Last week, President Trump signed a bill package into law that had many internet commenters celebrating the president for finally signing a common-sense, pro-woman measure into law. SESTA-FOSTA are two bills hailed by politicians as a victory for sex-trafficking victims.
These bills have been promoted as positive measures that anyone who cares about the health and safety of victims should support. I do not intend to discount the experiences of those who have been trafficked for sex, but implicitly, the authors and supporters of this bill position all sex workers as victims and in doing so set a dangerous precedent for the treatment of sex workers and free speech as a whole.
What calls into question the supposed benevolence of these bills is that in order to combat sex trafficking, the bills make the owners of web pages liable for speech on their websites with the supposed intent of combatting online sex trafficking. Additionally, no trafficking bill that addresses those trafficked for work in agriculture or service industries (Trump Hotel, hmmm?) gets this much bipartisan support and celebration.
These websites, which sex workers have used over the past decade to as a harm reduction measure while advertising services promoted safety by establishing communities and systems where clients can be screened from a distance before meeting in person.
It could be as late as January of next year that this bill will actually go into effect and people could actually be charged with the use of the new law. But even so, the catastrophic effects of this bill predicted by those who oppose it have begun. Over a dozen websites where sex workers could promote their services have gone dark in the past week. Those who stored adult content on Google Drive woke up to find they no longer had access to that media, or that it had been purged outright. Sex workers are finding themselves shadowbanned on twitter–even Stormy Daniels.
The sex worker community is already announcing deaths of their peers as a direct result of having to work outdoors after the shutdown of these websites.
The removal of Backpage, a webpage that hosted advertisements for sex work, is particularly indicative of the widespread effects this law might look like. On April 6th, seven of its founders were charged with facilitating prostitution, but not a single person was charged by the federal government with actual human trafficking.
These websites are being shut down and livelihoods erased on behalf of the victims of crimes that, according to the federal government, do not exist.
That does not mean there are no victims of trafficking associated with these sites, but that the intent of these bills as it translates to real life situations do not regard those victims, but the work of sex workers as a whole, in effect forcing sex workers outside to survive, destroying supports systems and putting these people into greater danger.
Sex work is work and a crucial resource for the survival of marginalized women. Targeting sex workers only creates greater potential for exploitation and trafficking. The immediate effect of SESTA-FOSTA will be making online sex work much harder and putting sex workers in danger. As website owners are potentially liable for third-party advertisements, the bill sets the dangerous precedent for free speech on the internet that the net neutrality fight earlier this year threatened.
—Arielle Wiggin, Volunteer Writer