Content warning: This article contains references to sexual violence, assault, and suicide. If you or someone around you is exhibiting suicidal tendencies or self-harm please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center
The last time Katie tried to leave her pimp, he beat her with a tire iron.
“Time heals physical wounds,” Katie, whose name has been changed to protect her safety, told me over the phone. “I have been independent for years now and away from him, but I’m still mentally trying to get over, you know, everything he’s done.”
In March, Congress passed the Fight Sex Trafficking Online Act (FOSTA), a controversial mashup bill packaged with the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) that was framed by proponents as being anti-sex trafficking. It punishes websites for discussions of prostitution and the sex trade, under the guise of anti-sex trafficking efforts.
But because of this new law, exploitative and abusive people like Katie’s former pimp are swooping back into sex workers’ lives. They’re capitalizing on the confusion and fear this law has created, as online communities where sex workers found and vetted clients and offered each other support are disappearing.
What are you going to do without me, now? exploiters say, flooding former victims’ inboxes and texts. You need me. According to sex workers I’ve spoken with, this is a common message.
“Pimps seem to be coming out of the woodwork since this all happened,” Laura LeMoon, a sex trafficking survivor, writer, and co-founder and director of harm reduction nonprofit Safe Night Access Project Seattle, told me in an email. “They’re taking advantage of the situation sex workers are in. This is why I say FOSTA/SESTA have actually increased trafficking. I’ve had pimps contacting me. They’re leeches. They make money off of [sex workers’] misfortune.”
For those who don’t have other alternatives, the coming weeks and months could see a return to a dark age, as more people are being pushed into street work, or into the extreme exploitation of traffickers and pimps. FOSTA is destroying the communities that supported sex workers with bad-date lists and emergency help, communication that literally meant life-or-death for some.
"Sex work is a real fucking job. It’s the oldest job there is.”
We know now that it wasn’t. Sex work blog Tits and Sass wrote last week that based on anecdotal reports, 13 sex workers have gone missing, two have been confirmed dead, and countless others have been assaulted and raped, as a result of being pushed offline and into the streets to find work.
FOSTA-SESTA, signed into law in early April, was framed as a way to curb sex trafficking online. It amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and holds websites more accountable for what users say and do on interactive platforms.
This sounds positive at the surface level—the harms of sex trafficking are well-known—but critics say the law is both too vague to help actual victims of trafficking, and too broad to avoid widespread harm to consensual sex workers. It limits how people talk about sex and sex work online, causing websites to shutter forums that host sex-based conversations preemptively. As general counsel of Cloudflare Doug Kramer put it, Congress didn’t bother to “do the hard work” to avoid this outcome.
After President Donald Trump signed FOSTA into law, the harm that workers and advocates warned of in op-eds, interviews, and on social media has come swiftly and relentlessly. The fallout has been devastating for many. Multiple advertising forums have shuttered, and mainstream services like Craigslist personals and Google Drive started cracking down on sexual content. Even sites operated outside of the US have been impacted: In April, Cloudflare banned alternative, Australia-based social network Switter, and cited FOSTA as the reason.
Perhaps one of the biggest blows, struck days before the bill even became law, was the seizure and shutdown of Backpage.com, a classified ads site and longtime poster-child-slash-scapegoat for the evils of sex trafficking.
“SESTA has wiped clean essential spaces for all of that community"
For sex workers, all of this marks the erasure of vital online communities. “I always say community is the best defense against trafficking, but I want to make it concrete for people who aren't in the sex trade and don't know just how vital community is to preventing trafficking,” Lola, a community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, told me in an email.
According to Lola, online communities provide all sorts of supports to sex workers. They help them address any immediate survival needs, such as finding shelter or food. They can provide warnings that a potential client is violent, or check in on their well-being, or help them find access to know-your-rights training.
“SESTA has wiped clean essential spaces for all of that community, because it took away the online platforms and tools sex workers use to communicate,” Lola said. Even aside from making it harder for them to work, she said, it’s made workers an easier target for traffickers.
Katie, now in her mid-thirties, fell into sex trafficking when she was 16 and homeless. While walking around the city one day, a man in a nice car asked her if she needed a lift. She took up the offer—a moment that would unfold into 15 years of mental and physical abuse and isolation, with several different pimps. “I didn’t want to do it, but he beat me, and he knew I didn’t have anybody,” she said. “He beat me and I complied.”
It was his way or no way, Katie said.
Hers is a common situation for trafficking victims, according to Jessica Raven, executive director of Washington, DC-based advocacy group Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Raven told me over Twitter direct messages that one of the reasons FOSTA fails victims and survivors is because it doesn’t consider the root causes of trafficking, including youth homelessness and familial rejection of LGBTQ children. These are the factors that lead youth into homelessness and push them to engage in survival sex to access their basic needs.
“Homeless youth are still going to be trafficked,” Raven said. “They’re just going to be picked up on the street and forced to sell sex on the street... The anti-trafficking movement has poured its resources into a strategy that relies on arrest, even if it means that youth in the sex trade—or sex trafficking victims—are arrested for what they do to survive.”
Both Katie and LeMoon, as well as several sex workers and advocates I’ve spoken to in the past few weeks, have told me that the community is terrified. “Imagine losing your source of income over night,” LeMoon said. “What would you do? People tell us, ‘go get a real job then.’ Sex work is a real fucking job. It’s the oldest job there is.”
Aside from doing immense harm to consensual workers, FOSTA and the shutdown of sites like Backpage will do little to help sex trafficking victims and survivors. Studies show that violence against women decreases when online advertising is available to sex workers. Even law enforcement agrees that Backpage helped authorities catch traffickers and get tips on criminal activity. Closing it permanently drives the problem further underground.
“Pimps don’t go away because the internet is gone, and pimps don’t go away because you're not allowed on Backpage,” Katie said. “All they do is take the girls and put them back on the streets, and that’s even worse.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.