Two house bills, known as FOSTA and SESTA, seek to combat human trafficking, which often ensnares the most vulnerable populations, including women and children. Sounds good, right? Not according to sex workers (and advocates), who argue the bills will make them less safe. Both FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) have passed through congress, and need only to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
FOSTA-SESTA focuses its efforts on trafficking facilitated by online means, through websites and forums. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the bills would undermine section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which is “the most important law protecting free speech online”—in part by keeping web sites safe from liability from 3rd party content. According to Rolling Stone, “the implications reach beyond justice for survivors… as consensual sex workers may be charged with facilitating prostitution if they use an online forum to exchange safety information such as bad date lists.”
In Her Own Words
Bee [full name withheld] is in her early forties and has a vivacious smile and personality. She has a full figure with a healthy and vibrant air about her, and a wicked, intelligent sparkle in her eyes. She’s also a former escort. “I believe SESTA/FOSTA will affect sex workers and I know that it will hurt them,” she said to Oxygen of the new bill. “Every time we attempt to curtail trafficking by targeting johns, like the Swedish Model, we end up endangering the welfare of adult, voluntary sex workers in a variety of ways.”
The “easy” solution is to not engage in commercial sex at all but it’s not that simple. “I started doing sex work at the urging of my ex-husband in 2013 after I was fired from a position as a clinic nurse manager. Due to some exacerbating circumstances, I felt burnt out on nursing and had ‘joked’ for years that I’d be an exceptional sex worker. In many ways I was,” said Bee, who is very forthcoming with her own history. Looking back, she wonders if she ought to have urged him to take more responsibility for their family’s finances, so that she could have had the time to heal from recent trauma. “I began doing sensual massage, and in a matter of months I started working as an escort. This situation is not unusual for sex workers, many of us have degrees or have had careers in very different disciplines, but for whatever reason, we find ourselves in a precarious financial situation and turn to sex work. I worked as an independent escort for nearly four years.”
As Bee explains, sites like Backpage and other closed networks help sex workers screen clients and communicate safely about bad clients — in other words, the peer-to-peer interactions help her vet clients. “I used Backpage prior to the debacle of January 2017, by the time I started doing SW Craiglist was defunct. I engaged on ‘review’ boards, maintained a professional website, and paid for advertising on a number of other sites. I also paid for access to a database strictly for SWers where we compiled information about bad dates.” This was incredibly important to Bee. “I know, without a doubt, [online boards] saved me from being robbed, raped, and possibly worse on more than one occasion. I was approached by two different individuals over the years who, as it turned out, were robbing and raping in one case, and abducting, raping and torturing sex workers in the other.”
These online boards are certainly not enough, but they were invaluable to Bee and other sex workers. “While this work is never 100% safe I did feel safer knowing I could screen my clients before seeing them, an option not currently available to workers on the stroll (SW who work the streets) or freestyling (SW who find their clients in bars/hotels/etc) .”
Human Trafficking Is The Real Issue
Bee was a sex worker but she was not trafficked. Addressing trafficking has to start with understanding it: oftentimes, legislation and advocacy blur the line between willing sex work and trafficking — or even deny that there is any difference at all. “Trafficking is modern day slavery and includes, but is not limited to, forcing a typically vulnerable person to work for free or extremely limited wages,” she said, contrasting trafficking to sex work’s transactional experience.
SESTA/FOSTA do not differentiate between the two. They operate from a space where trafficking and sex work are one. It also seems that to these lawmakers, that is the only type of trafficking there is. This is not true: many trafficked people are involved in forced labor for restaurants, salons, and domestic work. They may be from poor and vulnerable people from outside the United States, or American drug addicts. There are more than 40 million people being trafficked around the world — and SESTA/FOSTA would do little to help prevent these sorts of trafficking situations. Notable efforts to address the widespread nature of human trafficking include the Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act, a rare bipartisan bill allocating $520 million to identifying and aiding victims.
“I would like immediate and complete decriminalization of all adult sex work,” says Bee, who believes decriminalization will help combat trafficking, mainly by assuring safety to victims who come forward. This is hardly a new idea: it is popular among people working in the sex industry, and was even brought up as its own bill last year for the DC area. The difference is that with the DC bill, sex workers were consulted. With SESTA/FOSTA, they were not.
(Photo: A sex worker in New Orleans. By Alpeyrie/ullstein bild via Getty Images)