Sex workers have explained the dangers of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) for months now, warning that the bills claiming to prevent trafficking would actually censor trafficking victims and make it significantly harder for sex workers to work safely.
Despite this, Senate overwhelmingly passed SESTA/FOSTA, and the two bills are currently awaiting signing from the President. In their wake, multiple sex work forums shuttered, sex workers reported that their Google Drive files were mysteriously locked or disappeared, and Reddit shut down multiple groups that discussed the industry. But it wasn’t just sex workers who were impacted by SESTA/FOSTA; Microsoft warned customers that using what the company deems as offensive language on Skype, email, or even in Word documents could be an account-closing offense. And Craigslist—the popular site which helped cause a drop in female homicide rates by launching its erotic services platform—ceased to host personal ads of any kind. Only then did the public begin to realize that FOSTA/SESTA’s measures to "protect" contained broader implications of censorship.
While these concerns are certainly valid, it’s vital not to lose sight of those SESTA/FOSTA will hurt most: sex workers. Their main sources of income and their very livelihoods are being threatened (even cam shows, a legal form of sex work, are being curtailed) and abusive clients are even celebrating the desperation they see among sex workers, excitedly discussing how SESTA/FOSTA will mean that sex workers can be coerced into saying yes more often and lower their rates.
Sex workers tell Broadly that the government’s decision has them scared for their lives—and their concerns are not hyperbole. Online platforms are important spaces for sex workers to share resources with each other, including safety tips and "bad date lists," which are used to call out clients who’ve victimized workers in the past. Without such sources, a sex worker may struggle to expand their pool of safe clients and leave themselves vulnerable to abuse.
We asked six sex workers why sharing client lists is a potentially life-saving right that must be protected:
Lola Minaj is a trans escort in Kansas.
I started [sex work] at 17, as [a] boy, as a girl, and everything in between. I struggled to pull myself up out of those trenches, all the while living in a physical body I loathed. To be to able eat, it was suck a dick or steal from the store, so I took what I believed was the moral high road. Along the way, I learned processes and procedures; created templates, spreadsheets and systems. Things to make my business run smoother and safer. All the while being able to slowly get my physical self to align with who I was inside my heart, mind, and spirit: a woman. In turn, that helped my mental health. I started to feel safer, more secure.
Bad client lists allow us to let other providers know about risky behavior from the client. Information such as haggling prices might seem not that horrible at first, but that lets one know he’ll try to push boundaries along with how far and what boundary he’ll try to push. Any violent behavior needs to be put forefront so no other provider is endangered. The list may not predict every behavior from every client but it can give you an indication of a man’s previous acts or provide a red flag to not see him at all. I add any and all erratic behavior of the clients I see to conversations on the list for girls to draw their conclusions and to set their boundaries.
Without that safety, we are now back to the choice: prostitute or panhandle. Steal or stand on the corner? Back to the alleyways off of 7th St., scared this trick will be the one to smash your face in after he fucks you, then robs you. Back to not wearing a necklace or earrings for fear of getting choked, or earlobes ripped, instead of the screening process, the safety of the indoors, the vettings, the signal boosting, the being able to see if he tries to stealth the condom off.
Whatever keeps them out of the women's restroom, a couple of you all are thinking.
I expected more from my country than to throw me and my sisters back to the wolves. What do we do now?
Lotus Lain is an occasional dominatrix, Black adult performer, and adult industry advocate.
It’s an era of fear and uncertainty amongst performers. It makes it hard to trust any potential new clients because there aren’t as many channels open for verification. For example, an important thing to keep in mind is if sex worker gmail accounts are being closed for potential "illegal activity," even emailing another sex worker to verify a client becomes harder. You have to create a new email which your provider friends may not be as familiar with… and they may not respond in time or at all.
I think it’s also made things harder for sex workers that are not as tech savvy. Even with all of the info being put out on how to stay safe etc, it can be a lot for a small time or newly starting out provider to understand. It may in turn encourage less resourceful sex workers to give in to less secure modes of meeting up.
River Stark is a decorated veteran, adult film performer/filmmaker, escort, and LBGT and women’s rights advocate.
