If you’re at all concerned about US politics or internet freedoms, you’re likely to be aware of SESTA-FOSTA. The controversial sex trafficking bill was passed by the Senate with a startling 97–2 roll call vote on March 21st, and signed into law on April 11th. SESTA-FOSTA is aimed at curbing human trafficking by removing CDA Section 230 harbors for websites that host potential sex traffickers, but its effects have already reached far further. Sex workers and internet freedom advocates are outspokenly protesting the bill, saying that it not only censors online speech, but puts consensual sex workers in real danger.
Removing the protections of the Communications Decency Act means that websites are held legally culpable for activity they host — which upon initial reading, might sound like a good thing. However, the implications are more far-reaching than the stated intent of the bill, essentially removing the ability for sex workers to screen clientele, post advertising, and discuss their work, including sharing resources like “bad date lists” and mental health support.
The moment SESTA-FOSTA left the US Senate, its dramatic reach began to emerge. Under the new laws, any discussion of sex work might now be considered discussion of sexual trafficking — and websites that host those conversations are shutting down left and right to avoid prosecution. Even before it was signed into law, many sites shuttered these conversations. Within 24 hours, Reddit closed their “escorts,” “male escorts,” “hookers,” and “sugar daddy” forums. Craigslist removed their personals section entirely — a move that is statistically significant, as the website’s presence has been proven to increase the safety of sex workers, reducing related homicides by 17%.
As the wave of changes continues, dozens of sites have closed entirely, and plenty of mainstream providers have reinforced the anti-sexuality sentiment in their terms of service, and stepped up their enforcement. Sex workers on Twitter have reported having their Google Drives wiped of content. Private Skype calls and Instagram DM’s are now subject to censorship of sexual content, and Instagram has been closing accounts. Porn sites are shuttering their comments sections and membership profiles to avoid potential violations.
Until the government begins to enforce these laws and we can learn more about how they will be applied, their effects are unknown and potentially vast, as basically any form of communication can be used to “promote or facilitate” sex trafficking. The practical effect is that sexual speech on the internet is now subject to scrutiny, or being prevented altogether by cautious websites wishing to avoid a lawsuit.
Despite its impact on the lives of consensual sex workers, and the erosion of online free speech, SESTA-FOSTA actually does little to accomplish its goal of fighting human trafficking. Recently closed website BackPage, charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering, was a commonly used medium for finding traffickers and trafficking victims; its loss will take their business further underground and make trafficking harder to fight, putting more people in danger. This is what sex workers are most worried about — that they are being driven further into the dark, away from the resources that protect them.
Sex workers are responding to the new laws by fleeing social media in droves. Some have started their own networking websites based in other countries, in the hope of avoiding law enforcement and continuing to screen their clientele safely; sites like “Switter” — sex worker twitter — are cropping up across the web, though there are no protections offered by such changes. Organizations like Sex Workers Outreach Project, Free Speech Coalition, and the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee are offering support, and Twitter accounts like @pornlaw, run by lawyer Michael Fattorosi, are reaching out with advice and workshops on moving forward safely under the new restrictions.
At first read, SESTA-FOSTA sounds like an altruistic bill aimed at catching the bad guys and holding websites liable instead of allowing them to evade what seems like their responsibility. It was endorsed by celebrities who told sob stories about how these websites were havens for traffickers and how shutting them down would save lives. In reality, it is a nightmarishly nonspecific web of potential implications for free speech, sexuality, and the safety of consensual sex workers and trafficking victims alike. We can only hope that the inevitable legal battle forces the Supreme Court to turn their eyes toward the subject and overturn these erroneous decisions as unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.
Cole, Samantha. “Trump Just Signed SESTA/FOSTA, a Law Sex Workers Say Will Literally Kill Them.” Motherboard, Vice.com, 11 Apr. 2018, motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/qvxeyq/trump-signed-fosta-sesta-into-law-sex-work
De Angelo, Gregory J. Craigslist’s Effect on Violence Against Women. gregoryjdeangelo.com/workingpapers/Craigslist5.0.pdf
Fattorosi, Michael. “How Does FOSTA Impact Camming, Dating, Porn & Tube Sites…” AdultBizLaw.com, AdultBizLaw.com, 15 Apr. 2018, adultbizlaw.com/2018/04/15/how-does-fosta-impact-camming-dating-porn-tube-sites/amp/
French, Michael. “Backpage.com Prosecutors Reveal New Details on Site Shutdown Case.” AVN, 17 Apr. 2018, avn.com/business/articles/legal/backpagecom-prosecutors-reveal-new-details-on-site-shutdown-case-772645.html
“Roll Call Vote on Passage of HR 1865 SESTA/FOSTA / Last Vote of the Day | Senate Democratic Leadership.” The Floor, Senate Democrats , 21 Mar. 2018, www.democrats.senate.gov/2018/03/21/roll-call-vote-on-passage-of-hr-1865-last-vote-of-the-day