On March 21, 2018, the Senate voted ninety-seven to two on the Fight Online Sex Trafficking (FOSTA) bill. This bill intends to “protect sex workers from trafficking [and] hold online platforms legally responsible for the content of its users” (Tracy). In other words, FOSTA aims at preventing websites, like Craigslist and Backpage, from facilitating sex trafficking. It may seem like a bill to “get behind”, but it actually has been thoroughly criticized by “internet advocates and sex workers who fear it will only make matters worse” (Tracy).
What is SESTA-FOSTA?
FOSTA is actually the combination of two separate bills: The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (SESTA) and FOSTA, or H.R.1865, which is why it has been referred to at SESTA-FOSTA. The bill “rolls back portions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a 20-year-old law that protects online publishers from the things their users say or do” (Tracy). Now, with SESTA-FOSTA , online publishers will be liable for the things their users say and do. With SESTA-FOSTA publishers are obligated to criminally prosecute any sex trafficking discussions that are viewable on their website[s] (Tracy). Yet, the bill has very vague wording, stating that a publisher is responsible if he or she “assists, supports, or facilitates” trafficking (Tracy). This opens the bill up to interpretation, which could lead to a myriad of lawsuits against publishers that did not even know trafficking was happening on their site. This is just one issue with the bill, but this is not the main issue I wish to address. Many sex workers have already spoken out against the bill and I believe this to be particularly salient in the context of human trafficking.
What SESTA-FOSTA Means for Sex Workers
Once again, SESTA-FOSTA holds online publishers accountable for third-party activity related to sex trafficking. Publishers have even started dismantling sites “that make trafficking more visible” in fear of the repercussions of third-party activities taking place on their sites (Tracy). Further, when publishers take down these sites, law enforcement is without a digital footprint to investigate trafficking in the sex trade and to locate trafficking victims (Tracy).
Sex workers often use these sites “to vet the backgrounds of clients and consult with peers to determine whether a client is safe” (Tracy). When these sites are brought down, and this resource is no longer available to sex workers, they often look elsewhere for a client. That is most often on the street, which is even more dangerous than online. Research suggests that sex workers “run an elevated risk of violence on the street” (Lampen). Not only are many sex workers at risk of violence, but they are “fearful of arrest [and in turn] move off main streets and into areas where they’re more difficult to spot” (Lampen).
It seems to me that SESTA-FOSTA is not combatting the real issue here. The bill assumes that all sex workers are victims, which is simply not the case. Many sex workers are in the industry voluntarily and much of the sex they participate in is consensual. But when “information that enables worker[s] to give consent to a client out of reach at [any given] moment” is taken away, sex workers are more likely to become victims of violence (Lampen). Sex workers are already fearful of arrest and this bill conflates consensual sex work and criminal acts, giving rise to even more fear among sex workers. Also, keeping sex work criminal only further victimizes sex workers, which gives power to the abuser or trafficker. The criminality of sex work, in addition to the “stigma on the trade with measures like FOSTA and SESTA, cultivates a landscape in which sexual exploitation thrives” (Lampen). This bill does not aim to combat trafficking or protect sex workers, it only undermines free speech and further victimizes persons in sex work.
Lampen, Claire. “Sex Workers Explain Why the House’s Online Sex-Trafficking Bill Is Bulls**t.” The Daily Dot, 2 Mar. 2018, www.dailydot.com/irl/sex-workers-sex-trafficking-bill/.
Tracy, Phillip. “Trump Signs Controversial ‘Sex-Trafficking’ Bill That Could Hurt the Future of the Internet.” The Daily Dot, 11 Apr. 2018, www.dailydot.com/debug/what-is-sesta-fosta-bill/.