The fact that SESTA/FOSTA was passed without much consideration for who it impacts the most is alarming to me and, frankly, scares the shit out of me. As a trans sex worker, bad client lists and references are essential to my safety. When I started working as an escort, I did so as a street worker, which was extremely dangerous. There is a lot of stigma I have to deal with relative to being a trans woman, which also intersects with being a sex worker. It was a crapshoot working without the ability to screen or the ability to crowdsource investigating a specific individual. You just don’t get that opportunity as a street worker; you have to make a snap judgment call based on physical appearance and demeanor, which doesn’t really tell you anything. People like Ted Bundy never really fit stereotypes, so trying to apply them in this situation was more an illusion of safety than anything.
Once I transitioned to sex work based on the internet, that danger changed drastically. Instead of making a random guess [whether] someone had the potential to harm me, I could look at actual evidence, provided either anonymously by other sex workers or directly via references. I could do background check[s] similar to those done by law enforcement, sometimes including the very same tools they use. I had access to criminal records, past negative info relative to credit worthiness—if someone isn’t willing to pay their bills, it’s a good indication that in this black market industry, I likely won’t be paid either—and a wide range of other things.
While what I faced on the street wasn’t nearly as bad as stories I’ve heard from other girls, there was no shortage of violence. That nearly disappeared when I was able to make sure a client was thoroughly vetted prior to seeing them. Since I started using these blacklists, the only danger I’ve faced as a sex worker was violence from law enforcement.
Mistress Sadece is a dominatrix and Native American/Southern Ute & Apache Queen.
Sex workers use the internet and particular websites to share information, rate clients and to check references. It makes it easier to find out if a client/potential client has a reputation for being safe, respectful, a danger, a thief, violent or harmful.
The internet has made it easier for us to stay safe. We are able to use various platforms and implement safety protocols with a greater speed and on a far larger scale with greater efficiency. Sex workers have always screened clients, negotiated terms, gathered information and created communities/networks. Having an online "blacklist" strengthens our ability to warn others of abusive clients immediately.
In a 2017 study done by researchers at Baylor University and West Virginia University estimated that 17.4% of homicides against women were reduced due to sex worker friendly online platforms being utilized—specifically, Craigslist’s "Erotic Services" Section. While Bill 230 of the Decency Act immunizes websites from being liable for content placed on their sites by their patrons, SESTA/FOSTA is meant to bypass it. As a result, it affects platforms that many sex workers/providers use to perform background checks by looking up a clients public information and history before meeting them.
With these tools, clients can get "blacklisted" for being deemed harmful or risky to other sex workers. We also use social media to connect with potential clients as well as other sex workers and sex worker organizations to share information that keeps us safe. Research has shown that sex workers are safer when they are able to screen their clients before meeting.
Without these platforms, we are made vulnerable and more likely to fall victim to theft, rape, or even worse, murder.
Cory Cocktail is a trans and genderqueer sex worker and sex educator.
As a trans-masculine sex worker I was already excluded from most sex work community safety networks because they are exclusively for women. The passing of SESTA/FOSTA will only exacerbate this marginalization. Sharing bad client lists is one of the only tools sex workers in the US and other countries have to keep ourselves and our community safe.
With the passing of the new laws combined with my non-normative gender I expect my career to be over, which is why I’m speaking up now. These new laws will harm and contribute to the death of queer and trans sex workers, among many other sex workers. It is a travesty of shortsightedness and hubris.
Bella Vendetta is sex worker, dancer, and sex worker rights advocate.
I have a lengthy screening process, which now just became illegal for me to do. I cannot do a pre-session interview via Skype anymore, that even got taken away from me. I cannot ask for references from other sex workers about clients. Exchanging of information and asking about references has saved me from violence and perhaps death many times.
For me personally, it's not so much about having a bad client list, some big black book I check names against, it's about client references. Being able to ask a client for references from other pro dommes, contacting the dommes and saying, "Hey, so-and-so is using you as a reference, can you give me any feedback?" Sometimes guys just grab names of other dommes they’ve heard of but have never seen, hoping you won't contact them. Those things are red flags for me—if we enter into a potentially very intimate relationship together and you began it by not only lying, but assuming I won't check up on you and you can trick me, it's a good indicator you are not a good match for me as a submissive.
In some cases a potential client gives a reference of another provider they have seen. The client may be super confident the provider will have wonderful things to say about them, only to have the provider tell me they had a horrible session, with the client being overly aggressive. You can NOT rely on clients to be honest about how they will act. We need to be able to have these frank conversations with each other. SESTA makes just the mere act of communicating with each other into a crime.