In the Trump era few federal policy proposals are met with such seamless bipartisan cooperation as The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), House and Senate bills that became law as FOSTA-SESTA last month.
FOSTA-SESTA expands the liability online platforms for user-generated content. This means websites offering advertising venues for sex workers lose free speech protections that previously guarded them from successful prosecution by the federal government and, in the absence of these protections, many of them are closing or excluding access to U.S. users. As a sex worker myself, I know that these sites preyed on people’s desperation, I can’t say I’ll miss then. But while FOSTA-SESTA represents a mere bump in the road for the historically resilient sex industry, its true cost will be measured in the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable among our communities of sex workers.
Unemployed and undocumented, I found my first pimp almost a decade ago in the adult services section of the online classified site, Backpage. I hate pimps. I hate anyone who makes a living off of another person selling their sex. But my pimp was a better deal over agencies that took 50% or more in their cut without actually providing much in the way of protection. He was scary enough that he served as an effective deterrent to potentially bad-behaving clients and he showed me the ropes of running my own sex work business. When he started texting me insults and threats as reprisal for my refusing to sleep with him, I blocked his number and hoped my recollection that I didn’t tell him my actual home address was correct. I never heard from him again but periodically saw his ad on Backpage seeking new recruits making me cringe while at the same time feeling in part that I owed him my life.
Just as there is nothing inherently empowering about prostitution there is nothing inherently empowering about the advertising sites that enable prostitution online. Although I abhor any policy that attacks the ability of sex workers to provide for themselves, I do not mourn the closure of Backpage or the shuttering of scores of online escort advertising venues in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA. The popular assertion among advocates that these sites offered low-cost advertising is a oversimplified myth. Posting an ad was free on Backpage but in most cases you needed to bump it in the hopes of anyone actually seeing it and those bumps were so prohibitively expensive. At times it cost as high as $20 to move an ad to the top of the listings in the Toronto escort section. Other escort ad boards shut down by SESTA-FOSTA were no better: they offered reviews sections where regulars in the industry, chronically undersexed and over-entitled men called “hobbyists,” reveled in posting often offensive and career-ending diatribes against workers.
While I do not mourn the closure of these predatory advertising venues I mourn the casualties of the transition. As the remaining advertising venues scramble to capture the fallout clientele from sites legislated out of existence, the workers dependent on these now closed sites find themselves out of options. Forced into accepting unsavory clients and onto the unfamiliar terrain of street work, many of the most marginalized among us are going missing, at least three people I know ended their lives.
The leadership of the sex worker rights movement, largely cisgendered white women with privileged experiences of sex work from a bygone era, continue to mobilize toward the repeal of FOSTA-SESTA even in the absence of political will. This legislation is an unholy alliance of Right and Left under the ominous umbrella of White Feminist ideology. In the House of Representatives it was passed with an overwhelming majority of 388 to 25. In the Senate scant opposition to the bill made strange bedfellows of Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and former Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul. While sex worker rights activists direct vital community resources to a futile fight, culminating in a National Day of Action today commemorating the kitschy holiday International Whore’s Day, the death toll among poor sex workers continues to mount.
In the immediate moment we must respond to the needs of the most vulnerable sex workers with material support and advocacy. This means empowering directly impacted people already doing the work with money, labor, and a platform to have their voices heard. This means resisting the ongoing onslaught against the survival of poor sex workers including SB 1204, a proposed law in California that criminalizes providing assistance to street-based sex workers, a population that has ballooned since FOSTA-SESTA displaced online sex workers onto the street.
In the long term decision-makers on all sides of this debate must confront the unpleasant realities of force and coercion in the sex industry rather than drive them deeper underground with legislation like FOSTA-SESTA Romanticizing the level of agency represented by these advertising sites, erasing the nuance and gradient of choice that often hinges on privilege, also furthers the violence against those victimized by the ruthless dynamics of the sex industry. These realities not only survive when we attempt to contain them in the shadow of our collective conscious, they thrive, they profit off of our willful silence and wither under the unflinching gaze of our humanity.
Image credit: Vancouver Media Co-op
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