FOSTA-SESTA: A Personal Look

For many years, traffickers and other exploiters have bought and sold people for the purposes of sex trafficking. Among the many ways to do this, is online sexual exploitation, which remains a popular avenue for both exploiters and sex buyers to engage in the sex trade with the most anonymity. Websites like (the former) Backpage.com, Craigslist.com and many others, have generated billions of dollars in revenue off of ads in their ‘Escorts’ and ‘Personals’ sections. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (section 230) allowed for these websites to thrive on user-generated content without holding platforms and ISPs responsible for whatever those users might create. Traffickers and other profiteers hid behind this clause to continue profiting off of the backs of many people who were exploited through their online platforms with immunity. The Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which was signed into law in 2018, amends that section 230 making it so that website owners and users are held accountable for knowingly facilitating or participating in the sexual exploitation and/or trafficking/prostitution of individuals.

As one can imagine, this has caused numerous debates. Some people think FOSTA-SESTA has caused unintended consequences for those who engage in ‘consensual sex work’ (see my other article “Sex Work”-DeMystified). As a person with lived experience in the sex trade, and who was exploited on Backpage.com, I am of the opinion that FOSTA-SESTA was an overall good move.

Prostitution has existed for centuries and like all systems of trade, application methods can grow and become more innovative. It started with indoor hidden prostitution and brothels, then streetwalking and strip clubs, and now the internet has become a major hub for prostitution to occur. It is not only a way to get sexual access to several people at fast rates, but it’s also the most innovative way to remain anonymous and under the radar. Unfortunately, this means that more people are purchased and exploited, and the owners of these sites become richer.

There are indeed some arguments in opposition of the law. Self-identified ‘sex workers’ believe that FOSTA-SESTA violates their first amendment right, forces prostitution ‘underground’, and makes conditions more dangerous for them. The reality, however, is that the system of prostitution has always been a dangerous, underground world for people like me- a Black, queer person who grew up marginalized. Additionally, FOSTA-SESTA merely amends the CDA — it does not target those who sell or purchase sex, nor is it responsible for tackling the centuries-long system of prostitution. It simply seeks to hold perpetrators accountable. The dangers and inherent harms associated with the sex trade cannot be solved in a day and most certainly not through FOSTA-SESTA. I think it is unfair to attribute all of the systemic oppression and -isms that the sex trade encompaasses to one law that targets a byproduct of the prostitution system. That would be like saying that police reform should solely and completely eradicate racism.

Like all governing laws and policies, there is always something more that could be done to address larger issues. Being that the sex trade is fueled on racism, sexism, classism, and misogyny, there will always be more work to be done. Those with lived experience need more services and deserve to have a life full of resources like everyone else. But FOSTA-SESTA is a step in the right direction when it comes to holding perpetrators accountable, making our society one step closer to living without the fear of being exploited.

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