US President Donald Trump signed the controversial “anti-sex trafficking” SESTA/FOSTA bill into law on Wednesday, a move that critics say endangers consensual sex workers and promotes internet censorship. But, even though it’s an American law, the effects will and already have reached across borders. In Canada, where it’s legal to sell sex but not to buy it, those in the industry are already feeling fallout north of the border.
SESTA/FOSTA is a combination of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). It effectively holds sites responsible for what their users do and say on their platforms. Those who support SESTA/FOSTA say it will address sex trafficking activities online.
“If they really want to end trafficking… Decriminalize sex work, decriminalize clients,” said Kit Rothschild, a retired dominatrix who works for PACE Society. The Vancouver-based PACE Society provides sex worker-led programs and services to those in the industry.
VICE interviewed Rothschild and two current sex workers in Canada about how FOSTA’s onset will affect—and already is affecting—workers in this country. Like the US, Canada will experience a smaller client pool, hindered communication between sex workers, and overall, a less safe working environment for those in the industry.
Prolific Sites Disappearing
Rothschild said many of the popular sites sex workers in Canada have used to facilitate their work are based in the US, putting the livelihood of workers at risk.
Just days ago, the FBI seized the popular website Backpage, affecting Canadian users as well. Backpage was known for hosting sex work ads and, with its pay model, was an option for workers who did not have a lot of money at their immediate disposal to put towards ads. With its seizure, some sex workers lost their primary way to find and communicate with potential clients.
“Backpage is the first and main forum that I have used to get clients and to talk to clients,” explained Jelena Vermilion, an Ontario-based sex worker. “It’s been probably at least 90 percent of my income for the last five to six years, so this is something that is incredibly, incredibly difficult.”
Vermilion said that Backpage’s seizure has had a massive impact on her work. She expressed concern that the shutdown of the site could push people to the street.
“Backpage is a foundation that people could always fall back on,” Vermilion told VICE. She said some some workers are now talking about the possibility of becoming homeless in the wake of the site's seizure.
Vermilion is currently looking into other sites to advertise on, including the Canadian classified site Leolist, which has been more popular on the west coast. But, she is restricted in her options since she doesn’t live in a large city.
“Some clients will move around to other venues, and that’s largely going to happen; some clients and workers will be pushed onto the street,” Anna Saini, a Toronto-based sex worker who has been in the industry for a decade, told VICE. Saini has also worked in the US and is an advisory board member of the Best Practices Policy Project, a group that supports organizations and advocates working with sex workers, people in the sex trade, and related communities in the US.
A Shrinking Client Pool
With the shutdown of prolific sites used for sex work ads, clients, too, will be displaced online.
“Clients will be nervous about experimenting with new platforms,” Rothschild said.
Saini said that, overall, the client pool will shrink, which they said “always increases danger for workers.” With fewer clients, sex workers aren’t always able to prioritize their own safety as easily.
“I think the most privileged of us will survive this—and some of us may even thrive—but there’s an opportunity to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable people of our community” —Anna Saini
But, there’s potential side-effects that may benefit some Canadian sex workers: “More US clients are going to come to Canada,” they suggested.
“I think there’s going to be an influx of richer clients seeking service in Canada because they want the peace of mind,” Vermilion said.
“I think the most privileged of us will survive this—and some of us may even thrive—but there’s an opportunity to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable people of our community,” Saini added.
Hindered Communication Between Sex Workers
Between sex workers increasingly being pushed off social media and sites where people warn about potentially dangerous clients going down, vital communication between those in the industry is being affected without regard for international borders.
“It’s just making it so difficult for sex workers even just to communicate with each other,” Rothschild said, referencing how some sites with bad date lists—where workers warned about potentially dangerous clients—have been affected.
“The clients know this, so I am seeing with providers, workers that they’re hearing from clients [who are listed as] bad dates,” Saini said.
Saini explained that these sites going offline creates an opportunity for potential predators. “They know that these lists are going down and not accessible, so they’re preying on workers on that basis.”
According to Rothschild, sex worker advocates like the PACE Society also use sites affected by FOSTA to reach workers who need support. “It’s making things complicated for us,” Rothschild said.
Added Obstacles for More Marginalized Workers
Vermilion and Saini stressed that not all sex workers will be impacted equally.
“These added obstacles are just going to make trans people and people of colour have a harder time,” said Vermilion, who is a trans woman. She explained how she’s had repeat issues with transphobic people reporting her ads on sites as it is.
“I’m hearing a lot from workers in the trans community that they are hurting really, really hard from this,” Saini said.
“Some folks who are extremely privileged and who’ve been sort of insulated by this ongoing assault on the most vulnerable people in this community, they’re really surprised they’re feeling it now,” Saini said.
“It saddens, frustrates, and angers me that it takes people getting hit in their own pocketbooks to understand that this fight is real and it is ongoing—and we have been losing lives.”
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