This week, the Senate will likely vote on a bill whose stated goal is helping women and girls who have been coerced into prostitution against their will, called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA. But advocates in the sex work community—including women who have been trafficked themselves—say the bill will do more harm than good.
The bill, if passed, would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from being held liable for their users’ speech. On February 27, the House of Representatives passed its own version of the bill, abbreviated as FOSTA, nearly unanimously, with a vote of 388–25. In many ways, the House version of the bills is stricter than the Senate version, allowing state attorneys general to hold websites liable for posts that “unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.” It also designates a new criminal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for websites that publish content “with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”
Aside from SESTA’s broad bipartisan support, celebrities like Amy Schumer, Seth Meyers, and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg have also come out in favor of the bill.
But the legislation has drawn opposition from civil rights and internet freedom advocates, including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They have argued the bill could chill speech online by making websites liable for the content users post and force smaller sites to shut down prematurely to avoid potential future lawsuits.
Under the House bill, federal prosecutors would be able sue any website that hosts content they deem to “promote and facilitate prostitution.” But what counts as “promoting” or “facilitating” prostitution, online speech advocates say, is a slippery slope.
Advocates say that doing away with Section 230 could end up restricting online speech for everyone, not just human traffickers. Federal prosecutors, they argue, could use the bill to broadly police any sexual content online and hold websites liable for hosting it.
Online forums like Wikipedia and Metafilter fear that SESTA, if passed, would fundamentally change their ability to host user-generated content. Elliot Harmon, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Splinter that the law would “effectively incentivize online platforms to over-censor their users.”
“When platforms err on the side of censorship, it’s marginalized communities that are hit hardest. Tragically, trafficking victims are likely to be the first people silenced under this law,” he said in an email.
The bill has also sparked opposition from sex workers themselves, who say the bill wrongfully conflates sex work with sex trafficking. They say the bill would cut them off from crucial harm reduction resources, both for those who’ve entered sex work consensually and those who have been forced into the industry.
It could also have potentially far-reaching implications for anyone posting content on these websites that someone—whether its other users or government employees—could wind up deeming salacious.
“If we continue to go down this path, who’s to say what will be considered illegal? What will be considered soliciting?” a sex worker and communications director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project who goes by Briq House told Splinter. “Who’s to say your vacation bikini pic won’t eventually be considered soliciting sex?”
First, a critical distinction: sex work is a consensual act; sex trafficking is coerced. The sex workers and advocates I spoke with were adamant that they do not support human trafficking, and said they oppose these bills not in spite of that fact, but because of it. (Many of the sex workers I talked to asked to use an alias or only their first name due to the nature of their work.)
Rather than providing a lifeline for sex workers who no longer want to be in the industry, House said Congress’ effort “pushes the traffickers and the predators further underground, so they start moving in even more silent circles.”
The internet has been an incredible harm reduction tool for sex workers and, many times, victims of human trafficking. Sex workers can perform background checks, looking up clients’ personal information and history before meeting with them for the first time. They can use “bad dates lists” hosted online—and updated by fellow sex workers—to weed out potentially dangerous clients. And they can also use social media to connect with fellow sex workers and sex work organizations, sharing resources to keep each other safe.
Research shows sex workers are safer when they’re able to screen their clients online before meeting with them. A 2017 study from researchers at Baylor University and West Virginia University estimated that Craigslist’s “erotic services” section “reduced female homicide rates by as much as 17.4%”—a staggering number for anyone concerned with reducing violence against women.
In this way, the internet has also allowed sex workers to become their own managers, and to maintain their own safety on the job more effectively. Working outdoors, or “on the stroll,” comes with significantly more risk than working independently through an escort website: from unvetted clients, from managers, and especially from the police, who have used their positions of power to coerce and abuse sex workers.
Sex workers have also largely been left out of the conversation around these bills. Advocates and members of the industry are concerned this bill will make it harder, not easier, for people to get out of coercive situations, and will further stigmatize their own (consensual) work. Good intentions, they say, don’t always equate to good policy.
