FOSTA and SESTA are recent bills that were turned into law in April of 2018. FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) were put into place with the public intention of stopping sex trafficking, but they’ve had a multitude of negative effects on artists and sex workers throughout the country - from not being able to make an decent living to having to resort to unsafe measures in order to get their bills paid and keep a roof over their heads.
Sex Workers - What You Probably Didn’t Know
Before we go into the details, let’s talk about sex workers. What many of our readers don’t know is that for many sex workers, this is the most consistent and reliable way to make a living. Many of these people are already marginalized by society and may not have access to or a desire for another career. Sex work has been a reality for many centuries and isn’t going to disappear, so it’s up to us to take extra efforts to ensure the safety of sex workers.
Sex workers often use online services in order to make their living (such as webcam performers and escorts), but also use these platforms to vet their clients for their own security. Through these online platforms, sex workers can review the interactions of these prospective customers, and have them vetted by other sex workers so they can make an informed decision about their personal safety.
Additionally, these online services got many full-service sex workers off the streets. Before the internet became an avenue where everyone had an opportunity to market themselves and run their own business, these sex workers were only able to work street blocks, or operate out of under-the-radar brothels. This often made them face violence or other forms of abuse from unvetted clients, and they often had to pay pimps their hard-earned wages in order to be able to work a certain block or a specific part of their region.
FOSTA / SESTA in Action
In theory, these pieces of anti-trafficking legislation are great - good people don’t want sex trafficking to happen! The actual application of this legislation was originally placed (allegedly) to take down a service called Backpage - an online service that allowed for a host of different sinister activities (including sex trafficking). It’s worth mentioning that when the hosts of Backpage were raided and arrested, no one was arrested for sex trafficking - all were arrested for prostitution. There were no charges pressed for sex trafficking against any of the arrested individuals. This was an act against sex workers - not the insidious sex traffickers that these laws labeled specifically.
When FOSTA / SESTA was put into law in April of 2018, many full-service sex workers who relied on these online services were thrust back into the streets that they thought they’d left behind. The laws that were put into place with the alleged intention of helping these women actually put them right back into the front lines of sex trafficking.
You may have noticed that Craigslist Personal Ads are no longer available. This was a very common way for sex workers to vet their clients in order to make informed decisions about who to work with. Additionally, if you’re on Tumblr, you’ve undoubtedly heard that they are banning all adult content on December 17th, with a heavier emphasis on queer and femme content in their banning guidelines. Many independent artists who make their living by creating erotica have been affected by this, as well as adult performers. Other major online escort services have been shut down, and online cloud services have been conducting audits to remove adult content from their servers.
So - why are major services like Tumblr and Google Drive hunkering down when the sex traffickers are at fault? Because as a result of this legislation, all third party in which any form of illegal sexual activity (be it consensual sex work or something more sinister) could potentially happen will be held personally responsible for the proposed crimes. Here’s a breakdown:
Many sex workers users their Tumblr content in order to feed their clientele and keep their revenue stream active. They post sexy photos, announce upcoming performances, and develop professional consensual relationships where they are paid for digital services rendered (this can look like private cam sessions, personalized sexy photos, or personal phone calls with their clients). By eliminating all adult content in order to avoid persecution under FOSTA / SESTA, Tumblr has eliminated a full revenue stream for countless digital sex workers that rely on Tumblr to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
FOSTA / SESTA has eliminated reliable work and creative expression by encouraging this high level of erasure and mass censorship. These platforms do not want the risk of being held liable in the face of this legislation, so eradicating all adult content is the easiest, most thorough solution across the board.
So therein lies another problem: The majority of the sex work that’s being wiped away is perfectly legal! Cam girls, professional doms, sugar babies, and other sex workers are more often than not conducting perfectly legal business. Additionally, the vast majority of sex workers that are conducting “illegal” activity are not committing or engaged in sex trafficking at all. So while FOSTA / SESTA is legislation aimed at sex trafficking in name, its major notable effect is that it has targeted sex workers across the board.
How can this affect you directly?
In many ways, this is a move against free speech. If you are a Skype enthusiast, for example, and use Skype to connect with your long-distance partner, Skype can go out of their way to remove all of your personal adult content whether or not it’s part of sex work.
FetLife has had many of their accounts erased under the guise of “preventing sex trafficking”. This is an adult forum where people can engage in their community to learn from one another, meet new people, and again, vet partners to make informed decisions about who they want to be intimate with. FetLife, despite having clear rules against illegal sex work, has had to increase their censorship in order to prevent legal action taken against them in the face of FOSTA / SESTA.
Instagram has upped their banned hashtags in 2018 to include anything that could be remotely sexual. They created an algorithm to assess content and ban certain hashtags - including (check this out) - women. #Women was accidentally banned as a hashtag on Instagram (and yet #men was not), because of the *possibility* of adult content posted within those hashtags. This is a direct example of how something like FOSTA / SESTA can sound like a great piece of legislation on the surface, but can have unexpected or harmful consequences on one’s freedom of speech or creative expression.
What can we do about FOSTA / SESTA?
This one is a tough one - even Bernie Sanders, one of our most progressive presidential candidates, was in favor of FOSTA / SESTA. No one wants to vote against the sex trafficking bill. That being said, there is little political will to stand up for sex workers’ rights, and no one wants to appear in favor of sex trafficking.
That’s why grassroots work is so important - being an advocate for sex workers in order to end their stigma is a huge way that one can contribute to their safety and livelihood. Confronting the stigma against sex workers is a small but important way to contribute to the cause - calling out problematic behavior or language against sex workers in day-to-day conversations (such as name-calling, using the terms “sex worker” or “prostitute” as insults) is a seemingly small but effective way you can reduce the stigma against sex workers and increase their public support. These little changes may not seem like a big difference, but adding to this rhetoric in a society that doesn’t respect or protect sex workers is critical for change.
You can also reach out to organizations that help sex workers!
Red Light Legal
Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective
SWOP - Sex Worker Outreach Program
As always, please reach out to us if you have any questions, and a huge thank you to Vyrus McDisco for the time and energy they spent putting together this information for us.
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