re all trying to help each other in whatever way that we can, and also that a lot of us can’t even help each other because we’re struggling and surviving ourselves.
‘My income has been slashed dramatically to the point where I don’t know if I’ll be able to make ends meet’
Angela, 40, Canada, sex worker
FOSTA/SESTA has affected everyone, including me. Backpage was the first to fall, and Craigslist. Those were the two main advertising forums in Canada. I’m down to one. My income has been slashed dramatically to the point where I don’t know if I’ll be able to make ends meet.
I’m indigenous, and a sex worker and female. I’m at greater risk of violence just because of that. Taking away online forums makes it a lot harder to screen clients and advertise. I do feel afraid for my safety. I’ve been feeling pretty scared because it’s hard to say what’s going to happen next. You never know what they’re going to come for.
“Taking away online forums makes it a lot harder to screen clients and advertise. I do feel afraid for my safety.”
I recognize my privilege in the fact I’ve got more than one income source, and I work indoors. Others don’t have it so good, and may be forced to work on the streets.
The powers that be don’t care about victims. They don’t care about sex workers. They want to abolish sex work and eliminate the demand for it, while providing no concrete solutions for those who do wish to leave sex work.
‘It feels like the rug is being ripped out from underneath me’
Allie, 27, New York, porn performer
From the porn perspective, I’ve been surprised at how much SESTA-FOSTA has infiltrated the porn industry. So that includes my Google Drive being shut down and all the porn removed from it. Just now, the bank that pays me for my clips site pulled out. Now I don’t even know if I’ll be getting paid on this pay period or when I’ll next be getting paid there.
“Expect the worst” is really what I’ve learned over the past two weeks. Nowhere is safe. No platform is safe for us. It’s been surprisingly fast censorship and having lots of companies pull out from the adult industry and the existing sites cracking down on what they allow in what seems almost like a panic.
“"Expect the worst” is really what I’ve learned over the past two weeks. Nowhere is safe. No platform is safe for us.”
And with the censorship in the social media platforms, that has huge implications as well for independent porn. Queer, feminist independent porn has flourished under social media and really kind of created a competition with the mainstream model, so it’ll be really scary to see what happens if all of us get kicked off social as well ― what that will do to continue to fuel the mainstream industry and silence any kind of diversity in porn. Queer, trans, POC, different body shapes and types, disability porn ― stuff like that predominantly exists through that self-promotion online.
I think there’s a lot of fear. My predominant sex worker community is queer sex-working women and trans people, so there’s the fear of, “What’s going to happen to my community? Is my community going to be safe?” And then even beyond that, realizing that I have so much privilege in the sex work world and being really fearful for people who don’t have that and just thinking about how hard this probably is for those people, including people who are being trafficked.
And then there’s the practical fear of the day-to-day with Google Drive deleting everything and being like, “Will my entire life’s work be deleted when I wake up tomorrow? Will my entire email be deleted with all my contacts tomorrow? Will I get a warrant out for my arrest tomorrow?” So there’s kind of this emotional fear. It feels like the rug is being ripped out from underneath me and it’s hard to keep up with all the changes.
‘FOSTA has created a playground for predators’
Arabelle, 29, California, sex worker
Sex workers are losing or at risk of losing the ability to work indoors by advertising online, the ability to screen clients before meeting, bad date lists, safety forums. One of the bad date list sites I use decided to self-censor. I personally have used it to warn other workers of a man who had raped and scammed me. It could be wiping sex workers from all social media platforms, a critical tool we have been utilizing to organize, run our businesses on and take part in the public discussions about ourselves. This bill will and already has been responsible for the murder, rape [and] arrest of sex workers and will further push trafficked people underground.
“This bill will and already has been responsible for the murder, rape [and] arrest of sex workers and will further push trafficked people underground.”
I have already heard and seen workers going out to work the streets, people reported missing, people losing their homes. Sex workers are scrambling to find other platforms to advertise on. Their entire way of making money has just disappeared. Bad clients are using this to their advantage, trying to get providers to lower their rates, push their boundaries, threatening them that they probably won’t be able to make a living if they don’t see them. Pimps [are] contacting providers trying to recruit independent workers. It’s heartbreaking. FOSTA has created a playground for predators.
FOSTA has been incredibly spirit-breaking, but giving up isn’t a choice. It set a fire under my ass to reach out and start organizing my community. These bills are trying to alienate us from one another. We can’t let them win.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.