Stop twisting the truth — FOSTA/SESTA hasn’t helped anyone. It’s a punitive bill more concerned with “closure” than saving lives.

Image via Keeping Sex Workers Quiet at Jacobin

This morning, like many in my community of sex workers, I got up and checked the internet to see if any of the sites we use to survive had gone down overnight. Since the passage of the FOSTA legislation in the house, even before it was signed, we’ve seen cascading closures of sites that allow people to advertise sexual services and the creation of new moderation rules that remove people who work around sex (all sorts, from porn performers to educators) from broadly used platforms. Since the internet is essential for making sex work safer, the impact of the bill has been deadly.

Instead of another site loss (yay?), today I was confronted with a condescending and infuriating essay on The Hill (not yay) which, instead of addressing actual impact and studies about the effects of the bill, directly attacked the work of those on the ground scrambling for survival in the wake of this disastrous legislation, questioned opponents’ status as survivors and attempted to muddy the waters around our on the ground impact research and reporting. I don’t have the time or energy to write out an essay style response, but I do have the motivation to quickly rant and drop links point by point. So here we go.

SESTA/FOSTA imposes accountability on internet service providers, remains misinterpreted by many
BY SHEA M. RHODES AND JAMIE PIZZI, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS —

So first I’ll just note that this is an article by someone who works at a law school, in an ivory tower, not someone who has worked on the ground with people in the sex trade (Survivors or Workers) since this law passed.

The “Commercial Sexual Exploitation Institute” doesn’t seem as bad as some faith based organizations — and Shea M Rhodes even put out a paper saying that decriminalizing child victims of sex trafficking was essential (which it is) to helping with abuse — So why support another criminal law about prostitution? Let’s find out, shall we?

In the era of “fake news,” opposing viewpoints are instantaneously categorized as factually inaccurate or transparently biased. This knee-jerk reaction — this lack of critical thinking — is not only intellectually lazy, but a dangerous impetus for the spread of propaganda.

Ok, what? If you’re so secure in your viewpoint, why drop “fake news” in the first line of your story? We’re going into this already with the condescending sneer that sex workers are used to. Not a great start!

Recently, there has been widespread confusion surrounding SESTA/FOSTA, the new legislation that enhances the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”). In short, SESTA/FOSTA closed the loophole that gave blanket immunity to internet service providers who failed to take measures to prevent people from being sold for sex through their websites.

Ok, no. Enhances?

Up until this point, sites were treated more as public squares. This is important, because treating websites like publishers (like newspapers) means they have to start moderating their content like publishers, which means gatekeeping and censorship.

Tech companies aren’t set up with a grievance process for freedom of speech, they’re companies with millions of users that will have to blanket ban words or remove sex work of any sort entirely to try and protect their bottom line. This isn’t theoretical anymore, it’s actually happening, including kicking sex educators off platforms.

Now, rather than trying to meaningfully understand the legal impact of SESTA/FOSTA, self-proclaimed “sex worker advocates” have used the flurry of misinformation to their advantage, perpetuating a false narrative about the law’s supposed effects.

Why is sex worker advocates in quotes? Why mention they’re “self-proclaimed”. I guess there’s no reason to act like we respect the author’s opinions either anymore.

The section of the law igniting the most controversy is § 2421A (a): ‘‘Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service(as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.”

Instead of addressing the actual impact they say we’re not “meaningfully understanding”. Here they just condescendingly paste the text of the bill of us. Well, I can read it too! Check out how it specifically says “prostitution”. It’s mentioned several times in the text of the bill.

Why is this important? You can see that the bill is not really about sex trafficking. Sex trafficking, as the average person understands it, requires an element of force or coercion. But this bill doesn’t say anything about that! It just says “promote or facilitate”. What does that mean? No one knows! Which is why sites that deal with sexual education and even personal non-commercial dating have been hit by the bill. It’s crazy broad!

It also doesn’t do anything to set aside funds for helping victims and the Department of Justice itself issued a note against it saying it will actually make it harder to catch traffickers and raise the standards of prosecuting them.

There were earlier drafts of the bills, like this one from 2017, that specifically say things like this “violation for benefiting from “participation in a venture” engaged in sex trafficking of children, or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion, includes knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating the violation.” Notice the “force, fraud, or coercion” bit? SESTA/FOSTA advocates worked hard to remove that. They also made sure the final bill said “facilitate the prostitution” and note that the earlier language that never used the word “prostitution” at all. The final language of the bill uses the word “prostitution” 5 times.

And again, “prostitution” does not mean trafficking! It‘s a legal term about the selling of sex! So this is quite clearly an attack on all sex work, not just victims of trafficking. Hopefully the authors, seeing as they are at a law school, can try to “meaningfully understand” this.

