Online Censorship Is Making Sex Work More Dangerous

The fallout of two misguided federal laws is removing key resources used by sex workers to keep each other safe.

By Mateo De La Torre

PHOTO: Protesters gather to organize against strict digital policies endangering sex workers

Over the last few weeks, apparently in direct response to the misguided and harmful SESTA/FOSTA law recently passed by Congress, social networking sites like Facebook and Tumblr have taken broad steps to limit sexual content on their platforms. Facebook, used by two thirds of the United States population, rolled out an extensive set of policies aimed at limiting “sexual solicitation” on its platform, including any content that “facilitates, encourages or coordinates sexual encounters between adults.”

Tumblr, which hosts as many as 50 million active users, took an even broader approach, banning all sexual content from its site. The blogging platform, known for its active and creative LGBTQ user base, tried to justify the move in a post stating “We want to make sure that we continue to foster this type of diversity of expression in the community, so our new policy strives to strike a balance.”

Both moves were met with significant outcry, including from transgender users of these platforms who rightfully fear these policies could lead to undue censorship of frank and necessary discussions about sexual health and identity. Moreover, both tech companies are now contributing to an ongoing war against sex workers, who use such sites to build community and keep themselves and each other safe.

In a cruel irony, Tumblr’s policy will go into effect on December 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, started in response to the delayed capture and sentencing of a notorious serial killer who targeted and murdered dozens of sex workers in the Seattle area in the 1990s. Known as the “Green River Killer,” Gary Ridgeway preyed on sex workers under the assumption their disappearance would go unnoticed or unreported. After his 2003 capture, Ridgeway noted in his own confession “I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing.”

PHOTO: Gary Ridgeway was charged in the deaths of 49 women, though advocates note many victims remain unaccounted for. (Photo Credit: The Green River Task Force)

As the scale of Ridgeway’s murder spree became clear, sex worker and advocate Anne Sprinkle felt a need to commemorate the lives lost to his violence and all violence directed towards people like her. “I felt a need to remember and honor them,” she wrote. “I cared, and I knew other people cared, too.”

The Day to End Violence has grown from Sprinkle’s origins to a worldwide day of reflection, activism, and protest. On this day, it’s more important than ever to understand how overly-broad policies like those enacted by Tumblr and Facebook can impact a community already vulnerable to alienation, criminalization, and violence. While ostensibly in the name of preventing human trafficking in the sex trade, policies and laws restricting sexual communication online remove key tools for sex workers and worsen their exposure to violence.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump at the signing of SESTA and FOSTA in April of 2018

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed into law two bills restricting the kind of sexual content websites can host. Supporters of these bills in Congress likely believed they were voting for strong measures to limit the sexual exploitation of children, a view bolstered by misleading and false statistics about the risks of sexual trafficking and the number of people victimized by it.

The SESTA/FOSTA laws led to the shutdown of websites relied on by sex workers to screen clients, escape abusers, and help one another stay safe. Sex workers spoke out about the ways these sites helped them gain and maintain access to key services like housing and medical care. Sex worker advocacy groups like the Sex Worker Outreach Project and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs decried their passage, warning of the potential harm they could cause sex workers.

NCTE’s own executive director noted “we simply cannot afford to make careless decisions that will put members of our community in danger in the name of scoring political points.”

These ill-considered changes in laws and website policies pose a danger to transgender people in particular, who are disproportionately represented in the industry of sex work. According to our US Transgender Survey, one in five transgender people have engaged in sex work in their life, including one in ten who’ve engaged in sex work in just the past year. This is particularly true of Black transgender women, nearly half of whom reported participating in sex work.

The same alienation exploited by Gary Ridgeway and countless other violent abusers pushes sex workers further away from stable housing, income, or general safety. Transgender sex workers are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, with three quarters of transgender sex workers reporting they’ve been sexually assaulted.

It’s common for sex workers to stay safe by connecting with one another online, building communities that allow them to vet clients for potential risks, find shelter, and manage their own lives without the control or influence of a pimp or trafficker. Limiting the engagement of sex workers online is not a way to halt trafficking; it’s a way to limit the autonomy of a vulnerable group (which includes trafficking survivors) and leave them with nowhere to turn.

According to a survey of nearly 200 sex workers by COYOTE Rhode Island and SWOP Seattle, sex workers saw an immediate impact on their independence and safety following the passage of SESTA/FOSTA. Most reported a loss of income in the first week after the closure of Backpage, a personal site popular among sex workers, and many struggled to find supplemental support for themselves or their family. Necessities like food and shelter became unmanageable for many, according to the survey, and they were forced to engage with clients known to pose a danger to sex workers in order to make ends meet.

The legal fears that took down websites like Backpage and Craigslist are now prompting larger, more mainstream sites to make the lives of sex workers even harder. Facebook’s policy — which specifically targets “solicitation” — is an especially clear response to SESTA and FOSTA that will alienate sex workers, and was promptly met with warnings from sex workers and advocates about the potential impact.

“It facilitated our experimentation in a self-directed, self-initiated way,” wrote one sex worker about Tumblr. “It helped young, queer people find their communities and sexualities represented; to take control and represent themselves.”

The internet has loomed large for many transgender people, serving as a conduit for many to share and explore their identities in a private and affirming environments. For sex workers, it also serves as a core way to secure income, safety, and vital resources many others might take for granted. Laws restricting their ability to do so are unjust, misguided, and putting lives at risk. To end violence against sex workers, the very first step is to stop pushing them further into the shadows.