“A lot of times, the most successful way that people have been able to transition out of sex work when they no longer want to be involved is through the community of sex workers,” House said.
Laura LeMoon, a writer and sex work activist, was first forced into prostitution as a teenager in the Bronx, and eventually went into sex work on her own terms, using sites like Backpage and Craigslist to advertise her services.
“Nobody is asking sex trafficking survivors directly about what we know from experience that could help decrease trafficking,” LeMoon said. “You know why that is? Because the answer is decriminalization of sex work.”
Lola, an activist and community organizer with Massachusetts Sex Workers Ally Network, echoed that sentiment, saying the solution to human trafficking won’t be found through censorship and punishing websites.
“We already have the laws to fight trafficking. That’s not the issue,” she said. “Criminalization is one of the root causes of what makes people vulnerable to trafficking.”
SESTA does walk back some of the language in the House bill that its opponents found worrisome. Under the Senate bill, state prosecutors would have to prove that websites “knowingly participate[d] in the sex trafficking of children or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion.” The House bill’s legal standard is much lower, requiring only proof of a site’s intent to facilitate or promote prostitution—regardless of age or proof of coercion. Still, advocates remain concerned that Congress will revert to the House’s original language when the two bills are reconciled and the final version likely ends up on the president’s desk.
Advocates say the law wouldn’t just affect erotic services sites like Craigslist or Backpage, which shut down its adult section last year after being repeatedly sued by then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Organizations that connect sex workers with resources online are worried about the potential impact of the bill, like whether hosting a “bad date list” or other harm reduction tools could be considered “facilitating sex trafficking.”
“A lot of groups might go underground,” Lola said. “It’s really going to change our organizing landscape, and I think people are pretty scared.”
Shayla Schlossenberg is the mobile services manager at HIPS, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has been serving sex workers in the area for more than 25 years. The group distributes condoms, lube, and other supplies to sex workers in the area via a mobile services van and also hosts a hotline for sex workers to talk about their concerns and get connected with resources.
Schlossenberg said these bills could chill the online harm reduction work being done by groups like HIPS—and in sex workers’ peer networks on social media—so long as a state prosecutor views it as “facilitating prostitution.”
“It would cause huge problems for us, because this is how we disseminate information,” Schlossenberg said.
Even as smaller tech firms and civil liberties organizations have opposed the bills, the biggest names in tech have lent their support. The Internet Association—a lobbying group that represents Amazon, Facebook, and Google—threw its support behind SESTA last November. Facebook originally opposed the bill, but backed off after the House passed an amendment to narrow its scope. Oracle, IBM, and HP supported the bill from the very beginning, according to The New York Times.
With some of the biggest corporations in the world backing these bills, the people who oppose them are pushing against a formidable political current. Advocates say the general lack of knowledge about sex workers’ lived experiences, combined with the optics of a bill intended to help sex workers have meant other organizations that support free speech online have been hesitant to vocally oppose the legislation.
“Politically, it’s just really difficult to come out with a statement, because who wants to say, ‘I oppose an anti-trafficking bill’?” Lola, of MASWAN, said.
The real answer to stop sex trafficking is clear to advocates—it’s just a solution that virtually no one in Congress, Republican or Democrat, wants to touch.
Sex work has been around nearly as long as humans have walked the Earth, and it’s unlikely to vanish in the future. The solution to coercive labor practices like trafficking, advocates say, is not further criminalizing sex workers but putting more power in their hands. Pushing sex work off of the internet will only end up harming sex workers themselves as they’re forced back onto the streets, unable to connect with the resources they need. Meanwhile, the actual traffickers will continue their work in the shadows.
When we start to reframe the conversation around sex work as a labor issue, rather than as a sexual deviance that should remain illegal, it becomes clear that we can’t censor our way into better labor practices.
“We’re all exploited, whether we sell our labor to Google or Microsoft or McDonald’s,” LeMoon said. “We all sell our bodies and our time under capitalism to survive.”