The very text of § 2421A (a) reveals that the law was intended to apply to websites, and not target the people who post on them. In fact, those who post were never subject to the protections of Section 230(c) of the CDA in the first place. Yet sex worker advocates proclaim SESTA/FOSTA infringes on their ability to sell sex.

Authors: “It applies to websites, not the people who post on them!”

Two paragraphs below this one: “It closed down the websites, hooray!”

This is ridiculous. It’s pretty clear an advertising site disappearing or kicking off erotic sections is “infringing” on the ability to “sell sex.” Or even just have sex, if we’re talking about Craigslist. If the website is gone, I’m pretty sure the people who post on the website are going to have trouble using the fucking website. Come on.

Sex workers who post their own commercial sex advertisements were always (and still are) subject to applicable prostitution laws.

Uh, yeah, laws which, to lightly paraphrase Amnesty International, suck. They’re basically straight up admitting that this doesn’t help anyone who suffers under criminalization, does nothing for criminalized victims to protect survivors of trafficking from being arrested and abused by the police themselves.

SESTA/FOSTA did nothing to change this. Instead, the law is fundamentally concerned with websites who intend to facilitate “the prostitution of another person.”

Uh yeah, we know, it shut down our websites. What does intend mean? What does facilitate mean? These people don’t care because they’re quite happy to get rid of all sex work and sexual content — that’s literally their goal.

Therefore, individual people can continue to use the internet to discuss and advertise commercial sex on various websites, subject to the same applicable prostitution laws.

Uh, no. If you make laws that shut down every website (since those websites are by default risking “facilitating” another person posting an ad), there is no where to discuss and advertise sex work. This is literally becoming the case, as sex workers have already tracked over 150 sites, service providers, and companies that discriminate against sex work or have closed entirely in the wake of the passage of these bills. Again, not theoretical, not a “misinterpretation” of the bill — it’s actually happening. The author is

Simply put, SESTA/FOSTA holds internet service providers accountable for allowing their websites to serve as springboards for sex trafficking.

Let me interject again — you say sex trafficking, but we just saw the bill says “prostitution.” And here the author says “internet service providers” — again, slippery language. Does that mean Comcast? Verizon? Or layers in the internet like Cloudflare?

Yet, sex worker rights advocates continue to push an alarmist agenda, mangling what the law actually says. They argue that it will increase the deaths of prostituted people everywhere because it will prevent screening efforts, “force” them “back out” on the street, and prevent them from earning a “livelihood” from this “empowering” career choice. These vain arguments were made bolstered by the fictitious proclamation that “survivors” said so.

Nice quotes. This is actually happening. Just because you put it in quotes doesn’t mean it’s not. And you guys love “empowering”, because it belittles our actual positions. This is not about “empowered” sex workers vs. everyone else. Stop distracting.

And what is your basis at all for saying that survivors of trafficking aren’t survivors of trafficking. That’s just bullshit. Here’s one. Here’s another. You don’t know who runs Survivors Against SESTA, you haven’t even bothered to figure it out. Our policy proposals are made with the consideration of all survivors, not just those handpicked by the rescue industry.

We would never say the survivors you pick out to attack the whole of sex work aren’t actual survivors just because we disagree. “Fictitious?” This is incredibly shitty of you to suggest. This is past condescending and into incredibly dangerous territory — how can you suggest you are making laws to help victims and survivors when you are literally suggesting ones who are reporting experiences back to you that don’t mesh with your worldview literally don’t exist.

It’s incredibly offensive that you are suggesting actual lived experiences, which now include verified deaths and suicides, are “alarmist”. Honestly, fuck you.

Prostitution is incredibly dangerous.

Under criminalization. Amnesty International notes that, after extensive study, they found that “Sex workers are at risk of a whole host of human rights abuses including:”

  • Rape
  • Violence
  • Trafficking
  • Extortion
  • Arbitrary arrest and detention
  • Forced eviction from their homes
  • Harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Exclusion from health services
  • Forced HIV testing
  • Lack of legal redress

What did they recommend to help with this? “[Amnesty’s policy] calls for the decriminalization of sex work based on evidence that criminalization makes sex workers less safe, by preventing them from securing police protection and by providing impunity to abusers.” Hmm.. not taking away their websites, ok.

The admission by sex workers who claim to use certain websites to screen violent and homicidal sex buyers acknowledges the inherent danger of commercial sex.

Again, what’s with this “claim”? They obviously did NO research whatsoever into what sex work is actually like. Some sex workers are so fucking good at screening clients that they’re educating civilians on how to date safely. But it’s not just those who ask for full names, IDs, phone number, emails, alias and provider references to run through extensive background checking programs (like the main one I’m not going to name because I don’t want it to become a target.)

Sex workers have weeded out violence just by asking someone to schedule the next day to make sure they’re visiting with a cool head, or feeling out the person in text conversation, or asking them to follow simple instructions and seeing if they can.

