Members of the sex work industry are up in arms about the recent US Senate vote on SESTA — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which passed March 21 with an overwhelming 97–2 vote. The bill is aimed at holding online service providers culpable for sex trafficking perpetrated or supported via their services, a moral argument that is easily supported at first glance. However, the reality of it is far more overarching. Internet advocates, sex workers, and their supporters are speaking out about SESTA’s pitfalls — namely that without protections for consensual sex work, it forces providers to effectively silence all talk of sex work online; it also potentially violates the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech. The next step is likely a case to be brought before the Supreme Court, though by whom remains to be seen.
SESTA and its sister bill, FOSTA (now known as the SESTA-FOSTA package) are aimed at protecting victims of trafficking, but if allowed to take effect, will have devastating effects on the online communities that adult workers rely upon to stay safe. By gutting the Section 230 safe harbors of the Communications Decency Act, the legislation silences support networks that consensual sex workers use to share resources such as advice, support, and “bad date lists” that warn workers about violent or predatory clients. Instead of “making it easier for the government to target traffickers online,” the changes will create a new illegal activity — simply allowing people to talk about sex work at all.
In addition to its impact on sex workers, SESTA would affect online service providers and their customers. In the face of increased liability for their users, websites are likely to shut down their comments area, forums, message boards, blogs and chats. The danger is particularly real for adult sites, sex education sites, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, who would be vulnerable to prosecution for hosting adult workers’ accounts. The alternative isn’t much better; were these services to switch to unmoderated discussions, it would still make workers less safe — and provide a loophole for traffickers.
Pornographic content is hardly safe either — though adult film actors are legally distinguished from sex workers in California and New Hampshire, they’re not in the rest of the United States, leaving adult sites and performers in the rest of the country open to being targeted, and encouraging camsites and other networks like tube sites to limit user uploads. In the wake of this further persecution, adult performers, sex workers, and porn sites are also likely to face another wave of broad-spectrum bans from banking and financial services, who have already historically shied away from the industry for fear of prosecution under the current maze of anti-trafficking laws.
One only needs to ask a sex worker about SESTA to understand why the bill is putting them in danger instead of aiding anti-trafficking efforts. “By removing our ability to safely discuss and screen clients, SESTA puts sex workers back on the streets and back in danger,” one worker tells me via email. “The more you make people hide away, the easier it is to hide criminal activity.” The numbers back her up — A 2017 Baylor University study of violence against women before and after Craigslist provided an “erotic services” section found a 17 percent decrease in female homicides, as well as a decrease in rape cases, because workers could talk to each other openly and screen for bad dates online.
Sex workers, adult websites, and internet free speech advocates such as the Free Speech Coalition are mobilizing strongly against the bill, taking to Twitter, Facebook, and their own broadcasts to implore their clients and fans to support their upcoming fight and speak out against SESTA. By conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking, legislators seek to deny sex workers agency in their trade. In forcing workers further into hiding, SESTA-FOSTA creates a shadowy underbelly dangerous for sex workers, adult actors, and victims of sexual trafficking alike.
“Craigslist’s Effect On Violence … — gregoryjdeangelo.com.” Craigslist’s Effect on Violence. November 2017. Accessed March 15, 2018. gregoryjdeangelo.com/workingpapers/Craigslist5.0.pdf
Levy, Alex F. “Why FOSTA’s Restriction on Prostitution Promotion Violates the First Amendment (Guest Blog Post).” Technology & Marketing Law Blog. March 19, 2018. Accessed March 22, 2018. https://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/2018/03/why-fostas-restriction-on-prostitution-promotion-violates-the-first-amendment-guest-blog-post.htm
Masnick, Mike. “Can Someone Explain How SESTA Will Stop Sex Trafficking?” Techdirt. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20180304/00472939348/can-someone-explain-how-sesta-will-stop-sex-trafficking.shtml
Mitchell, Ty. “Opinion | If Lawmakers Want To Protect Sex Workers, They Must Listen To Us.” The Huffington Post. March 09, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sex-workers-bill-fosta-sesta_us_5aa1924fe4b04c33cb6cecb2
Neidig, Harper. “Senate Passes Controversial Online Sex Trafficking Bill.” TheHill. March 21, 2018. Accessed March 22, 2018. http://thehill.com/policy/technology/379553-senate-passes-controversial-online-sex-trafficking-bill
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“Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.” Wikipedia. March 14, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Enabling_Sex_Traffickers_Act