The bill’s supporters have framed FOSTA and SESTA as vital tools that will allow officials to police websites and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization. This is a disingenuous portrayal, however, because it fails to acknowledge the ways the internet makes it easier for sex workers to do their work safely, while also making it easier for law enforcement to document and gain evidence about illegal activity.
There is ample evidence, both anecdotal and researched, that giving sex workers a way to advertise, vet, and choose clients online makes them much safer than they are without an online system. When they’re forced onto the streets to find clients, sex workers have fewer advance safety precautions in place, no ability to effectively pre-screen clients, and no way to ensure that they work in safe, secure locations.
The bill also conflates consensual sex work with nonconsensual sex work by doing nothing to differentiate between various kinds of sex work and related content — even if the workers and content are all legally protected by local law. In Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some areas of the state, sex workers have been bracingfor FOSTA-SESTA. And one Nevada sex worker recently blamed the bill’s passage for a new local referendum that is attempting to shut down legal adult brothels.
It’s important to note that not differentiating between consensual and nonconsensual sex work is part of an international legal standard codified in a 2000 United Nations protocol. This protocol was later expounded upon in a 2014 follow-up that examined issues of consent and asserted that “consent is always irrelevant to determining whether the crime of human trafficking has occurred.”
However, sex workers have argued vociferously that regardless of legal precedent, this conflation makes both consensual and nonconsensual sex workers less safe.
Sady Doyle has more:
If women are unable to book clients over the internet, many of them will do it face-to-face, on the street—where they have less time and fewer reliable opportunities for screening, and are far more vulnerable to abuse. Online, sex workers also tend to have access to a larger pool of potential clients, which gives them alternatives to prospective clients who seem dangerous. To lose that decision power is to cost women their lives. In one study, cities that introduced a Craigslist Erotic Services site (where sex workers could advertise) were found to have a 17-percent drop in female homicides. Not homicides of sex workers—of women, period. Sex workers comprise such a massive chunk of all female murder victims that the implementation of even basic safety measures for them can have a hugely beneficial effect across the board.
It’s hard to reconcile these facts with horrific abuses that Backpage is said to have profited from. But you can recoil from those abuses and also recognize that SESTA-FOSTA is not well-positioned to end them. No child sex traffickers were indicted in the Backpage seizure—only a handful of webpage executives. (Indeed, when Backpage shut down its sex ad section last year, not only did child trafficking continue, police officers said it was harder to catch the traffickers: “When Backpage was running adult ads, we used to get tips, but that has dropped off,” San Jose Police Department sergeant Eric Quan told the New York Times. “It makes it a lot more complicated for us to figure out what’s going on.”) And when websites become liable for sex-work-related communications, the resulting censorship does not only affect traffickers; it means a crackdown on related communications, including those designed to help or protect sex workers.
And while Both Sides Do It is a lazy and misleading frame most of the time, in this case the shoe fits: SESTA passed the Senate 97-2. Ron Wyden voted no, but none of the ambitious senators potentially eyeing 2020 runs did — Sanders, Gillibrand, Booker, Harris, Klobuchar. The Democrats are full collaborators here. The “anti-trafficking” selling point is powerful no matter how specious, and people are unwilling to stand up for the interests of sex workers. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but it’s appalling.
The larger problem is that criminalization of sex work is a moral abomination. It arbitrarily singles out one particular line of work, making it much more dangerous. Defenses based on traditional morality obviously fail, and arguments that these laws are actually for the good of sex workers are absurd. Defenses of these laws are simply delusional about what a lot of work is like — some sex workers like it, some hate it, some find it tolerable but would rather be doing something else, which makes it…a job. Many perfectly legal professions are horrible jobs for most people and are more obviously worse for society — I’ve had them and many of you have too.
Sex work should be legal and regulated like other jobs. Sex workers should be able to screen customers, share information, negotiate transparently, and appeal to authorities when they’re in danger. FOSTA and SESTA, passed in the name of protecting them, just compounds the problems of an indefensible legal regime.