When Trump signed the controversial SESTA-FOSTA legislation in April 2018, sex workers and legal experts quickly began protesting; characterized by its vague focus and phrasing, after all, SESTA-FOSTA represents a step backwards for liberating sex trafficking victims and for the emancipation of consensual sex work.
A year and a half after the initial implementation of these bills, we’re digging into their disastrous effects on sex work and internet freedom, and why they should be repealed as soon as possible.
Approved by the House of Representatives last February, FOSTA stands for “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.” That was accompanied by its Senate counterpart, SESTA—the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act”—the following month. The aim of these bills was initially to target sex trafficking through a more rigorous scrutiny of the internet to identify victims and perpetrators. What did this change, you ask? Basically everything, from internet freedom to work and safety opportunities. Before SESTA-FOSTA, website owners couldn’t be held responsible for any third-party advertisements on their sites; the bills now make those website owners liable for the content their users post. This means that a number of online platforms that were used to advertise sex work (such as Backpage and the Personals section of Craigslist) have been limited, seized by the FBI, or completely shut down.
While there’s no doubt that safeguarding sex trafficking victims is important, the SESTA-FOSTA bills are too broad to be effective; their only true objective seems to be to curb sex work. Their broad phrasing doesn’t address any differences between consensual and non-consensual activity, and in doing so they inevitably marginalize sex work, even when consensual, by conflating it with criminal acts. Platforms like Craigslist and Backpage have, for years, been a tool for sex workers to implement safety precautions, as they allowed client screenings. Now, sex workers have fewer resources and are more vulnerable to the exploitation of pimps, limiting their personal freedom, profit and, most importantly, safety.
VICE reported extensively on how, in the three weeks following SESTA-FOSTA’s implementation, many sex workers found themselves prayed upon by pimps attempting to exploit their newfound financial instability; the sex work blog Tits and Sass claimed that, in such a short time span, 13 sex workers went missing and two were found dead. Sex workers generally protect themselves from exploitation by being in contact with other sex workers online; this way, they can screen clients, get recommendations, and ask for help. In turn, this prevents sex workers from being trafficked or abused. So now that these spaces of kinship have been seized and shut down, sex workers are more vulnerable than ever.
Beyond all of this, though, SESTA-FOSTA hasn’t even achieved its original goal to safeguard sex trafficking victims. As stated by the Justice Department, despite investing $47 million in fighting sex trafficking, only 526 defendants were convicted in 2018. Although these results represent a record in the field, Business Insider reported that the rest of the money has likely been devolved toward fighting voluntary sex work. Fox23 also claimed that SESTA-FOSTA has made fighting sex trafficking more difficult. Websites have taken measures to become untraceable to American law enforcement: some have transferred their servers abroad, while others have started using encrypted currencies like Bitcoin. Asides from making business inherently difficult, these adjustments mean that new sex work websites have failed to implement good relationships with the police like Backpage had, making them less controlled and secure and thus more likely to become hubs for human trafficking.
Protecting potential victims starts with tackling the root of the problem, which in this case means confronting poverty, lack of education, undocumented status, and youth homelessness. All of these factors can push young people toward trafficking and grooming and, as such, extend way beyond sex work. SESTA-FOSTA hasn’t helped to stop that exploitation—it’s just forced traffickers to find new, more secretive ways to conduct business. If anything, it’s made sex trafficking even harder to curb.
It’s easy to turn our backs on marginalized groups, especially when the law is already doing just that—but we have to work harder to safeguard sex workers. Protesting SESTA-FOSTA is just the beginning of that.