Consensual and legal sex workers’ lives have been upended since the United States Congress passed a bill with the stated intention of helping trafficked persons in the sex trade - and it’s also made it harder to find and help trafficking victims. The bill, titled Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) in the House and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) in the Senate, passed by wide margins despite outcry from sex workers, non-faith based anti-trafficking orgs, and peer-led sex worker rights groups. Before Donald Trump even signed the bill, sites like Backpage.com had already been seized and, according to sex work harm reduction organizers I’ve been working with to document company actions, over 150 sites or services have been taken down or currently discriminate against or outright ban sex workers.
Due to language intentionally conflating consensual sex work with trafficking, SESTA/FOSTA allows websites to be prosecuted not only if sex traffickers use their services, but consensual sex workers as well. This actually increases trafficking by creating opportunities for pimps and abusive managers to prey on displaced workers suddenly denied their main income stream. Groups like Amnesty International warn that further criminalizing sex work hurts everyone involved in trading sex, including trafficking and abuse victims.
Criminalization is not new in America - we’ve dealt with a federal crackdown on consensual sex work since the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910 was passed during a similar racist hysteria. But in the last 20 years we’ve made huge strides to protect ourselves — from violence by clients and police alike — by running our own clinics and building our own online safety tools. We’re so good at screening we’ve been offering advice on dating safety to “civilians.”
The government, assisted by a faith-based “rescue industry,” isn’t content to let us control our own safety. Now, many of the online platforms that sex workers use to keep themselves safe are becoming unavailable as companies adjust to comply with the law or close in fear of prosecution. Activists have also warned that SESTA could hurt the freedom of people to talk about sex online, in general.
It is already apparent that these warnings were correct. Craigslist removed its personal ads, which many people see as a loss for the queer community as well as sex workers. Reddit shuttered discussion boards where sex workers discussed ways to stay safe. Sex workers are self-censoring on social media to try to avoid removal from mainstream sites. Strippers found their tags censored on Instagram after new auto-moderation updates. VerifyHim, a website used by sex workers to ensure a client isn’t dangerous, removed its discussion boards. Major companies have changed terms of service and their enforcement to push adult content creators off their platforms. Harm reduction non-profits have discussed rolling back services in fear of follow-up legislation further criminalizing sex worker outreach.
Since FOSTA passed the House, my social media feeds have been filled with reports from sex workers experiencing new problems with platforms like WordPress, SquareSpace, Gmail, Instagram, and Twitter. Sex workers of all sorts were already banned from many apps, including payment processors like PayPal and Square. Our bank accounts are shut down and credit cards cancelled, even if we’ve never bounced a check or missed a payment. This discrimination has now been joined by personal reports of increased violence and even deaths.
Lola Balcon, a peer organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, says she isn’t seeing things stabilize. “Even if no more sites shut down, we still expect the effects of SESTA-FOSTA to get worse, because people have now used up their rainy day savings or are close to eviction,” she said. “And as people get more desperate, they're more exposed to violent or exploitative situations.”
As a relatively established sex worker and porn performer, I’ve had to rethink how I work in the wake of the bill’s passage and the loss of some of my safety resources. But the effects of SESTA/FOSTA are being felt most among sex workers in much less privileged positions. When I spoke to Violet Vincente about the bill, she told me she was terrified. “I am a fat, disabled worker who has been homeless twice in the last year,” she explained. “Only recently did I stop considering myself a survival worker.”
"As people get more desperate, they're more exposed to violent or exploitative situations.”
She told me that online advertising allowed her to start making a living and pay her rent dependably. She’s worried SESTA/FOSTA will result in her being homeless again, after finally finding some stability. With the loss of her online advertising venues she said she “went from having the best month I've ever had to making next to nothing.”
While some may be glad to see sites like Backpage go away, the reality is the majority of online advertising is used by consensual sex workers and independent online advertising is drastically safer than working on the street or for a possibly abusive manager. Before Craigslist was forced to close its erotic services section, studies suggested it had significant safety benefits for women. One study found that Craigslist alone reduced female homicide rates overall (not just sex workers) by 17 percent. So far, the majority of the ad sites that have shut down offered relatively cheap or free ads, impacting the most financially vulnerable.
