Sex, Lies and Classifieds
Women’s March Global Dialogues are conversations highlighting diverse voices across our community as we explore complex issues and challenges from multiple perspectives.
By making sure ALL voices are heard AND considered we can move forward together.
The inaugural Women’s March Global Dialogue will dive into the complex world of sex trafficking. There are feminists on all sides of this debate. We hope bring you multiple perspectives and voices from across our diverse and intersectional community.
Yasmeen Hassan has worked for nearly 30 years in the realm of sex trafficking and women’s rights. We asked for her perspective on the issue of sex trafficking and her work in advocating for the passage of SESTA/FOSTA.
Can you give us background on the long term work Equality Now has been doing?
Yasmeen Hassan: Equality Now was started because the international health community did not think that women’s rights were human rights. Sex trafficking was an issue where it was apparent that women and girls were being trafficked for sex within countries, but there were no criminal statutes to address it. We started working on sex trafficking in the early 1990s and worked on the Palermo Protocol which is the UN treaty that addresses all kinds of trafficking — including sex trafficking. The most Gender Equal model is the Nordic model, or what we call the Equality Model. Women in prostitution are not criminalised (which is the most terrible thing to do) but the demand is addressed. If we look at the Gender Equality Index, most Nordic governments have great gender equality because their policies are designed to keep their countries gender equal.
How did you get from Big Ideas to Policy and actually putting the policy into place?
Yasmeen: We believe that the people who are going to be impacted by a particular legislation must be part of the dialogue to create that policy. When we work on an issue like female genital mutilation, we get the grassroots groups that are working on the ground to tell us the issues they see firsthand. Then, they come and help lobby at the United Nations. This same principle applies to sex trafficking. We are working with survivors around the world, small organisations who set up shelters for survivors of sex trafficking, or survivors of sex trafficking who are saying we have been in the sex trade, this is what happened to us, these are the policies that would benefit us and help us. We are working with nearly 15 groups around the world, all reporting what they see in the field.
How does the internet and classified sites like Backpage contribute to the Sex Trafficking trade?
Yasmeen: Much of our work addresses violence against women and discrimination against women. Sex trafficking is a big business, estimated to be worth 90 billion dollars. So it isn’t just violence against women as a single issue: there are business interests that are very vested. It’s the porn business, it’s the adult services business. 93% of Backpage’s profits came from their adults services section. Backpage was one of the biggest venues where people were trafficked. Girls disappeared and traffickers were putting them on Backpage. We have three cases in the US: California, Massachusetts, and Washington State.
The Communication Decency Act (CDA), enacted in 1996, said that internet companies could not be held liable for 3rd party content. That loophole has been used by internet companies to avoid liability for sex trafficking. Because of this law, companies like Backpage could not be held liable — even if they knowingly promoted sex trafficking. As the indictments have been unsealed and with the senate subcommittee hearing, it was found that Backpage was scrubbing these ads for anything that would alert people that sex trafficking was happening. Clearly, they knew what they were doing was illegal and they were profiting from it. Now there are 93 accounts/charges against them as CDA has finally been amended by FOSTA/SESTA.
As this bill came to the House and Senate, a lot of sites like Craigslist have taken their adult services section off and people are protesting this [action]. But this is interesting: the law is not targeting the adult services section. It is very narrowly tailored and holds anyone who knowingly facilitates and supports sex trafficking online liable. What I see is that these companies are actually not sure whether or not they are facilitating sex trafficking.
How are sex trafficking, sex work and prostitution related?
Yasmeen: We had an event at the United Nations at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) where survivors of the sex trade (including pornography and lap dancing, for example) spoke about how it is not possible to disconnect these things from each other. Usually you enter into it because you are vulnerable or because it is the best choice and it might even be viewed as freedom. However, it can lead down a path to sex trafficking. They said it’s all connected.
Consider the Netherlands. The Netherlands legalised prostitution and view it as work. However, the Netherlands has now become a haven for sex trafficking. The people you see in the brothels are not happy Dutch women, they are women from Africa, women from the Ukraine, women from Thailand. Sex trafficking in that country has skyrocketed. There is a huge connection between prostitution and sex trafficking. It is hard to unravel it and just do part of it. Experience has shown that it is not possible do those things that way.
Of course there are women as sex workers who are doing this out of choice, but working in Africa, in the Middle East, in Ukraine, and even here in New York City (working with GEMS) — we are seeing what is sometimes called sex work looks like. It is very interconnected and therefore disingenuous to focus just on the rights of sex workers. But [FOSTA/SESTA] will affect sex workers just like I was affected as a smoker by laws put in place to protect people more vulnerable and at risk than me — even if I want to do damage to myself.
How will this law impact the global community?
Yasmeen: We will see through experience how the law is applied. If there is an overreaching in the law, of course it will be addressed, but right now I can’t tell you how this will apply.
We are going to test this legislation out but we are very happy that it has been done. Backpage has been a huge villain in regards to sex trafficking. The film I am Jane Doe documents all the cases against Backpage and how they have responded to them, as well as the allegations that people have cited against them.
Can you talk further about FOSTA/SESTA and how this law will apply to internet companies?
Yasmeen: This law applies to internet companies and is addressing the fact that internet companies were exempt under the CDA from knowingly facilitating sex trafficking. It allows us to actively go after these companies and takes that exemption out. State prosecutors can implement their sex trafficking laws against these companies.
The other thing this law does is give a civil remedy to victims who have been sex trafficked online to go after these companies who have deep pockets. This was not able to happen previously. There were three cases that we had and in those cases huge amounts of evidence were presented (all) saying that Backpage was knowingly facilitating sex trafficking. The judges would be horrified by the evidence but then would say — the CDA does not allow me to go after these companies, you have to go back to Congress. So that’s what we did: we went back to Congress to get rid of CDA section 230. FOSTA/SESTA is the answer to that. It allows people who are facilitating sex trafficking to be held liable.
Can you describe the Equality Now Model?
The model we believe in is called the Equality Model. Most countries around the world have a form of a law which says that all forms of buying and selling sex are illegal. Prostitution in these cases was illegal and seen as a moral crime. When you look at the demographic in the sex trade, this is unbelievable: they are the most vulnerable people. In our experience, it’s predominantly either women and girls. Prostitution is the best of a series of bad options for them, and this is what they can do to survive. The other thing we see is that there is often a history of child abuse or sexual abuse of some kind, and so they end up in the sex trade. To criminalise these people for selling their body is crazy. We never want to see these people criminalised.
At the same time, we are seeing the commercial sex trade grow. When you normalise sex work, you are then fueling the demand that then ultimately leads to sex trafficking. I do not believe this is good for women and girls and gender equality. Our view is that we need to shrink that commercial sex trade because it is just bad for women and girls. To shrink the commercial sex trade, you need address the demand.
The model of legislation that we promote has been used in Nordic countries. It decriminalises the people in prostitution — never put them in jail or fine them. We would give them services if they need them, but always penalise traffickers and pimps but also the people buying it because they are the ones fueling the demand. They are creating the market that is fueling sex trafficking.
This is the Women’s March Global Dialogues — Thank you for listening.
If you have a voice that enriches this conversation we want to hear from you. Please email us: email@example.com
Women’s March Global is a grassroots community of over 80+ chapters around the world. As such we cannot claim to speak toward the nuances in every country our chapters are in. We encourage our readers to reach out to our chapters with any specific country based questions regarding the complex issue of sex trafficking.