Sex workers have long been relegated to the shadows, excluded from public space and policed when they get too visible. A new law now threatens to wipe them off the digital landscape, too.
In the political hailstorm to combat “cybercrime,” Congress seeks to crack down on sex work through a legal dragnet targeting websites tied to trafficking operations. Though the law purports to safeguard against sexual slavery, it threatens the already compromised freedoms of ordinary sex workers by silencing platforms critical to surviving online and on the streets.
The newly passed Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTO) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) amend a section of the Communications Decency Act to target websites with content related to sex work, broadly defined, aiming to “clarify” existing provisions for businesses that facilitate or promote the sex trade. The bills expand the scope of legal liability for a wide range of sites distributing information on sexual services, purportedly for businesses involved in abuse and trafficking. Rights advocates foresee constitutional threats in the push to expose a huge range of sites to lawsuits: Because the legislation’s language lumps together trafficking-related abuses and sex work performed between consenting adults, many fear that virtually any platform that openly discusses sex-work related issues might be targeted.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), current laws already grant prosecutors ample powers to effectively bust sex traffickers and to investigate businesses that engage in trafficking. But the law could drastically expand the definition of the offense of “promoting” or facilitating trafficking to include many commercial websites disseminating information for sex workers, even educational guidance, opening them up to lawsuits or other pressure to shut down
Although politicians hail the measure as an extension of existing protections for abuse survivors, longtime sex worker advocate Kate D’Adamo tells The Nation that “sex workers are clear, this is about a chilling effect on the platforms that sex workers use to survive, and use to stay safe.”
Civil-liberties groups, moreover, have warned that the laws could erode due-process protections by allowing for liability to apply retroactively to past incidents. The legislation’s vague definition of “advertise” might even cover sites that unintentionally include trafficking-related information, including sites that might unwittingly host deceptive ads posted by a business involved in trafficking.
In public culture, the war on sex work is already paralyzing crucial information networks. In the case of two major ad sites that doubled as information hubs for sex workers, MyRedBook.com and Rentboy.com (the owner of which recently pleaded guilty to charges of “promoting” prostitution), the threat of prosecution and legal investigations ended up shuttering both sites—and cost sex workers crucial digital arenas for sharing information on health, safety, preventing violence, and understanding the risks of their jobs in the process. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the morality of selling sex online, all workers should be entitled to such basic information, especially in such a high-risk sector.
According to the NCTE, the bills would undermine not only commercial outlets but all digital communication networks on commercially hosted sites, including spaces for peer-driven dialogue, which could lead to “a chilling effect on websites and organizations who provide valuable spaces for safety information, community and peer support.”
Even online clearinghouses for informing sex-worker communities about their labor rights or safer sex might have to shut down just to avoid legal attacks, or impose onerous prescreening and self-censorship. So legislation that purports to protect victims could effectively short-circuit campaigns for sex workers’ human rights
“If you are an activist, if you are a committed harm reductionist and you are a moderator for one of those websites,” D’Adamo says, “asking you to take on 25 years in federal prison to moderate the third-party content that people are using…is outrageous.”
Cracking down on digital sites could also push sex workers into riskier street-based work that is more prone to violence, exploitation or police targeting. R.J. Thompson, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center (where the author once interned), and also a sex worker, says, “Working online and being able to screen clients online is really a great harm-reduction tool. [Sex workers can use it] to share information with other workers about potentially problematic or harassing or violent clients, we can have more space to negotiate boundaries with our clients…. When you take those platforms away, there’s always increased violence and increased health risk.”
As public dialogue grows around issues like consent, gender-based employment discrimination, and gender disparities in the legal system—along with an undercurrent of moral panic around commercial sex—sex-worker activists are mobilizing for economic justice and equality, and advancing massive grassroots efforts to decriminalize their profession worldwide. But in the United States, where prostitution is still largely criminalized, the pending laws could choke off increasingly critical platforms that give voice to people often excluded from the public-policy debate over the legal and social treatment of sex work. Now the small public sphere the community has managed to cultivate online is being sacrificed in a bluntly misguided crusade to regulate “prostitution” out of existence.
Following the passage of the bills, Serra Sippel of the Center for Health and Gender Equality remarked on the irony of the timing: “Today’s vote marks a sad day for human rights and a set back for the #MeToo movement. The US Congress just passed a bill that will increase violence against women, trans and other people who engage in sex work and will save no one.”
With Congress handing prosecutors a blank check to attack sites ranging from peer-support groups to e-commerce hubs—and potentially stifling outlets for workers ranging from coders to escorts—the crackdown may end up actually highlighting how sex workers’ rights really are in fact human rights. And rather than ensnaring all sex workers as “collateral damage” in the digital war on trafficking, perhaps respecting everyone’s free-speech rights universally would be a healthier public-safety intervention. In the Information Age, sex workers are making their voices heard on their own terms, and deserve equal access to the space that defines our free market of ideas.