SESTA/FOSTA: Censoring sex workers from websites sets a dangerous precedent

Last week President Donald Trump signed a bill into law holding websites liable for the content users—literally millions online—post onto their sites. The bill, a combination of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), means that websites can be prosecuted if they engage in the "promotion or facilitation of prostitution" or "facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims."

The stated aim: to crack down on sex trafficking and protect women by targeting platforms that facilitated it. The reality: targeting these websites will increase the risk of violence faced by sex workers by making it harder to screen clients and work in safer indoor locations. In many cases, sex workers will be pushed to the streets to engage clients, where the risk of violence and death is exponentially higher.

Already digital mainstays like Backpage have shut down, robbing thousands of sex workers of income, safety, and livelihood. Since then, the list of casualties has cascaded; and these sites no longer serve as safe spaces where sex workers can screen potential clients and negotiate terms of services.

Canadian sex workers will also feel the impacts of this dangerous, ill-advised change in policy, as many sex workers here relied on Backpage for the safety it afforded. Users posted an average of 1,600 new adult-services ads on Backpage every day according to one analysis, and 60 per cent of Canada’s online adult ads were hosted on the website, reports the Globe and Mail.

READ MORE: Evaluating Canada's Sex Work Laws: The Case for Repeal

One of the benefits Backpage provided was a sense of agency and autonomy for sex workers who were able to stop working for exploitive third parties. Sex workers were able to take control of their work, be their own bosses, and were able to negotiate the range of services they preferred and the rates at which to offer them. There was little or no “overhead” in the conventional sense. But since the closure of Backpage, “there’s been an upswing in pimps sending sex workers messages promising work,” according to local sex work activist Hailey Heartless. This puts sex workers on the losing end of a skewed power dynamic, which leaves them more susceptible to exploitation.

Evidence supporting the relative safety of internet-based sex work compared with outdoor sex work is strong:

  • 91.6% had not experienced burglary in the past five years;
  • 84.4% had not experienced physical assault in the same period, and only 5% had experienced physical assault in the past 12 months;
  • 82.8% had not experienced theft or robbery and less than 5% had encountered this in the past 12 months; and
  • 77.8% had not experienced sexual assault in the past five years.

Writer and activist Morgan Page drew a comparison to the elevated threats and harassment faced by Vancouver street-based sex workers in the 1970s after the closure of the Penthouse Nightclub (click tweet below for full thread).

Rights not rescue

It is resoundingly clear, both from personal testimony and data, that attacking online sex work is an assault on the health and safety of people in the real world. In a darkly ironic twist, SESTA/FOSTA, legislation aimed at protecting victims of and preventing human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, will do the exact opposite. Indeed, Freedom Network USA, the largest domestic network of anti-trafficking service providers, had this to say: "FOSTA expands the criminalization of consensual commercial sex workers under the guise of addressing sex trafficking. This squanders limited federal resources and puts sex workers at risk of prosecution for the very strategies that keep them safe."

Consensual commercial sex workers use harm reduction tools such as online forums to screen clients, avoid high risk activities, share resources, and protect each other. Further criminalizing consensual commercial sex work, where there is no force, fraud or coercion, is no way to protect victims. (Freedom Network USA)

But this is also an existential threat to the autonomy of a free and open internet, which can offer connection, information, empowerment, and opportunities for expression for marginalized communities. This harmful bill opens the door to other forms of regulation that could seek to police morality and stifle personal expression, which should echo concern for everyone given the interconnectedness of cyberspace.

Websites, though based in geography, exist outside physical borders. That is why a decision by a largely male US Congress could ripple out to the rest of the world. A government-induced change in policy to Facebook, for example, could be felt by millions of Canadians—and for some it likely already has after a series of recent privacy updates from Silicon Valley.

This is an issue we should all care about. A national day of action in the US is planned for June 2, and there may be shows of solidarity here as well; nevertheless, this is a fight for justice and basic human dignity that rings universal. Sex work is real work, and the nature of the internet means no ill-advised decision or policy truly exists in isolation. #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA #LetUsSurvive