Sex & Relationships

New Legislation Forces Sex Workers Back to Streets and Strips Away Internet Freedoms in One Swoop

The SESTA-forced end of a Craigslist personal ads era means big problems for sex workers.

Photo Credit: Feminist Fightback/Flickr Creative Commons

In our society, sex work isn’t considered “real work.” With the risks of physical harm and constant denigration from family, friends and critics, sex workers are rarely treated with dignity and respect and are often arrested because of unfair laws.

They have come under attack in recent months after the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the Senate, and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) in the House. A combination of both laws passed in the Senate on March 20 by a vote of 97-2. Senator Rob Portman introduced SESTA in the Senate and the House’s FOSTA bill passed in February. The bill was signed into law Wednesday, April 11 by President Donald Trump. Now, SESTA-FOSTA, or commonly called FOSTA, gives state attorney generals the ability to bring civil suits against violators of federal prostitution laws. Engadget reports SESTA-FOSTA could take anywhere from 90 days to until 2019 to take effect after the signing.

These bills intended to stop digital platforms from facilitating human trafficking will inadvertently make the lives of sex workers who practice consensual sex work much more difficult.

Experts from various organizations and on a variety of platforms have criticized these bills because online sites like RentBoy, where workers conduct business typically, will be penalized for ads that may be misconstrued as human trafficking advertisements. Platform owners could be prosecuted under the new law even if they were unaware of users promoting sex trafficking.

Recently, FBI and a litany of other law enforcement agencies seized sex marketplace website Backpage.com on undisclosed grounds, reports Reuters. Some have come to believe that the site was seized after a prior 2017 lawsuit holding Backpage responsible for facilitating human trafficking of three young women and other accusations revolving around human trafficking and cases of pimping.

Serving as a hub for LGBT sex workers, RentBoy had a reputation as a positive and charitable organization in the community prior to coming under attack in 2015 when Department of Homeland Security agents raided their offices for violating federal law by facilitating paid sexual encounters and money laundering. In August 2015, seven Rentboy.com employees were arrested for connecting male sex workers with clients and enabling illegal prostitution. Those involved, including CEO Jeffrey Davids, were charged with conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.

According to StopSESTA.org, a platform can face criminal and civil liability for sex trafficking at both the federal and state levels. This is so, because the new law has essentially expanded federal criminal prostitution law to cover those who use the internet to “promote or facilitate prostitution.”

Sites like the aforementioned provide a safe way to screen potentially dangerous encounters and avoid legal persecution on the streets, but that has already changed.

“The internet is a somewhat safe space for many of us, especially important if you are a full-service sex worker,” sex worker and cam model Suprihmbé wrote in 2017. “It allows us to set clear boundaries with clients and can increase our income potential depending on how well we wield our assets and market ourselves. We can spread out over a bunch of sites instead of just focusing on a singular profession and market (diversify our streams of income).”

SESTA-FOSTA has forced major websites to hunker down and take precautions to avoid issues such as shouldering legal liability for content produced by their users. These companies can be sued, subjected to federal investigations and possibly be seized and shuttered like Backpage. Major Silicon Valley companies are capable of implementing sophisticated algorithms to monitor their services. However, as Gizmodo notes, smaller companies may not be able to keep up. And these elaborate algorithms could confuse victims of sex trafficking from sex trafficking facilitators.

Craigslist and Reddit took steps to cleanse their sites of forums that may fall within the bill’s definitions just a few days after the bill was passed, reports The Daily Dot.

For example, long-time sex worker forums such as r/Escorts, r/MaleEscorts, r/Hookers, and r/SugarDaddy have been banned on Reddit.

“Any tool or service can be misused,” Craigslist wrote in a statement in wake of the banning. “We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully, we can bring them back someday.”

Shuttering these types of classifieds will most likely lead to more violence against sex workers. A 2017 study by Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and John Tripp of Baylor found that female homicides fell nearly 1-17 percent after Craigslist opened personal ad sections in cities that did not have one in their area. There was also a decline in rape.

Advocacy groups have rallied to combat what seems to be an elimination of sex work in general under the guise of ending rampant human trafficking in America. R.J. Thompson, managing director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, said, “We are very concerned about the passing of the legislation because of the harmful effects on sex workers pushing online work back to street-based work, which has safety, violence and public health issues attached to it.”

Thompson told the Independent Media Institute that the New York-based organization will help their clients by continuing to direct social and legal services as well as policy advocacy.

A primary concern for the organization is improving safety planning, helping their clients avoid being criminalized further, better utilize their online harm reduction strategies and online communications about safety with potential clients.

The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, in conjunction with other activism organizations, are considering litigation against SESTA-FOSTA.

“Sex workers and our allies have always been creative. Sex work is work that existed in every time, place and culture throughout human history—it’s not going anywhere,” said Thompson, who is a human rights attorney also a current sex worker and has previously turned to go-go dancing, escorting, stripping and porn to pay off student loan debt.

“Our eventual goal is full decriminalization of all types of sex work—adult consensual sex work across every jurisdiction across the country.”

But many believe that the SESTA-FOSTA goes beyond threatening sex work, it will threaten internet freedom as well. This bill may be another wrinkle in the ongoing net neutrality debate.

A key component to SESTA-FOSTA is one that undermines Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act. The law states “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.”

Enacted in 1996, Section 230 protects online intermediaries that host free speech by protecting them against laws that may hold them accountable for their users’ content. This law is the primary reason we all can use social media, post comments on Amazon, have classified sections on Craigslist, etc.

Without Section 230, nonprofit and community-based online groups that serve as vital organizations for free expression and knowledge sharing would also cease to exist in their current form. Writer Elliot Harmon stated that Section 230 balances between enabling the pursuit of justice and promoting free speech, meaning that a platform can be held responsible for their own actions and can still host user-created content without penalty.

Sex workers, advocates and other groups are not the only people hitting back. The American Civil Liberties Union believes that the bill will only add gasoline to the fire.

Section 230 will be undermined now that SESTA-FOSTA is law. Several things will occur once the law takes effect. One, a platform could begin censoring users to prevent any litigation against them. Two, platforms could stop hosting user content altogether.

SESTA-FOSTA makes host sites solely responsible for criminally liable for user-generated content. This is all in an effort to give sex trafficking victims greater ability to sue those websites and give state prosecutors more power. It will essentially take blame away from the user who generated the content in the first place.

The ACLU commended lawmakers for making changes to improve upon the bills. But even with the improvements on the earlier versions of the bills, the ACLU has opposed both measures:

“The risks to the vibrancy of the Internet as a driver of political, artistic, and commercial communication is real and significant. Moreover, there is little to suggest that current law could not be used to find and punish the bad actors who are truly facilitating online sex traffickers.”

 

 

 

Ricky Riley is an Atlanta-based journalist. Check out his work on Blavity, Atlanta Black Star and Mint Press News.