How survivor voices drove the fight for passage of FOSTA-SESTA.
Change is a chorus, not a solo. Which is why powerful stories from survivor and movement allies served as the driving force behind World Without Exploitation’s fight for passage of FOSTA-SESTA, a legislative package that combined the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) with an amendment incorporating reforms contained in the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). This legislative combination takes direct aim at websites that facilitate and profit from sexual exploitation and trafficking. Signed into law on April 11, FOSTA-SESTA isn’t just a victory for our World Without Exploitation coalition. It’s a victory for every person who has ever been treated like a product.
Three of the survivor leaders who helped drive this effort — Nikki Bell, founder and director of Living in Freedom Together in Massachusetts, Autumn Burris of Colorado, founder of Survivors for Solutions, and Ohio’s Marlene Carson, founder and CEO of the Switch Anti-Trafficking Network — recently sat down with World Without Exploitation founding co-chair Rachel Foster to talk about the diverse national coalition that fought for the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, how their personal stories and the essential contributions they made inspired political change, and what’s next for our movement.
WorldWE: Why was passing FOSTA-SESTA so important to you?
Autumn Burris: The passage of FOSTA-SESTA is vital to holding websites and companies accountable for “knowingly” participating in the selling and purchasing of other human beings. These websites act as “company traffickers,” profiting off the backs of women and girls, especially people of color who are marginalized and economically disadvantaged. FOSTA-SESTA provides an avenue for justice for survivors exploited on Backpage.com. And for the families of those who have been exploited.
Marlene Carson: One of the key reasons that the passage of FOSTA-SESTA is imperative is that it has stripped back a level of protection for those who had participated in unethical and inhumane commerce activities, often with vulnerable individuals being their main source of revenue. For me, it’s all about holding those profiting from this “supply chain” accountable.
Nikki Bell: The bottom line is, any way that we can make it more difficult for traffickers to advertise victims for sale, while making it tougher for buyers to purchase vulnerable individuals, it’s a win.
WorldWE: Survivor-leaders really led the fight to change this law. Tell us about that.
Autumn: We mobilized survivors of the sex trade to sign on to legislation that would halt Backpage and similar websites’ ability to profit off of exploitation. We ran letter campaigns, advocated in D.C., and called legislators to discuss the proposed bill. Working with WorldWE, we also put on a groundbreaking D.C. legislative briefing that was very survivor focused and led. For maximum impact, we launched that on Human Trafficking Awareness day.
WorldWE: This was a coordinated effort, really. Collective action and also individual action.
Nikki: One of the things I did individually was publish an essay in response to those claiming that FOSTA-SESTA would actually hurt survivors. I felt it was important to have a perspective from someone who has lived this.
WorldWE: During the legislative briefing on January 11th in Washington, D.C., you opened with a survivor speak out. But you didn’t start by talking about the violence of exploitation. Instead, each of you talked about who you are more broadly — a devoted mom, a policy expert, the head of a social services agency, etc. Why start the briefing out that way?
Autumn: That legislative briefing was ground breaking in challenging the protocol for the order of speakers at briefings on the Hill. As I understand it, normally, legislators speak first, then individual testimonies follow. On that day we began with a group of 13 survivors speaking out. We each made short statements that humanized us and highlighted our expertise. It was about more than just our stories about our experiences in the sex trade.
Marlene: Our experiences with violence are not who we are in our entirety. Therefore, it was necessary that we opened the legislative briefing in D.C. with survivors speaking out about aspects of ourselves that we felt reflected who we really are beyond what we have experienced.
Nikki: I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, non-profit founder, and human being. My identity is not defined by my victimization.
WorldWE: It’s about being shaped, but not defined, by what has been done to you?
Nikki: Yes. The sex trade ultimately leaves a branding on your psyche that is nearly impossible to remove. When we exit “the life” and step into recovery after being in the sex trade, it is so important that we are not simply boxed into a single identity of just being a survivor. I’m more than a survivor now, just like I was always more than just a prostituted woman.
WorldWE: The testimonies of survivors really drove the public understanding of the “rightness” of FOSTA-SESTA. Why are survivor stories so vital?
Autumn: Actually, as a public speaker, political scientist, and survivor leader, I know we are each much more than our stories. As my colleague Shea Rhodes aptly said, “statistics make us think, stories make us feel.” A combination of both is a catalyst for change in that it can shift the narrative and challenge myths.
WorldWE: Speaking personally, what does the passage of the FOSTA-SESTA bill mean to each of you?
