Senate Bill 1693, commonly referred to as SESTA/FOSTA, is a new federal law aimed at curbing sex trafficking by holding online platforms accountable for the content their users post. And since the legal definition of sex trafficking is consistently conflated with consensual adult sex work, several websites that advertised in-person adult entertainment services have shut down, or began blocking access from the United States.
But instead of helping reduce exploitation, say sex trafficking survivors and advocates, taking away their ability to use the Internet has actually increased the risks facing their community, and crippled efforts for harm reduction. Moreover, they say the law does not address issues that truly contribute to trafficking: homelessness, poverty and a broken foster care system. Instead, SESTA/FOSTA drastically limits the tools available to those who survive in the sex trade, pushing workers further underground, into the streets and the dark web, where they are easier targets for those who aim to exploit the vulnerable.
"This was unlike anything we'd ever seen," says Meg Munoz, a sex-trafficking survivor and founder of the OC Umbrella Collective, an organization that serves sex workers and those being domestically trafficked in Southern California. "The immediate impact was swift and, honestly, terrifying. We watched people literally walk back to their pimps knowing they had lost any bit of autonomy they had. We watched people wind up homeless overnight. We watched members of our community disappear."
SESTA/FOSTA was signed into law just days after the FBI seized Backpage.com, one of the largest and most affordable online platforms available for sex workers to advertise and screen clients. Platforms such as Backpage, and the dozens of similar sites that shuttered in response to the new law were also an important tool for those who serve victims of trafficking.
"Every client I have ever worked with has had ads associated with online websites, the majority being Backpage," says Jamie Walton, a survivor of childhood sex trafficking and founder of the Wayne Foundation, an organization in South Florida that provides direct services to young people victimized by exploitation. "Those ads are forms of evidence. Those ads are ways that we were able to find children who were missing. Now, all that information has been driven to places online that are difficult to search, making the work almost impossible."
Those who aim to traffic minors however, still have ample access to platforms that children use, such as Facebook. "Traffickers targeting children are using Facebook as a way to engage with potential victims," Walton says. "I've worked several cases where the original point of contact was through their site." While the monolithic social media platform actively and publicly supported the bill, Walton says Facebook continues to be a place where pimps and predators can have easy access to potential victims.
"Recently, screenshots of people being approached by pimps trying to recruit them via Facebook message have been circulating. The same goes for Twitter. This was not as common before SESTA," says Munoz. The national organization of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP USA) confirmed that they have received a number of reports and screenshots from their members who have been contacted by pimps and other predators via social media in the past months.
Facebook and Twitter both responded promptly when asked for comment on these allegations, firmly reiterating their commitment to ensuring trafficking, abuse and exploitation have no place on their platforms, and pointing to the systems and policies they currently have in place to protect minors from being victimized on their site through reporting and cooperation with law enforcement.
"Twitter shares the goals of lawmakers who want to end trafficking online," a spokesperson said in an email. "We work closely with a wide range of civil society and online safety groups, including through our Trust and Safety Council, to ensure that our policies are always evolving in an effort to stay one step ahead of bad actors." Facebook echoed Twitter's statement. "It is against Facebook's Community Standards to post material that coordinates human trafficking and human smuggling and this type of material will be removed when reported to us," a representative wrote in an email. "We encourage people to use the reporting links found across our site so that our team of experts can review the content swiftly." Both companies offered to follow up and investigate the alleged incidents on their platforms.
In a post-SESTA world, Phoenix Calida, a Chicago based social-justice advocate and co-host of The Black Podcast, says that her community is scared. Calida entered the adult industry out of economic necessity as a teen mother nearly a decade ago, having survived abuse while growing up in the foster care system. She's been a sex-worker on and off ever since. She says that since the passage of SESTA and the seizure of Backpage, she's been increasingly contacted by pimps on social media, namely Twitter. "Nobody knows where to advertise, and while this is happening, everyone is getting hit up by pimps."
However, due to the tenuous nature of sex workers' safety on these platforms, some say they are reluctant to report abuse, for fear their accounts will then be surveilled, scrutinized or deleted in response. Since SESTA, Calida says, the online private group chats where sex workers could share survival strategies and harm reduction techniques to stay safe have also disappeared, leaving victims and vulnerable workers with even fewer options for safety and justice.
