On Wednesday, 11 April, Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act into law. Known as SESTA/FOSTA, the bills ostensibly aim to reduce sex trafficking. What it actually does is harm sex workers.
These two bills amend Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which asserts that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The law makes it illegal for websites to contain advertisements for sex work, which means that sex workers can’t use internet platforms to keep themselves safe.
The problem with this law is that it doesn’t distinguish between people who consent to engage in sex work and sex trafficking. Conflating sex work with sex trafficking implies that consent isn’t an important issue to consider. It also means that users will struggle to access sites, even though they’re not involved in sex trafficking at all.
Many sex workers use the internet to do their work safely. With sites like Backpage or Craigslist, they could find clients and vet them. Since they are particularly vulnerable to harassment and abuse, it’s incredibly important that they get to run background checks on potential clients. Additionally, forums allow sex workers to share advice and offer support to one another. Many online platforms also allow them to engage in digital sex work, such as cam work, selling videos and photographs, selling Snapchat subscriptions, and more. Since the internet can help them find clients, some can rely less on pimps to find work.
Long story short, the internet helps sex workers stay safe. But these bills change that. Since SESTA/FOSTA was passed, Backpage was seized and the founders of Backpage were charged with promoting prostitution. Craigslist shut down their personal ads to avoid any legal troubles.
SESTA/FOSTA doesn’t prevent sex trafficking. Instead, it harms those involved in consensual sex work.
Without these tools, sex workers are made even more vulnerable. Many sex workers have publicly spoken out about the bills, pointing out that it can literally lead to sex workers dying. This isn’t an exaggeration: without these platforms, they might not be able to run background checks on abusive clients. They might have to rely on potentially abusive pimps or clients to make up for lost clientele. Digital-only sex workers might consider doing contact sex work – that is, doing sex work in person – which can be more dangerous for them.
This doesn’t just affect sex workers in the US. Many of these US-based websites are used by people all around the globe, which means they are affected too. SESTA/FOSTA has also affected digital platforms where sex workers do cam work. Certain payment processors used by international sex workers have been shut down or limited because of SESTA/FOSTA.
SESTA/FOSTA is both an attack on sex workers and an attack on internet freedom as a whole. Backpage isn’t the only website that could face legal ramifications because of this bill. As an article in Vox points out, “The bill’s language penalizes any websites that “promote or facilitate prostitution,” and allows authorities to pursue websites for “knowingly assisting, facilitating, or supporting sex trafficking,” which is vague enough to threaten everything from certain cryptocurrencies to porn videos to sites for perfectly legal escort services.” In other words, even websites that aren’t created for the advertisement of sex work can be affected.
Over the past few years, we have challenged internet censorship with campaigns like #FreeTheNipple. We’ve spoken out against sexual abuse and sexual harassment with campaigns like #MeToo. If we’re behind the message that humans deserve freedom of speech and freedom from abuse, we also need to oppose these bills.
Sex work is work, and criminalizing sex work puts lives at risk. As it is, sex workers are an extremely vulnerable demographic, and bills like these make the world even less safe for them. As an attack on freedom of speech and the rights of sex workers, SESTA/FOSTA should be vehemently opposed by everyone who claims to support human rights.