Now is a terrifying time to be a sex worker in America. On Wednesday, the president signed into law a new bill – a combination of the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act and the House’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – which amends Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, making online platforms now liable for content uploaded by their users. Since it was passed by Congress in March, dozens of online platforms that sex workers utilized to advertise their services and screen clients changed their terms of service, blocked access from the United States or shut down completely.
On April 6th, the widely used classifieds ads website Backpage.com was seized by the federal government, and seven of its founders were indicted with total of 93 counts of money laundering and facilitating prostitution. But just as with past federal takedowns of similar platforms such as Rentboy and MyRedbook, not a single person involved has been charged with human trafficking.
While sex workers and anti-trafficking advocates alike are eager to address exploitation and violence in the industry –and legislators may be keen to find a bipartisan consensus in this divisive political climate – this is not the path towards a solution. Instead, these moves to address and curb trafficking are backfiring and placing the populations they aim to serve in even greater peril. In practice, this bill is only enabling and empowering those who seek to exploit our community.
With the increase in Internet accessibility over the past two decades, more sex workers have had access to platforms that allow us to put valuable time, space and scrutiny between us and our clients. In a criminalized climate such as the United States where sex workers are more likely to be murdered on the job than police officers, 400 percent more likely to face violence than the average worker and largely unable to access the justice system when they are victimized – time, space and scrutiny are some of the only tools we have to stay alive.
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This is not the first time I’ve encountered the FBI seal when sitting down at my computer to begin my workday, as many sex workers experienced when trying to access Backpage.com last week. Until summer 2014, I was happily advertising my services on Myredbook.com, a platform used by hundreds of thousands of West Coast sex workers, as well as their clients, to connect, review and screen each other. I remember the day that site went down. My stomach dropped and I panicked, wondering if the job that allowed me to pay off my student loans and support my family during my mother’s brain surgery – the job that I loved – might finally land me in jail.
Thankfully, it didn’t, but I lost a huge chunk of my clients and screening became much more difficult. Still, life went on and I moved to other platforms. But now, almost all those other platforms are gone.
For years, these online tools have been a lifeline for myself and so many in my community. MyRedbook helped me be able to leave the person who acted as my pimp for the first several months of my career. Once I figured out how to book and screen clients on my own, I didn’t need someone taking a cut of my money to do it for me. That world is now behind us. I’ve seen reports from workers in my community that pimps from the past have recently started contacting women they used to control, knowing how desperate many of us are in the current climate. One Bay Area sex worker said she was contacted by three former pimps in just a few hours the day Backpage went down, trying to entice her back with the promise of clients.
There’s no need to speculate; we know what’s coming. In the aftermath of the Myredbook seizure, Kristin Diangelo – a trafficking survivor and the the Executive Director of the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project – says her organization saw an 18 percent increase in street-based sex work, and 50 percent of people who had begun working on the street had experienced violence – often in the form of rape – since their migration from indoor to outdoor work.
The ramifications of taking away the tools that sex workers use to survive are well-documented. This latest development in the war on sex is already resulting in a far more precarious reality for an already marginalized workforce.
The list of resources keeps dwindling and new legislation keeps coming. California SB 1204, for example, would expand the definition of “pandering” – a term that has traditionally been associated with solicitation and recruitment for prostitution – to now include the distribution of harm reduction services and educational materials. If passed, this means that soon, just giving safer sex supplies to street-based sex workers may become a federal offense.
Meanwhile, sex workers continue to be pushed off social media platforms and online payment processors, adding additional barriers to organizing and connecting with our community. This stigma associated with our profession can limit our access to housing, healthcare and future employment.
Yet sex workers still remain largely unable to access justice when we are victims of violence. Last year, a young woman in Southern California was sexually exploited by means of fraudulent recruitment (i.e. the United Nations definition of human trafficking) by a scam artist pretending to be a photographer. When she reported the incident to police, she says, she was denied a rape kit, and the detective refused to file a police report unless the young woman handed over her phone so it could be duplicated and reviewed for illegal activity. After leaving the police station – no better off than when she arrived – the young woman was referred to a survivor-led anti-trafficking organization in her home state by the adult industry’s trade association. The criminalization of our work only perpetuates the stigma that compromises our safety and livelihoods. Until we can access justice like any other citizen, our community will remain a target for trafficking and exploitation.
The debilitating shock, sadness and panic that is moving through the sex-working community right now is palpable – every worker I know is struggling; not only to pay the bills, but also sometimes to even get out of bed in the morning knowing how perilous the road ahead may be. Still, the community is rallying as hard as we are grieving, organizing in an unprecedented push to let the voices of those who will be affected by these pieces of legislation be heard.
Survivors, allies, and sex workers from all over the country flooded the congressional phone lines last month pleading with their Senators and Representatives to listen to survivors. The #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSesta social media campaign has garnered over 5 million impressions and even mainstream celebrities have started speaking up and standing with sex workers and survivors. “Legislation should never put our brothers and sisters in danger! SAY NO to #SESTA,” Transparent creator Jill Soloway said via social media in the tense days leading up to the SESTA vote. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays a sex worker in the HBO series The Deuce, tweeted, “If our responses to address trafficking exacerbate the marginalization and isolation of people trading sex, it is clear we have missed the forest for the trees,” quoting author Alana Massey in Allure.
This week, nearly 400 letters of opposition to CA SB 1204 were faxed to the Senate Public Safety Committee in Sacramento in a single day. Supporters built a website called Survivors Against SESTA, where they offer resources and advice – and are are actively seeking donations – for sex workers affected by the legislation. A national day of action is slated for June 2nd. Marches, lobbying, and fundraising events are already being planned in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. Despite what some may think, we are not going to take this lying down.