UPDATE: President Donald Trump signed into law Wednesday morning the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a controversial bill aiming to crack down on sex trafficking that many advocates say will endanger sex workers. (More on that below.)
Sex workers' online safe spaces and resources have come under siege in the weeks prior to FOSTA's passing: Craigslist shuttered its personals section last month; the classified ad site Backpage was seized by the FBI and shut down for good earlier this week; and social media giants like Twitter and Instagram have begun removing sex workers' content, making their accounts less visible, and even suspending their accounts entirely, VICE reports.
Many sex workers have recently fled to a new sub-network on Mastodon called Switter, an open-source Twitter clone that bills itself as "a sex work-friendly social space." According to BuzzFeed News, it's gained 28,000 users (and counting) in the two weeks since its launch.
As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on an anti-online trafficking bill known as FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), many are worried that it will do far more harm than good.
You're probably thinking: "How could an anti-sex-trafficking bill be a bad thing?" We get it, but as with most pieces of legislation, there is more to FOSTA and SESTA — a similar bill introduced in the Senate last year — than meets the eye.
FOSTA, in a nutshell, would make websites criminally responsible if they're proven to be facilitating sex trafficking, according to Think Progress. The bill specifically targets sites like Craigslist and Backpage, along with tons of other advertising sites and screening resources. Even sites like Twitter and Facebook would be under pressure to ban any users who advertise sex. If FOSTA becomes law, then, it would allow federal attorneys general to come after those sites, prosecuting and potentially wiping them off the web completely.
One of the major problems with FOSTA lies with its inaccurate conflation of sex trafficking and prostitution — two very, very different things. By lumping the two into one category, there could potentially be disastrous consequences for the millions of public and anonymous sex service providers all around the country.
If sites that sex workers use to both solicit clients and protect themselves — say, by sharing safety tips or "bad date lists" of people who pose threats to the community — are shut down in the name of anti-trafficking, they may end up in violent situations and/or forced back onto the streets.
“What the removal of these advertising sites do is remove low-risk clients from the client pool," Savannah Sly told The Los Angeles Times in 2016. She currently serves as president of Sex Workers Outreach Project.
"And because you have reduced demand," she added, "you’re more likely to agree to see the guy who is more dangerous.”
Many human trafficking victim advocacy groups have come out in support of the bill, as well as celebrities like Seth Meyers, Ivanka Trump, and Amy Schumer:
And it's understandable why they would: To those unfamiliar with how sex work functions, FOSTA and SESTA seem like a step in the right direction.
But to former and current sex workers and their allies, it's quite the opposite:
As author and sex workers' rights activist Connor Habib put it: "When sex workers don't have easy access to a variety of clients, it is harder for them to turn down or screen clients or to have in-community discussions about what clients are safe. This results ... in violence against sex workers."
While going after dangerous sex trafficking rings IS a step we need to take as a society, FOSTA is not the best way of doing so. With some modifications, and perhaps more information and perspectives from sex workers themselves, we can move forward in the right direction.
If you wish to FOSTA and SESTA, contact your senators, like, now! (Here's a database with their phone numbers. If you want to email them, just fill out this form.) Get the word out on social media using the hashtags #noFOSTA, #noSESTA, and #LetUsSurvive. For more information, visit this page.
Sex worker rights are human rights. Full stop.