Another sex worker, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety, told me that the Craigslist shutdown affected her work immediately. In the weeks after passage, she told me “Being black and on the bigger side and not taking reviews, I was barely making money so I decided to rebrand and change my website.” Without a website to attract clients, she turned to the classifieds site. “I’ve been relying on [clients I’ve seen before], and using Craigslist and Tinder to find guys until I relaunch [my website]," she said. "Now Craigslist personals have shut down, which was the number one way [I made money], and I’m kind of stuck.”
When I talked to her again this week, she told me the situation is still dire, and she’s had to fall back on the generosity of a single client, leaving her with less financial independence: “If it wasn’t for my sugar daddy I’d probably be homeless to be honest.” She’s scared to advertise on some websites that require ID to post, since she’s not American and the website being busted could lead to her deportation. “I’m just stuck in a limbo," she said, while explaining that a friend of hers has it even worse: “She’s currently on house arrest due to a police sting. They seized all her possessions. She’s still escorting but not even making a fraction of what she used to make since Backpage is gone.”
Sex workers who have limited connections to the wider community are especially vulnerable to harm under the new status quo. Hunny Daniels, new to Philadelphia, told me she was a member of Facebook group that offered safety advice to independent workers in the area, which now has closed. The moderators of the group, which had become a lifeline for her, got nervous after Reddit closed similar subreddits. As Daniels had recently moved to the city, this left her with no support system. She’s now worried about how she will advertise, find clients, and connect with other sex workers. As someone on the autistic spectrum, she’s also concerned that she won’t be able to tell what clients are safe without her screening resources. “Being an autistic provider means I put a lot of extra effort into screening and digital information is needed for me to have a safe experience with my clients. Not being able to use internet resources for vetting or advertising to clients may mean I never see a new client again.”
The goal of prohibitionists, who say all sex work including porn is “exploitation”, was not to make sex work safer but to push sex workers out of sight. This time, sex workers are determined to push back. While many are scared, the community is more motivated than ever to overcome stigma and fight for international workers’ rights. Peer-led advocacy groups like Red Light Legal and Sex Workers Outreach Project have seen increasing donations and plan to broaden their activities.
Loose groups of political organizers have come together on planning calls and with in person meetings to create media training resources for sex workers and plan direct action including lobbying days in DC around June 1 to coincide with International Sex Worker’s Day on June 2 - with rallies planned internationally. Sex workers are eager to reclaim their agency and remind the US that in many places worldwide full service sex work is entirely decriminalized or legal.
Sex workers are determined to push back. While many are scared, the community is more motivated than ever to overcome stigma and fight for international workers’ rights.
For example, the Melbourne-based group Assembly Four has come out with Switter.at, a Twitter-like platform specifically for sex workers and clients built on Mastodon, an open-source software. Lola Hunt, a sex worker herself and one of the founders of Switter, told me they gained over 7,000 users within 48 hours of their launch. The site now has over 88,600 users. As American companies are forced to clamp down on online speech, the response of the international community will be interesting to watch. Since Backpage shut down, sex workers in New Zealand, where the job is decriminalized, and Australia, where sex work is legalized, are already speaking out about how the bill making their jobs more dangerous.
No evidence has come forward showing FOSTA/SESTA has had any positive impact for trafficking victims. One thing, however, is clear: Until the conversation includes actual sex workers and peer-led harm reduction organizations instead of celebrity PSAs and inflated scare statistics, we’re not going to be able to help victims or lessen violence against consensual sex workers. We owe it to society’s most vulnerable to consider these issues carefully.
Balcon says there’s ways you can help: march with sex workers this Saturday as we fight for human rights. “People should educate themselves on the differences between consensual sex work and sex trafficking and understand the root causes of sex trafficking—which includes lack of affordable housing, poverty, and LGBTQ discrimination," she said. "Fight stigma with us, talk to your friends about sex work and why decriminalization is the best harm reduction for everyone in the sex trade. There are spaces we aren't welcome in that an ally is able to walk in. Walk in those spaces.”