President Donald Trump signed a controversial bill into law on Wednesday that targets online sex trafficking by holding online platforms responsible for user content related to sex work.
“I’m signing this bill in your honor,” Trump said to a group of sex trafficking victims as he signed the legislation at the White House. “You’ve endured what no person on Earth should ever have to endure, and we are going to do everything in our power to make sure that traffickers are brought to a swift and firm justice.”
The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known by the acronym FOSTA, targets websites like Craigslist and the personal classifieds online platform Backpage.com, which the government recently seized and shut down. Websites like these are rife with advertisements for sex work, including both voluntary sex workers and victims, often underage, who are forced into the sex trafficking against their will.
“We are all together ― politicians, both Republican and Democrat ― signing this and representing this to you in your honor,” Trump said of the legislation, which has been hailed by some as a rare bipartisan win.
The bill was referred to as FOSTA in the House and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the Senate. The version of the bill that passed retained the former acronym.
The law has been criticized by many sex workers and advocates because it conflates voluntary sex work with victims trafficked into the industry. Critics also argue that the legislation will only push both sex trafficking and voluntary sex work further underground, which would put both groups in even more danger.
“When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances.”
“When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances,” Jean Bruggeman, executive director of trafficking victim resource group Freedom Network USA, told HuffPost last month.
Briq House, the Communications Director for the Sex Worker Outreach Project-USA, described the legislation as “internet censorship” last summer. “Without proper ways to establish identity, set service boundaries and screen people properly, this bill could turn casual meet ups into life or death situations,” House wrote.
Since 2007, just over 22,000 sex trafficking cases have been reported in the U.S., according to advocacy group Polaris.
As Trump signed the bill, many sex trafficking victims and family members looked on in support. One survivor, identified as “M.A.,” dabbed behind Trump.
“I am not a survivor. I am M.A. It’s about damn time,” she said.
The legislation influenced many websites, including Craigslist, to shut personal sections before the bill ever landed on Trump’s desk. Earlier this week, several Backpage.com executives were indicted on charges that the website allegedly promoted selling underage girls for sex, facilitated prostitution and subsequently laundered millions of dollars in profit.
While the law aims to curb sex trafficking, it puts consensual sex workers at a greater risk because it makes it harder for them to use websites to screen clients and protect their own identities.
One sex worker, identified as Mandie, told Newsweek this week that she’s “devastated and terrified” by the legislation.
“People are going to die. I know that sounds blunt and maybe a little alarmist, but it’s not,” Mandie said. “The most marginalized of us are going to die. Trans people, people of color, poorer people are going to die.”