Autumn: This legislation sends a strong message that corporate dollars don’t trump the rights of people not to be bought and sold like commodities.
Nikki: Often when you are in prostitution you feel like nobody sees or hears you and that you don’t matter. This legislation is telling these vulnerable people being sold and commodified that they are seen and there are people everywhere who know that what is happening to them is not right. That it is actually gender-based violence. That as a country we are fighting for them.
WorldWE: Autumn, you have said before that one of the challenges we face is making sure that the public understands that we need to support both children and adults who have been exploited.
Autumn: There is a real need for adult exit services, which are severely underfunded. This is likely due to government and non-governmental agencies focusing for the most part on the trafficking of children, while ignoring exploited individuals once they reach 18 years of age. Nothing magical happens on one’s 18th birthday that causes an individual to not need services and support. We need a continuum of comprehensive exit services for adults as well as children.
WorldWE: A holistic and age neutral approach. What’s next for the movement to end commercial sexual exploitation?
Nikki: I think it’s important to not rest on this victory but to keep pushing forward and fighting for those trapped in systems of prostitution everywhere. We just disrupted the market and now more than ever we need adequate and accessible survivor-led exit outreach and exit services.
WorldWE: So it’s a moment of opportunity — but also of challenge.
Nikki: The good news is, people are going to want to get out of the sex trade with this disruption. That means we need to be there to help provide that way out for them.
Autumn: Perpetrators should be held fiscally responsible for the harms they cause, and those funds should go directly to exit services. Survivor-led services need to be well-funded. Speaking with other women and men who have exited the sex trade is most effective in reaching those currently in prostitution who want to exit. This is the only thing that would have worked for me and many others I know.
WorldWE: You have made your voices heard in such effective ways. What does it take to create a space where the broadest community of survivors feel that they, too, are being listened to?
Nikki: It’s essential to listen to survivors and not re-exploit them to fit the narrative or agenda someone else is trying to promote. Survivors need to be respected for who they are and not defined by their experiences in the sex industry. I work with incredible women who are policy experts, program directors, founders of organizations, religious leaders. They are resilient, kind, and intelligent human beings.
WorldWE: If we fail to tap into leaders like that, it’s really a loss for our movement. How can we create diverse models of survivors leadership? Because not every survivor wants to lead in the exact same way.
Marlene: When we speak of survivor leadership, there is an echo of peer-to-peer training that is central to creating sustainability. Survivor leadership efforts must be intuitive while maintaining integrity, creative yet structured, and capacity building without being destructive. Within my sphere of influence, survivor leadership would manifest itself in the form of entrepreneurship.
Nikki: I think everyone’s experience in the sex industry is different and that it’s important to have a wide range of voices at the table. We need to be inclusive of all races, cultures, genders, and economic statuses. It’s important also to have all different forms of commercial sexual exploitation included in the movement from stripping, to prostitution, to pornography, and so on. Everyone’s experiences are different based on our cultural and individual experiences within the sex trade. But all are equally relevant.
WorldWE: It’s about inclusion and then respect for difference.
Autumn: Yes. Survivors bring a diverse set of lived experiences and subject matter expertise to the table. It has taken decades and tireless work for survivors to be recognized as leaders.
WorldWE: Do you think most people understand that? This movement has such a rich history.
Autumn: Our foremothers created the survivor leadership movement and, for those still alive, I believe they need to be honored, respected, and still able to contribute their wealth of knowledge. My hope is that survivors newer to the movement will join me in learning about our history.
WorldWE: We have had a legal victory and that’s huge, but what do we do to change the culture and shift the story being told about prostitution? Because it still is so often glamorized or represented as a “choice” made by a consenting adult.
Autumn: 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.
Nikki: I think culturally we need to stop sexualizing girls and women and push back on the notion that women are products that can be bought and sold. The media pushes out a narrative very different from our collective experiences within the industry. We need to teach people about the vulnerabilities that many in the sex trade experienced prior to entering prostitution.
WorldWE: There’s really a disconnect between what you, as survivors, know about the sex trade and what those who learn about prostitution through TV or film know. At least in most cases.
Nikki: People don’t know what they don’t know and until we educate others on the realities of the sex trade, we’ll constantly be fighting this “prostitution is a job and it’s empowering” narrative that we know from our own lived experience not to be true.
Autumn: People need to understand that prostitution, regardless of where it occurs, is inherently harmful. If you have exited, you know this on a personal level. You recognize the immense journey necessary to heal and be whole again and then to be able to reach back and help another survivor in her journey.