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Controversial Online Trafficking Bill Will Endanger Sex Workers, Advocates Say

The House is set to vote on the "Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act" (FOSTA) bill today. Critics warn it could actually censor victims of trafficking and endanger the lives and livelihoods of sex workers.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

A controversial bill that will cut sex workers off from important tools that they need to survive is set to be voted on this afternoon in the House. Although the bill is known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), critics say it would do little to prevent trafficking. Instead, they argue, it would censor victims of trafficking and make it significantly harder for sex workers to work safely.

To someone unfamiliar with the way in which online sex work functions, FOSTA might seem like a step in the right direction: It would hold Internet companies like Backpage liable for their role in facilitating human trafficking, and would make it easier for victims to sue companies that knowingly promoted and facilitated any illegal activity. A number of human trafficking victim advocacy groups have come out in support of it, as have celebrities, such as Seth Meyers and Ivanka Trump.

But many sex workers and free speech advocates feel differently. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this legislation would be largely ineffective in fulfilling its aims—not to mention “a disaster for internet intermediaries, marginalized communities, and even trafficking victims themselves.” Instead of protecting victims, they argue, FOSTA would “force online web platforms to police their users’ activity much more stringently than ever before, silencing a lot of innocent voices in the process.” In order to protect themselves from civil or criminal prosecution mandated by this bill—promoting or facilitating prostitution is punishable with up to 10 years in prison, according to the text—companies would most likely find ways to remove content, especially content related to sex.

Because of such measures, sex workers and sex worker advocates say they’ll be unfairly targeted by this legislation. The language, they say, is dangerously broad and could criminalize sharing useful information simply because it’s adjacent to prostitution. Online platforms, they argue, are important spaces for people in the sex trade to be able to share resources with one another, including safety tips and “bad date lists,” which are used to call out individuals that have previously victimized people in the industry. Without such sources, a sex worker may struggle to expand their pool of trustworthy and safe clients.

One critic of the bill, author and sex workers' rights activist Conner Habib, tweeted: “The most obvious reason FOSTA-SESTA is such an issue is that it cuts off many sex workers' access to money by limiting their access to clients. It purports to ‘crack down on websites that promote sex trafficking.’ But in our country, all sex work is conflated with trafficking.”

He added: “When sex workers don't have easy access to a variety of clients, it is harder for them to turn down or screen clients or to have in-community discussions about what clients are safe. This results—as is confirmed by Amnesty International—in violence against sex workers.”

Kate D’Adamo is a former sex worker organizer in New York City who’s mobilized #SurvivorsAgainstFOSTA, a campaign against the legislation. She tells Broadly that under FOSTA, something as simple as maintaining a listserv for a community-based organization that shares important, potentially life-saving information—such as how to screen for clients, how to negotiate condom use, what clients have assaulted workers, and more—could become a federal crime.

D’Adamo says online sex work is significantly safer than doing street-based work. “If online venues close down, people are going to move into the street. That’s what we’ve seen happen after the closure of MyRedBook, when credit card processors stopped processing fees for Backpage and people couldn’t advertise online—people moved to street-based work. And street workers face, depending on the study, four to five times more violence than when you’re working online because you get to screen clients, because you get to work in indoor spaces, because you’re less vulnerable to violence. Just being able to work and find clients online is already a significant reduction in anti-violence work.”

Like women in many industries, including media and academia, sex workers make lists of “shitty” or dangerous men, she adds. “When we were talking about #metoo, people were saying, This is someone who pushes boundaries, this is someone you should be aware of for assault,” she continues. “Sex workers have that, too, and under this legislation, not only would just sharing that information be criminalized, but literally just asking another person for a safety reference would be liable to a federal crime now.”

In a last-minute letter filed by the Department of Justice, assistant attorney general Stephen Boyd raised a “serious constitutional concern” with the legislation, arguing that it would make it harder to prosecute sex trafficking sites “by effectively creating additional elements that prosecutors prove at trial.” He also recommended lawmakers clarify their “intent to target traffickers.”