At 11 a.m. EST Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that’s already started hurting people in the consensual sex trade.
The bill—a mashup of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which is commonly referred to as the latter—passed Congress in March. It makes websites liable for what users say and do on their platforms, and many advocacy groups have come out against the bill, saying that it undermines essential internet freedoms.
It could be months—or as late as January 2019—before FOSTA is enacted and anyone could be charged under the law. But even in the days immediately after the bill passed in Congress, platforms started scrambling to proactively shut down forums or whole sites where sex trafficking could feasibly happen. Fringe dating websites, sex trade and advertising forums, and even portions of Craigslist were taken down in the weeks following, while companies like Google started strictly enforcing terms of service around sexual speech.
One of the websites key to the FOSTA debate was Backpage, a site where users posted advertisements, frequently for sexual services. Federal authorities seized Backpage on Monday, two days before Trump even signed it, demonstrating that the FBI never really needed FOSTA’s backing to indict the site to begin with.
Lola, a community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, told me in a Signal message that this is literally a life-or-death law for sex workers. “I know so many people who were able to start working indoors or leave their exploitative situations because of Backpage and Craigslist,” she said. “They were able to screen for clients and keep themselves safe and save up money to leave the people exploiting them. And now that those sites are down, people are going back to pimps. Pimps are texting providers every day saying ‘the game’s changed. You need me.’”
FOSTA/SESTA is empowering abusive clients to exploit workers, Lola said, leading directly to more pimping and ultimately, more harm and potential for actual trafficking. “SESTA is putting people on the streets, where we face more violence and harassment and arrest and brutality by the police. SESTA is killing us.”