By denying screening exists, people like this author are able to feel fine removing the websites we use to screen. They are making our lives much more dangerous, pushing us back to pre-internet alleys and pimps, but excusing it by pretending those aren’t problems sex workers themselves have worked decades to solve.

The passage of SESTA/FOSTA does not make prostitution more dangerous, because unless the websites used for screening were intended to promote or facilitate the prostitution of a person other than the one posting on the site, the screening websites and the users remain in the same legal position as they were prior to the passage of SESTA/FOSTA.

Again, this is disingenuous, and not what the bill says. It goes after the sites that facilitate “another person” but it says another person than those who operate the site, not another person than the person posting on the site.

Where does this logical leap come from? It’s just a straight up lie as far as I can tell. You can consult that document I listed before — it doesn’t even matter what these ivory tower law people say the bill “does”, the sites are down, the forums are down, people are less safe. Services are removing completely legal platforms in other countries that have already had the foresight to decriminalize and/or legalize consensual work.

Don’t just take my word for it, the actual legal counsel of these services, like Cloudflare, are giving interviews about how it’s constraining them. Not ivory tower lawyers, actual practicing lawyers who have to deal with the impact. Do you think these businesses, worth millions and billions, would be changing their policies and kicking off sex workers if they didn’t have a reason? Sex is great money.

Oh, I see, it says they remain in the “Same legal position” — yeah no, they’re now open to being sued or prosecuted for “facilitating”, whatever that means, so… the impact seems to based the risk the sites are trying to avoid.

Furthermore, this argument relies on the premise that the information shared about commercial sex online is completely accurate.

NO ONE thinks this. That’s why we screen, to see if they gave us real information or lied. Like.. that’s literally the point of screening.

Meaning, all sex buyers use their real names and provide truthful information during transactions, that the people who sell sex always feel safe to use their identities to critique their customers, and that people who solicit sex via the figurative cover of the internet are inherently more trustworthy than those who do it in person. These presumptions are ludicrous.

Of course not everyone does, and not everyone screens the same way. Regardless, the ability to screen at all is what makes things safer. A guy might not give me his real name, but he might give me references to two other people. Or I can just pick to meet him in a public place or at a hotel that has security — instead of in his fucking car. Come on, it’s not “ludicrous”, it’s our reality. Every real empirical study shows we’re safer with the internet — so much so that when Craigslist had an erotic services section up, studies showed female homicide rates country wide dropped 17%, saving a few thousand lives.

Now that websites are no longer immune from legal action for their part in facilitating sex trafficking, some have smartly opted to remove content that could trigger violations. Craigslist promptly deleted its personal ad section;. Backpage.com was shut down by the government in early April following indictment of the site’s founders on criminal charges including facilitating prostitution.

So…. they said sites wouldn’t remove consensual content, and here they are bragging that craigslist deleted Missed Connections? Seriously? This article doesn’t even stay consistent to itself.

You can’t say it’s only aimed trafficking and then say personal ads were “smartly removed.” I feel like these people throw the word trafficking around like confetti. Seriously guys.

Honestly, the most troubling aspect of the backlash against SESTA/FOSTA by “sex worker advocates” is the declaration that survivors of commercial sexual exploitation share their point of view.

Again, actual survivors of being forced into the sex trade. We have never said that all survivors share the view that sites like Backpage are good for the safety of those in the sex trade. So why are they suggesting that we do, that we’re lying? Because they can only discredit our sources, because if they let all the voices into the conversation they will have to admit their errors with SESTA/FOSTA.

The word “survive” means to continue to function or prosper despite a hardship. We don’t call people who retire after successful careers, “survivors,” because the term connotes a more dangerous set of circumstances than those associated with most jobs, no matter how difficult. How does one “survive” something they claim is a relatively safe, meaningful choice? If “sex work” is so empowering, why misappropriate a label reserved for those who have endured trauma and catastrophe?

Yeah, you know, you don’t call coal miners survivors. You don’t call soldiers or police survivors. Why? Because there isn’t an obsession with victimizing people in other dangerous jobs. They’re heroized.

No one is claiming that sex work is safe. We’re telling you that access to the internet makes it safe-er. You’re actively supporting a law that takes that away.

We’re all survivors — survivors of criminalization. Of knowing that police can abuse us with impunity. Of knowing that our houses and bank accounts can be seized. Of knowing that if we do get hurt or abused, we can’t report it without being arrested ourselves. Of knowing that people like you will talk over us and take our safety resources while patting themselves on the back for saving us. It’s some traumatic shit.

The most vocal opponents of SESTA/FOSTA have primarily been people with enough privilege to meaningfully choose selling sex as their ideal occupation — not as a necessary means of survival.

