One year ago today, President Trump signed a piece of legislation into law that threw many sex workers into a full-scale panic.
The legislation packaged two bills — the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” and the “Stop Enabling Child Traffickers Act” — and was nicknamed “FOSTA-SESTA.” At first blush it seemed like common sense: target websites used to sell sex and dismantle the sex trafficking industry by strangling their methods of advertising.
The legislation was immensely popular. Families of girls who had been trafficked and sold on online marketplaces like Backpage.com rallied around a move they hoped would take down websites known to advertise children. FOSTA-SESTA passed with a 97-2 vote in the Senate and enjoyed the public support of everyone from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to comedian Amy Schumer.
But before it even passed, the atmosphere of fear created by the legislation was already having an impact. Just before the bill was signed, federal authorities shut down Backpage.com, one of the most popular websites used to advertise illicit services. Just before that, Craigslist removed the “personals” section, which many sex workers used to find clients, in order to to avoid potential legal action. Dozens of smaller websites would follow suit, banning or censoring sections of their platforms.
“These are bills that are gonna change everything. They’re gonna just make our lives a living hell,” Ceyenne Doroshow, a former sex worker turned advocate, told Jezebel and The Root just before the bill was passed, reflecting widespread sentiments among sex workers. What FOSTA-SESTA supporters ignored or didn’t realize was that sex workers used these websites to take their work off the street, screen clients and earn a better living. The law, they said, was at best, a major inconvenience; at worst, a death sentence.
“Now is a terrifying time to be a sex worker in America,” wrote sex worker and advocate Siouxsie Q in Rolling Stone days after the bill became law. “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,” the only tools, she said, sex workers have to stay alive.
Immediately after the legislation passed, Bella Robinson, the executive director of Coyote RI, a grassroots sex workers organization in Rhode Island, jumped into action. She began conducting a survey on the effects of the legislation. As far as she’s aware, the data collected from her survey of 262 sex workers across the United States is the only data that exists on the implications of FOSTA-SESTA for sex workers, she said. Her findings support what many sex workers feared.
Before the legislation passed, 92 percent of sex workers who responded to the survey screened clients before seeing them, which meant that they googled them, asked for references, or consulted blacklists of dangerous or dishonest clients that sex workers circulated amongst themselves, according to Coyote RI’s findings. After FOSTA-SESTA, there was a 29 percent drop in screening, with 60 percent of sex workers saying they had to take on less-safe clients to make ends meet.
“When ur desperate u make exceptions,” Robinson said one client texted her. Another woman told Robinson that the legislation forced her to meet with a new client she wasn’t able to screen. When he brought her to his house, she says she was gang raped by five men. “I was not paid. They stole everything I had on me,” she told Robinson, “I was covered in bruises and scrapes and cuts.”
Robinson’s research hews to anecdotal evidence from the past year, which suggests that sex workers who have been pushed off the Web are turning to other places, like the streets. Moving from behind the safety of a computer screen and onto the streets is perhaps the most dangerous thing that could happen to a sex worker. Studies have shown that outdoor sex workers report experiencing higher levels of violence than those working indoors.
The danger is bolstered by the fact that many sex workers feel that they can’t get help from the police, for fear of arrest or harassment.
The best way to make these women safer? Some, like Scott Cunningham, an economist at Baylor University, say the solution is to give them back the Internet.
Cunningham found that when Craigslist’s “erotic services” section was introduced to a city, which happened in different cities at different times between 2002 and 2010, the female homicide rate went down by 10-17 percent.
“The technology made them safer,” Cunningham said. “The overwhelming effect is reductions in violence against women.”
Cunningham added, however, that while there’s some sympathy for women threatened with physical violence, there’s less for women who just say the legislation has caused them to make less money.
“Even if all [FOSTA-SESTA] did was drive them into worse economic opportunities, that should be relevant,” he said.
Less than a week after Backpage.com closed, almost half of the sex workers Robinson surveyed could no longer support themselves. This was particularly devastating when, on average, she found that 77 percent of them were their family’s sole provider.
Cunningham describes one woman who put it this way: she could either work two low-paying jobs for 60 hours a week, barely making ends meet and never seeing her kid. Or she could work 20 hours a week as a sex worker and be around to watch her kid grow up.
“Backpage[.com] single-handedly allowed me to create freedom for myself,” wrote Lucy Khan, an artist and educator who has her own professional BDSM practice, in a blog.
Like many sex workers, Khan now struggles to advertise through a combination of Twitter and Instagram, knowing that her accounts may be shut down at any time due to the platforms’ guidelines. She said her clients have dropped both in quantity and quality. Other sex workers string together advertising on a variety of smaller and less reliable sites that have cropped up since the legislation passed.
So, even if many sex workers say the law has been bad for them, has it at least stopped traffickers?
“After the shutdown of Backpage[.com], I’ve had friends solicited by strangers online who offer to ‘help get them work’ — ostensibly, [third-party] middlemen or pimps with their own client networks,” addeds Khan in an experience reflected by many sex workers.
Even if the law did spook traffickers rather than embolden them, advocates for sex trafficking victims say the legislation was a bit of a hack job, shutting down the websites without offering any resources to help women get into stable housing, find alternative employment or mitigate the economic circumstances that push women into exploitative conditions in the first place.
“Based on my research, if you want to make women safer in this market, you decriminalize,” Cunningham said. Doing so “gives them access to the courts; it removes the corruption; they have an incentive to talk to the police, not avoid them; and they can purchase and rent buildings and rooms and work outdoors; they can put cameras in the rooms and put locks on doors, and have a bodyguard.”
In fact, Cunningham’s research on when prostitution was briefly decriminalized in Rhode Island from 2003-2009 (due to an unintended legal loophole that was later closed) found that rates of gonorrhea and the number of rape cases dropped significantly — not just for sex workers but for the entire population.
It was that decriminalization that actually landed Robinson in Rhode Island. After working as a sex worker in several states, she said she sought an escape from police harassment and potentially dangerous clients, and a way to freely support her daughter. When she arrived in a place where sex work was decriminalized, it was a dream.