Sex Work After FOSTA-SESTA: Why the New Wave of Prohibition Has So Many Panicking

On April 11, 2018, what some are calling the FOSTA-SESTA package was signed into law by Trump. SESTA had the support of the Internet Association and a few other big name companies who probably have a vested interest in internet prohibition. FOSTA is short for “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.” SESTA stands for “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.” SESTA was sponsored by Senator Rob Portman [R-OH], while FOSTA was sponsored by Representative Ann Wagner [R-MO-2]. Portman was one of the first to lead an investigation into the classifieds website Backpage. Supposedly, FOSTA-SESTA clarify our present sex trafficking laws and amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. However, the language of the SESTA summary conveys the true nature of the law. From

“(Sec. 3) The bill amends the federal criminal code to add a new section that imposes penalties — a fine, a prison term of up to 10 years, or both — on a person who, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (or attempts or conspires to do so) to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person. Additionally, it establishes enhanced penalties — a fine, a prison term of up to 25 years, or both — for a person who commits the offense in one of the following aggravating circumstances: (1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of five or more persons, or (2) acts with reckless disregard that such conduct contributes to sex trafficking.”

We see here that they are conflating prostitution with trafficking. What happens is that, according to full service sex workers I’ve spoken with, if police apprehend more than one escort/prostitute in the same area (or working together), they will be charged with both prostitution and trafficking each other. So these laws merely provide another way for law enforcement officials to criminalize women — especially trans women, poor women, and women of color — while doing little to locate and assist actual victims of sex trafficking. These laws merely provide another way for law enforcement officials to criminalize women — especially trans women, poor women, and women of color — while doing little to locate and assist actual victims of sex trafficking. As much as politicians claim that this is about the trafficking of children, it is clear that’s not the case. Clearly the FOSTA-SESTA laws are about controlling the undesirables, the women who dare to capitalize on the commodification of their bodies and sex. It is hard to say what the future looks like. The trend of arresting sex workers who work together and charging them with both prostitution and trafficking (each other), workers will begin to work alone, which makes them much more vulnerable to assault by a client. FOSTA-SESTA will also likely push more sex workers to rely on pimps or “managers” for safety. Shutting down websites makes it harder for full service sex workers to verify or vet clients. Pay apps locking sex worker’s accounts and confiscating funds makes it difficult for sex workers to process payments and pushes us to sites that charge exorbitant amounts of money just for us to get paid–which is frustrating for women like me who are already struggling with poverty and keeping the lights on.

One of the most annoying things I have heard during this process of figuring out what to do and how to react to the FOSTA-SESTA prohibition deal is: Don’t panic. This from fellow sex workers. Positivity culture on one end and [class/racial] privilege on the other, has reduced the fearful response of Black/brown and queer/trans sex workers to FOSTA-SESTA to an illogical panic, rather than a legitimate fear of loss of income, incarceration, assault, etc. Some claimed that fear makes you do irrational things and that we show strength when we don’t waiver. Others simply dismissed our fears and our dejected tweets, responding that sex workers have always fought censorship and that this is nothing new. I, as a Black woman, know this to be untrue. Fear comes in many different forms. Fear makes you vigilant. Fear makes you aware. Fear makes you think.

I understand, on a basic level what these calls to not panic convey. But as a queer Black woman who is constantly called on to provide stability and strength, I find this exhausting. Don’t panic, don’t react. Be strong. How ridiculous. FOSTA-SESTA, businesses kicking us off their platforms (See: PayPal, Patreon, Mastodon), sex workers being shadowbanned on Twitter, IG posts being reported or removed. Some of us are just getting by. The term survival sex worker doesn’t exist for no reason, and focusing our energies on the exceptional sex workers (of color) who make a lot of money is nonsensical. Most of the people I have seen panicking have been queer and trans Black women, people whose housing and income tend to be irregular or insecure. Many queer and trans POC are likely to be supporting other people; children, family members, partners.

Websites and companies shutting sex workers out is nothing new but it still sucks and it affects the most marginalized of us the worst — Black trans women, women of color, LGBTQ folks, and those who are dealing with homelessness and addiction due to poverty. These are groups that are already highly vulnerable and already experience high rates of violence compared to white sex workers, particularly cisgender ones. Some of are planning to leave sex work behind because of the persecution, but not everyone has opportunities waiting for them outside of this. What will become of those who have no other options?

Earlier in June, people across the country came together for International Whore’s Day, advocating for sex workers’ rights and survival with direct action against SESTA/FOSTA. On Sex Workers Lobby Day, sex workers all over the US lobbied for change and talked with their representatives about the reality of SESTA/FOSTA. Simultaneously, people are being pushed into unsafe situations such as street work or choosing (a pimp)facing homelessness, violence and loss of autonomy. A new proposed law, the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act, is similarly described as being aimed at trafficking; in practice, it would impose debilitating restrictions on sex workers’ bank accounts, making it even harder to survive.

There is a cultural trend toward unbridled positivity, even in the sex worker community. People want quick answers, people want snappy solutions. Black/queer/poor sex workers have always endured and have spoken solidarity. I see us continuing to find ways to keep ourselves and each other safe in the same ways we always have. There are a few technologically savvy sex workers who are attempting to create sites that cater specifically to sex workers. (Switter, aka “sex work Twitter,” is a great example of this, but as of this writing it was temporarily kicked off Mastodon at least once. (Update: In fact it was Switter’s CDN that booted the service, not Mastodon itself, and Switter is still active on Mastodon with a new CDN.)) Generally sex workers have always gathered in forums or Facebooks groups or on corners. We congregate, we discuss. Facts are, some of us are going to be safer than others. In order for that to be remedied we would have to eradicate racism and many other systems of oppression and that’s not happening anytime soon. What we can do is try to keep each other safe. For those who are interested in reform: organizing, calling Senators, knocking on metaphorical doors and making people aware — because eventually, if not immediately, these laws will begin affecting civilians of color. Girding our loins both literally and figuratively for the future.

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  1. Thank you for this reporting. It’s frustrating as I’ve been reading many people who are forced to hide their work even more just to make money.

  2. Was there perhaps some confusion over Switter’s brief outage? There was a brief interruption when Cloudflare decided to throw them away without notice, but they remain *very* active within Mastodon. This posting by one of the admins/founders goes into more detail about their story so far, including some sobering statistics:

    One quoted article notes: “Johanna Breyer, interim executive director and co-founder of the Saint James Infirmary, a health clinic that supports sex workers in California’s Bay Area, told me that in the weekend following FOSTA, the infirmary’s mobile van outreach saw a dramatic increase of street-based sex workers in the Mission District. Breyer estimated that there were about double or triple the usual number of workers seeking assistance.”

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