This is a dog whistle like the empowerment one. They keep saying that everyone speaking out against FOSTA/SESTA is privileged. They’re right in one way — we’re the ones able to take the risks of being fucking arrested just because we’re sticking our necks out. But it’s also just flat out not true. Read interviews with actual sex workers about the impact of the law. You’ll see very quickly they represent a broad range of backgrounds and experiences.

We don’t need sex work to be empowering or to even be our ideal job to ask for it to be safer. Stop misdirecting.

This privilege permits their voices to be echoed from the parapets of national women’s magazines, providing their arguments with the most traction throughout this public discussion.’

If we don’t get coverage, no one hears us. If we do get coverage, somehow that very fact is used against us? Come on.

In reality, this point of view is not held by all survivors. Autumn Burris, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation and founder of Survivors for Solutions told Medium in a recent interview that, “It is imperative for people to realize that systems of prostitution are inherently harmful. The claim that FOSTA-SESTA will harm ‘sex workers’ is a myth that must be challenged. Disrupting the ability of Backpage and other websites to no longer be able to facilitate the sale of people online is not what creates the harm. It is the buyers and traffickers that do that.”

It’s imperative for people to realize that prostitution is not inherently harmful. A couple paragraphs above they were just saying that some sex workers are privileged. These things are not compatible. If some people are able to do sex work safely and happily, even if it’s just some people, that straight up proves that sex work isn’t “inherently harmful.”

Survivors like Burris may have been through hell, but sex work prohibitionists put their funding behind and microphones in front of people willing to say things like this. Just because they went through hell doesn’t mean they can speak for everyone else, just like we don’t claim to speak for them.

While the US actively pushes against research that would show sex work isn’t inherently harmful to be the case, decriminalization has been successfully implemented in other countries and shown to be essential in ending violence against those in the sex trade: “more than 60 per cent of the 772 sex workers who participated reported feeling more able to refuse to see certain clients, and 95 per cent said they felt they had rights after decriminalization.” A brothel working in New Zealand even successfully sued the manager for sexual harassment! That hardly even happens at non-sex related companies in America.

SESTA/FOSTA won’t stop trafficking.

Yeah, no shit. It does literally nothing for current victims — who will just be forced to work in less safe ways without the internet, and law enforcement already reports they’re harder to find.

But, it is an incredible blow to the commercial sex industry, — an industry that not even sex worker rights advocates can claim is fundamentally safe. To say otherwise is incredibly disheartening and politically distracting.

Check it out, again, the mask slips. As we’ve been saying since the start, the target of this bill isn’t sex traffickers, it’s what these people call “the commercial sex industry.” IE, sex work. The idea that an industry has to be “fundamentally safe” to deserve rights and protections is ridiculous.

We’re not saying it’s fundamentally safe, we never have. We just don’t want consensual sex work to be illegal, because it makes it harder for trafficking victims to get help and results in more deaths and more abuse of sex workers. The internet made things safer. SESTA doesn’t help with anything, it just takes away the safety tools and safer advertising options on the name of punishing websites and offering some prior trafficking victims closure.

This isn’t engaging with us on policy positions, it’s gaslighting. But we’re not imaging the impact of the bill, we’re living it.

That’s the end of this essay — finishing like it started, with sneering dismissals of the people speaking out against the bill and strawman attacks against arguments we’ve never made. It’s amazing that they go the whole time throwing the word “trafficking” around only to admit exactly what we’re accusing them of right at the end — aiming legislation at commercial sex while knowing it won’t actually stop trafficking.

These people aren’t willing to engage with the stakeholders of their actions and aren’t willing to engage with empirical evidence from Obama era on the ground researchers showing the trafficking panic is a myth or organizations that recommend decriminalization like Amnesty International and Freedom Network USA, which is the largest group of anti-trafficking experts in America. They just want to attack those sex workers brave enough to speak up. Even if those sex workers are the ones doing well enough to have free time for activism, they’re still criminalized for no reason and risking police violence just by speaking up at all.

It’s low blows and misdirection all around. The reality is, SESTA/FOSTA has made sexual labor more difficult and more dangerous for consensual sex workers and trafficking victims alike. It’s increasing trafficking by creating opportunities for traffickers by removing economic stability and safety mechanisms from workers. SESTA’s got a body count, both in websites and lost resources and actual, real, not theoretical, sex workers bodies, and it’s rising.

It’s time to start listening to stakeholders and not ivory tower theorists interested in arguing semantics over the text of a bill instead of looking at how criminalization of sex work actually impacts communities and the the easy to see results of half assed legislation. The time for ametaphorical debate on our safety is over — look around, the bill is a disaster.

Let’s support candidates like Suraj Patel in New York, who has listened to the sex work community to craft policy positions that value people’s safety and is fighting to repeal SESTA/FOSTA, or DA candidate Genevieve Jones-Wright in San Diego who values harm reduction over arresting victims. Let’s decriminalize sex work in America, so the light can shine on bad actors and those who just want to survive can operate safer.