The SESTA and FOSTA bills claim to protect people from sex trafficking, but they harm sex workers and porn performers in real ways.
This week, the Senate is expected to vote on FOSTA-SESTA, a bill package that could put sex workers’ lives on the line. By making social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter liable for their users’ speech, the bill could force tech companies to push all talk of sex work off their platforms.
Although it is framed as sex trafficking prevention—with celebrities like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers issuing PSAs about the dangers of online trafficking in support of the bill—experts including the ACLU and Center for Democracy and Technology say it would do little to help actual victims of trafficking and instead devastate consensual sex work communities online, where sex workers share valuable, sometimes life-saving information and resources.
“What we have is each other,” adult performer Lorelei Lee told me in an email. “So the ability to share information quickly and widely in our community is the main way that we stay safe.”
A spokesperson for sponsoring senator Rob Portman’s office told me that they’re hopeful the bill will go to a vote this week.
“Make no mistake, if these bills pass, sex workers will die."
FOSTA, which was passed by the House of Representatives on February 27, is a combination of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Advocates for SESTA-FOSTA claim it will help curb sex trafficking online, by holding platforms to new criminal and civil liabilities for what people say and do on their sites—like talking about sex work. The Department of Justice supports the bill, but calls the portions of it that shifts liability of speech from users to platforms a “serious constitutional concern.”
“Under SESTA/FOSTA there is no true differentiation between consensual sex work and trafficking—because many lawmakers do not see sex work as real work and dehumanize us strictly because of the CONSENSUAL business we take part in,” adult performer Janice Griffith told me in an email. “There is no such thing as nonconsensual sex work—that is slavery, trafficking, whatever you want to call it—it isn’t work, sex work contains consent and autonomy. Just as forced labor of any other kind is not employment, sex slavery is not sex work.”
As critics worry that lawmakers are conflating consensual sex work and trafficking, sex workers themselves are working to protect one another where law enforcement and society fail them. On public forums and “whisper networks” like shared lists, they can swap information about dangerous clients or agents. They make “blacklists” of companions that crossed boundaries. Since their profession is still widely stigmatized, sex workers also use these spaces to share recommendations for friendly doctors, financial services, and even services like reliable home maintenance people that won’t stalk them.
“Sex workers use multiple avenues to communicate, perhaps most importantly, about bad or dangerous clients,” Mike Stabile, communications director at the Free Speech Coalition told me in an email. “Sometimes, these happen in the same sites where they also advertise, sometimes they are separate forums or social networks... If it passes, these websites would simply shutter, or ban all communication related to sex work, since the risk of missing a sign would mean prosecution.”
Stabile noted that this isn’t a hypothetical situation: It’s happened in the past. Escort service networks Rentboy and myRedBook were both shuttered by federal authorities in 2015 for promoting prostitution. The closure of these companies ultimately meant these workers had to go out on the street to find work, or took away their ability to screen clients or get references from other workers through the internet altogether. A 2017 study of violence against women before and after Craigslist provided an “erotic services” section found a 17 percent decrease in female homicides during the time the service was open, as well as a decrease in rape cases—because workers could talk to each other openly and screen for bad dates online, instead of on the street.
“If you are a sex worker who's been the victim of violence, it is scary enough to speak up about it already,” Lee said. “We've all heard a million times how we should expect to be targets of violence by virtue of having gotten ourselves involved in sex work.”
FOSTA-SESTA, she said, will make it even harder for sex workers to speak up.
“The last thing we need is to create an even more hostile climate for those acts,” she said. “Make no mistake, if these bills pass, sex workers will die. I need you to know that is not hyperbole.”