"Distrust of law enforcement is common among victims of trafficking as they are often arrested for sex work or drug-related offenses, and legal loopholes in many states mean it's legal for officers to engage in sexual activity with people who are in custody. "It happens all the time," says Calida, of officers forcing or coercing sex workers into sexual activity, "especially on the street." And, according to Christa B. Daring of SWOP USA, that's where many workers are migrating to for the first time now that Backpage is gone. "I've spoken with a number of folks that have gone back to or to street based work for the first time since the Backpage closure and SESTA/FOSTA," says Daring. "Lots of folks reporting getting evicted or losing housing, a couple people have mentioned having to move in with clients."
Without the ability to use the Internet freely, Calida says members of her community are now taking riskier jobs that they would have avoided in the past because their ability to find clients has been so drastically crippled and, as Calida puts it, "rent is real."
"One girl sent me pictures of all her tattoos, so I could identify her body just in case," she says. "You shouldn't have to die for doing your job."
Survivors, sex workers and even politicians running in the upcoming June primaries – including New York Congressional candidate Suraj Patel and San Diego District Attorney candidate Genevieve Jones-Wright – have been speaking out about SESTA's harmful effects on the very communities the bill aims to protect, and organizing against the misguided and ineffective strategies currently used to address trafficking by further criminalizing those who are already vulnerable to exploitation due to an inability access justice through the current system.
Munoz tells me in an email that officers and district attorneys insist that they don't arrest those being trafficked, but she says that when victims are arrested for anything prostitution-related, they generally find themselves being charged if they don't agree to incriminate whoever they may be working with. "It's critical to realize that so few people identify as exploited when they are picked up," says Munoz. "If they do, many just aren't ready to give up the only support or family they may know." Walking away from a law enforcement intervention can often mean a prostitution conviction, which will drastically limit a victim's future options, making it less likely that they'll be able to escape a sexually exploitative situation.
Down in South Florida, Walton works directly with her local sheriff's office – helping educate officers on human trafficking victims – while also providing victim advocacy services, human trafficking assessments and group therapy to women who are currently incarcerated in the county jail. "I've seen a child arrested for prostitution," says Walton. "The justice system is flawed, which is why it is so important that law enforcement have good relationships with advocates who can help find and correct such mistakes."
"Arrest is not a form of rescue," says Munoz. "Arrest literally sets someone up for cyclical incarceration, poverty and potential homelessness. Punishing someone legally for not cooperating with the prosecution of another should never happen, and yet it does. It is not even remotely ethical to intentionally criminalize victims and those at-risk in our efforts to end trafficking."
Passing anti-sex trafficking legislation is usually not a controversial issue on both sides of the political aisle, but politicians are less willing to get behind legislation that addresses trafficking effectively, as that requires a long, uncomfortable look at systemic poverty, immigration, racism and LGBT discrimination.
"Survival sex was the only way that I was able to survive homelessness as a teen," says Jessica Raven, the now Executive Director of the of Safe Spaces D.C, an organization that focuses on addressing and eliminating local harassment and gendered violence. "I was a queer brown girl in the sex trade at ages 15, 16, 17 and the anti-trafficking movement does not speak for me," Raven tweeted to anti-trafficking advocates on May 15th. "I want HOUSING & RESOURCES for youth. Not handcuffs."
"Survival sex was my alternative to sexual assault on the street and in foster care," Raven continued. "If you're concerned about ending sexual violence against youth, work to solve the problem; don't criminalize the solution."
Human rights and public health organizations such as Amnesty International and the World Health Organization have long recommended the decriminalization of sex work as an imperative way to combat trafficking, but there are myriad smaller steps that can be taken to reduce the harm currently facing vulnerable workers in this country.
Munoz and Walton, along with groups such as the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, focus on increasing access to tangible resources that serve victims, such as legal aid and trauma-informed care. Munoz says she wants the legal system to "stop viewing us only as victims and treating us like criminals," and encourages policy-makers to prioritize legislation that focuses on expedited expungement, amnesty, and decriminalization for victims and consenting adults.
On June 1st, legislators from Los Angeles to Washington D.C will be hearing from these communities directly. Phoenix Calida, who will be attending meetings at the nation's capitol thanks to a scholarship grant from the Sex Worker Outreach Project, will sit with some of the same legislators who voted to put her community in such peril, and ask them to stand with victims and vulnerable workers in the future.
In the wake of this new legal framework, the message from advocates, allies and affected workers is clear: further criminalizing vulnerable workers and eliminating their survival strategies via access to the Internet has only exacerbated the problem of sex trafficking in America.
The legislators, law enforcement officials and advocates who championed SESTA and fought to take down Backpage, while perhaps well intentioned, have effectively forced an entire industry further underground, making the work of victim advocates and law enforcement that much more difficult, and ensuring that workers who enjoyed some level of autonomy are now at the mercy of those who wish to victimize and exploit them.