It’s an average fickle weather morning in Salt Lake City. Yesterday, it was in the high 60s, and I was driving around with my car top down. Today, I woke up to snow. Upon seeing the snow, I thought about the signing of FOSTA/SESTA into law and how many more people will have to take to the street because of it. While only signed into law in April, the effects are swift.
In case you haven’t heard about the passing of FOSTA/SESTA, let me offer a bit of an explanation.
FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) are a blend two bills framed to the public as a way to come down harder on those who are involved in sex trafficking. While we can all agree that trafficking another human being and forcing someone into a life of sexual engagement is horrible, opposers to the bill warn there will be more people put at risk than helped.
FOSTA/SESTA works by making various websites criminally liable for what their users do and say on their online platforms and not the users themselves. What’s more, the law is retroactive. Just how far back isn’t clear.
Sex trafficking, sex work, and prostitution are terms often interchangeable. While trafficking and sex work are forms of prostitution, there are stark differences. Trafficking is nonconsensual coercion and exploitation of forced sexual labor. Sex work, on the other hand, is the consensual engagement of transactional sexual interaction. A trafficked person has no agency over their body or decision-making about what sexual activities take place or with whom. Sex workers have complete agency over their bodies and choose who they interact with and what degree of sexual interaction takes place.
As someone who has been a sex worker, and since becoming a doctoral level sex educator and sexuality counselor, who also happens to work with victims of trafficking, I feel qualified to offer my opinion about this law.
Until FOSTA/SESTA, sex workers were able to use the internet to screen clients and consult with peers. When Redbook closed down in 2014, there was an almost immediate surge in street work by nearly 20 percent. Sexual assaults also increased, as did STIs. Sex work didn’t end, nor will it. By removing the Internet as a resource, more sex workers turn to the streets, thus increasing their chances of harm, assault, and possibly trafficking.
Additionally, tracing trafficking will decrease as defeat increases the Internet trail. Those trafficked can sometimes interact online with someone who can help them. While they’re rarely the ones posting the ads online, and having someone censoring their interactions, the possibility of someone realizing it’s trafficking is greater. With this law, they’re even less likely to reach out for help.
To add another layer of concern, most people sexually assaulted have a difficult time reporting it, and feeling supported and validated in general. It’s especially true of those who do sex work. With another level of criminality on individual sexual behavior, fewer people will report crimes against them for fear of liability.
Opposers are also quick to bring to light how FOSTA/SESTA will hinder free speech. Because the law now holds the website liable, and not the user, it’s plausible that various online communities may be scared into screening the speech of their users.
It’s also likely that already marginalized voices will become silenced when heavy restrictions are in place. Since the passing of FOSTA/SESTA, Craigslist has removed their personals section; Backpage has shut down; there’s talk of online dating apps such as Tinder and Adam for Adam shutting down; and, Google Drive has removed much of its adult content.
Trafficking is horrible, and most people want to do whatever possible to prevent the harm of another person. I don’t believe this is the way. Hopefully, with this knowledge, we can open up a conversation about potential solutions that genuinely offer harm reduction.