Sex Workers Know What Will Keep Them Safe. It’s Time We Started Listening.

“Even symbolic victories can have real victims.” – SB & Anna Bongiovanni

The chorus of voices opposing anti-sex work legislation FOSTA-SESTA is growing.

President Trump signed the misleadingly-titled Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers (FOSTA-SESTA) bill two weeks ago, over the opposition of sex workers’ activist groups, internet freedom advocates, feminists, and the ACLU.

The law aims to prevent sex trafficking by punishing sites that host content related to “prostitution or sex trafficking,” making no distinction between consensual sex work and human trafficking. And the lack of definitions of what constitutes either prostitution or sex trafficking opens the door to broad internet censorship. Websites have already begun censoring any user content that could be interpreted as violating the rules, including shutting down sex workers’ online communities and safety resources, banning the use of Skype to sext, and searching users’ Google Drives for explicit content.

Even before the law went into effect, the FBI shut down Backpage, a site many sex workers used to screen clients and ensure safer working conditions. Craigslist shut down their personals ads, Reddit banned education subreddits used by sex workers to share information about dangerous clients, and Twitter and Instagram started suspending or limiting sex workers’ accounts.

And most concerning of all, there are already reports of sex workers going missing.

FOSTA-SESTA and its supporters rely on its feel-good veneer to avoid deeper scrutiny: celebrity PSAs, endorsements from Democratic Party darlings like Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, and misleading data. They dismiss and silence sex workers as histrionic and ignorant. At the heart of their message is an appealing promise: that laws like FOSTA-SESTA will rescue victims of sex trafficking by making it harder for sex traffickers to use online platforms.

But beneath the warm and fuzzy picture is a more complicated reality. FOSTA-SESTA is opposed by many survivors of human trafficking and anti-trafficking organizations, who know that the law is as harmful for trafficking survivors as it is for sex workers. By shutting down websites, FOSTA-SESTA actually makes it harder for police and advocates to locate and identify trafficking victims online, driving trafficking further underground and its victims into more dangerous, isolated conditions.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that FOSTA-SESTA conflates sex work (aka, the consensual involvement of adults in the commercial sex industry) with human trafficking, a form of exploitation and abuse. Not only is this view wrong, it ignores the evidence that the criminalization of sex work makes everyone involved in the sex industry — whether they are there consensually or by force — more vulnerable to violence by threatening people with incarceration and preventing them from receiving lifesaving social support due to stigma.

FOSTA-SESTA’s main proponents are right-wing “morality” organizations that oppose sex ed, abortion, and LGBTQ rights. They are supported by politicians and celebrities who are either ignorant of how the law will actually affect both trafficking survivors and sex workers, or who dehumanize sex workers so much that they accept their deaths as collateral damage.

Sex workers knew the devastating impacts that FOSTA-SESTA would have on their lives and communities. And they are the ones working tirelessly now to educate the public and fight back. Here are some suggestions for further reading:

– Melissa Gira Grant interviews 7 sex workers on what it means to lose Backpage and how the site enabled them to more safely support themselves. For more on how the internet became a “safer workplace” for marginalized folks in sex work, check out this comic on The Nib.

– For all their pseudo-concern about “women’s safety and exploitation,” proponents of FOSTA ignore the devastating material consequences of this law for sex workers. These fundraisers from groups like The Black Sex Worker Collective support low-income, queer and trans, and black and indigenous sex worker communities who have lost their livelihoods from FOSTA-SESTA.  

– Sex work is a means of survival for many trans people — particularly trans women of color, disabled trans women, and immigrant trans women — who are forced out of formal economies by transphobic discrimination. This piece — and quote — is an excellent example of how sex worker justice is trans justice:

It’s become cool to circulate pictures of murdered trans women and anti-trans violence statistics, but no one wants to think that maybe a good amount of this violence was made possible in the first place by criminalizing the sex trade.” –  Raquel Velasquez

– The violence and stigmatization of sex workers goes far beyond FOSTA-SESTA. The criminalization of sex work makes sex workers vulnerable to violence at the hands of the police. As Melissa Gira Grant said, “When sex work is criminalized, the cops are your boss.” Police regularly harass, rape and murder sex workers, and the fact that FOSTA-SESTA pushes sex workers into more street-based work means that they will be more vulnerable to police abuse. Criminalization also prevents sex workers from seeking support after experiencing violence from cops or individuals. To understand how the law has historically targeted sex workers, read historian Morgan Page’s analysis of how police harassment and indifference led to the murder of sex workers by a Toronto serial killer.

To learn more about the impacts of FOSTA-SESTA and how you can support sex workers’ organizing, follow Survivors Against SESTA , Tits and Sass, and the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project

Image credit: Rolling Stone

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