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.