Unemployment is a terrifying thought for most Americans, trying to stay afloat in a country where work is life, life is expensive, and well-paying jobs are hard to come by. On April 11, 2018, thousands of Americans were left unemployed after President Donald Trump signed into law the SESTA/FOSTA bill, which was passed by Congress in March. These people have been left devastated, their livelihoods uncertain. Surprised you haven’t heard about this? Perhaps it’s because the population impacted by this bill is one of the most devalued in American society: sex workers.
A sex worker, as defined by the World Health Organization, is anyone who receives compensation for performing a sexual service, whether that be a phone sex operator, a dancer in a strip club, or an escort. Sex workers are stigmatized because of their untraditional employment, but what many people fail to comprehend is that many sex workers truly enjoy the work that they do, and the ability to be their own boss can be empowering. This is especially true for individuals for whom there are barriers to entry for more traditional means of employment.
There is an important distinction between sex work and sex trafficking. Sex work is the consensual exchange of sexual services for money, while sex trafficking is the use of violence, fraud, or coercion to force people into commercial sex acts. Sex work is a form of employment, whereas sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery—its victims often children. Both sex traffickers and sex workers use online platforms to sell sex; the former for abuse, the latter for survival.
SESTA/FOSTA is a law intended to curb online sex trafficking. It amends Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which holds that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” With this amendment, website publishers became personally liable for any content facilitating sex work found on their platforms. Supporters see it as a way to stop ads for sex trafficking victims from seeing the light of day.
When SESTA/FOSTA passed, major websites like Backpage.com and the personals section of Craigslist quickly shut down. Many other websites are censoring their platforms and/or removing certain sections, arguing it’s simply too difficult to constantly police their sites. Major internet companies, including Google, Facebook, and Skype, are being increasingly pressured to monitor third-party content on their platforms, looking for sex work-related language. As if the internet wasn’t scary enough, there’s now potential for Skype to start watching your video chats and Facebook scanning your private messages.
Sex work comes with a myriad of risks, and this bill is likely to amplify them. Sex workers are often the targets of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, and their murder rate is much higher than the national average. Many sex workers are hesitant to bring their cases to police or to public safety resources, for fear of being arrested or stigmatized.
Sex workers who suffer the most violence are those who work on the streets, and work under pimps, who can be abusive to the those they take under their wing under the guise of “protection.” This is why many sex workers use online platforms to offer their services—allowing them to work without a pimp, from the relative safety of their homes. Before SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers could vet potential clients online before meeting with them, granting them the ability to pick and choose who they would work with, reducing the risk of sexual violence and manipulation.
MF Akynos, a 40-year-old sex worker from Brooklyn, tells BUST, “Different workers had different methods of how they screened their clients.” Workers might even require a photo of a client, phone call, or email from the client’s work address as means of vetting.
The internet was also a safety mechanism for many sex workers by acting as a space to network and share tips, through Facebook or Google groups. “If there were bad clients, we would organize online,” MF Akynos says, “to create lists or have conversations around ugly mugs that were harmful to sex workers, either by pushing boundaries, trying to negotiate lower prices, or being physically or emotionally abusive.” The new law means these groups may soon disappear, as well.
“People are scrambling,” MF Akynos says. “They’re nervous. They don’t know what to do. They’re feeling as if they have to tolerate clients they usually wouldn’t, because they don’t know how or when they’re going to be able to work again.”
Sex workers and allies on social media have made it clear that they are terrified and heartbroken over the passing of the bill. They are also angry. Sex workers and sex work advocates worked hard to oppose the bill prior to the signing – writing articles, speaking at marches and festivals, clearing up the difference between sex work and sex trafficking, and making mass calls to Congress members. But no one listened.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new for sex workers. While some portion of sex trafficking may be curtailed by the introduction of this law, it is likely that it will do more harm than good overall.
Instead of the law, sex workers and allies have suggested that the government should dedicate time and effort to identifying and punishing individual sex traffickers and supporting survivors. “There are a lot of moral crusaders getting money for this so-called sex trafficking epidemic,” MF Akynos says, referring to agencies that receive funding to combat the issue, “but they don’t actually do anything to help the victims.” MF Akynos explains cases where victims of sex trafficking have been arrested for prostitution after being freed, when what they really needed was support to get back on their feet.
Not only does the government need to do better when it comes to solving the issue of sex trafficking, but legislators also need to start making a conscious effort to listen to the people who their legislation will impact. They need to listen to women when they make laws about their bodies, and survivors of school shootings when the topic of gun reform is proposed.
Right now, more than ever, they and you and we need to listen to sex workers. They are capable, they are valuable, and they are human—and right now their lives are in immediate danger.
All tweets from sex workers are reprinted here with permission, as are MF Akynos's quotes
top photo: protest against the close of Backpage, by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr Creative Commons
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Hannah Chubb is a curly-headed Canadian writer who straightens her hair every day before going out and chasing her dreams in New York City. She graduated from McGill University in Montreal, where she learned how to eat poutine and jaywalk, and is now pursuing a Masters in Journalism at New York University, even though purple is not her color. She writes because it hurts not to, and if her words can touch anyone, anywhere, that’s all she can really ask for. She is inspired to get out of bed each day by the fear of being average, and hopes you do the same. Follow her at hannahchubb.com, on Instagram @hannahchubb and on Twitter @hannah_chubb.