On Wednesday, the Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act by a bipartisan consensus of 97-2. SESTA amends Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a federal provision which protects online publishers – from Facebook to The Erotic Review – from being held liable for third-party user posts on their sites.
This development comes nearly a month after the House of Representatives passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or FOSTA at a vote of 388-25, making posting or hosting online prostitution ads a federal crime.
After receiving this overwhelming Congressional approval, FOSTA-SESTA is now headed to President Trump's desk. Last month, Trump tweeted that he vowed to fight the "epidemic" of human trafficking, so it is expected that he will sign it into law.
Bolstered in part by a PSA featuring celebrities – including Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers – SESTA has been touted as a provision whose purpose is protecting children and girls from serial rape. Its authors and supporters have framed Section 230 as a loophole which allows websites to profit from forums which "knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking."
If SESTA becomes law, victims of human trafficking will be able to sue the websites their abusers may have used to communicate with one another. The implications reach beyond justice for survivors, however, as consensual sex workers may be charged with facilitating prostitution if they use an online forum to exchange safety information such as bad date lists. The threat of prosecution has already led such forums to simply shut down rather than face potential legal liability. When sex workers don't have access to digital resources – such as Craigslist, Backpage, Rentboy or MyRedBook – they often engage in high-risker street work.
"I fear this legislation will not stop human trafficking," says Nat Paul, a new appointee to the U.S. Advisory Council on Trafficking. Paul is a former sex worker and trafficking survivor, which she emphasizes are two different things. Like any other kind of abuse, trafficking thrives when victims can be isolated. Without free Internet forums, sex workers of all kinds will lose access to resources that can help them to both survive and thrive.
"The system should work to better understand human trafficking as a whole, instead of sensationalizing end-demand myths of girls stolen and exploited," says Paul.
Many grassroots organizations run by current and former sex workers have been voicing dissent against FOSTA and SESTA for months. They've clarified that sex workers choose to trade companionship, entertainment, fetish play, and other services to fellow adults, while those who are victims of trafficking are forced into providing such services against their will. The hashtag campaigns #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA have illustrated that many consensual sex workers believe they will be harmed by this bill that is supposedly designed to protect them.
The national ACLU is among the organizations who have publicly voiced their opposition to FOSTA-SESTA. In a statement sent to the Senate Commerce committee last November, they argued: "Online providers cannot and should not be subjected to criminal liability merely for facilitating the speech of others – even if elements of those communications are distasteful or even unlawful." The organization added that such liability will actually make it more difficult to expose criminal activity.
"This legislation will drive demand into the street corners, the back alleys," explains Paul. "It will stifle meaningful discussions on education and safety, perpetuating the very problems they hoped to resolve."
Elliot Harmon, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation a nonprofit organization that defends digital civil liberties, is concerned that online platforms are going to swiftly adopt automated filtering technologies.
"When platforms over-censor their users, marginalized communities are often silenced disproportionately," he points out.
While it is unclear if and when the bill will be made into law, it took less than 24 hours for some of its critics' fears to become reality.
Late Wednesday night, Reddit administrators banned the subreddits Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers and SugarDaddy.
Alex Empire, who is the moderator of a subreddit called Sexworkers, received a messaged from reddit administrator zippylooda warning her that "any post that could facilitate the connection of sex sellers and sex buyers would be a violation" of the update to reddit's content policy.
Empire describes /r/sexworkers as "a community forum for sex workers, clients, and even those unaffiliated with the industry to come together and ask questions and share resources." She is attempting to follow the admin guidelines to bring the subreddit into compliance.
"I fear that by the time FOSTA is signed into law all of our resources will be gone," she says.
By Thursday morning, Cityvibe, an adult dating website which offered listings for "escort videos, BDSM, massage, and more," had shuttered. Models who had paid for ads on the site took to social media, expressing outrage that their money had not been refunded.
On Friday, the entire "Personals" section of Craigslist, including the iconic "Missed Connections" column, was replaced by a message from the company, explaining that the risk of offering this tool would "jeopardize" all of their services.
Their statement concluded: "To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!"
Sex workers and the peer-led organizations that serve them are preparing for the worst. Red Light Legal, which offers legal representation to anyone in the sex trades, is hosting an online know your rights workshop for creating arrest plans. Various informal groups are holding in person meetings to discuss safe ways to continue conducting business, as well as how to support the most marginalized among them.
Red, a community organizer with the Chicago-based organization Support Ho(s)e, anticipates that community creativity will tested. "People will find ways to build new, or dust off old, methods of communication and outreach," they say. "I hope we can demonstrate that the best way to support survivors is by giving them access to safer housing, cash benefits, food stamps, visas, living-wage work, and life/gender affirming medical care immediately without red-tape."
Overall, the sex work community is devastated that this bill will take community resources away from consensual workers while doing demonstrably little to abolish trafficking or offer care to those who have been trafficked.
"Congress fucked up big time and is placing lives in harm because of ill informed best intentions," says Paul.