New legislation poses threat to sex workers in the U.S.

North America & Caribbean Regional Correspondent
Source (institute/publication)

On 27th February, the House of Representatives passed a new Bill affecting sex workers in the United States: H.R. 1865 [Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017], known as 'FOSTA'. This bill makes it a federal crime for online platform providers to 'facilitate sex trafficking', also criminalising the users of these sites. Amendments made to the Bill mean that “operators of any website where sexual services are advertised could be charged under the new federal criminal statute proposed by FOSTA.”

Campaigners opposed to FOSTA argue that under these new laws, "collecting and distributing community-contributed information about violence, victimizers, or HIV/STI transmission when engaged in sex work could put a person at risk for criminal prosecution, and would likely cause a chilling effect on websites being able to make that information available. Denying these resources exacerbate the risk of violence and victimization for sex workers, including those who are victims of trafficking.” 


SESTA [the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act] is a similar bill set to be voted on in the Senate, closely linked to FOSTA. Both Bills aim to take down sites that host sex-for-sale ads, however SESTA differs from FOSTA in that it includes the option for use of civil suits against websites that are deemed to have knowledge of user content that ‘facilitates sex trafficking’. Proponents of SESTA argue that it would help victims of trafficking by allowing them to sue sites that helped enable their exploitation.

Kate D’Adamo of Reframe Health & Justice has explained that the proposed changes to SESTA open this to a wider civil liability without clear guidelines on how to obey the law. These costly lawsuits could easily imperil any website which caters to, or even acknowledges, people who trade sex. This includes websites which:

  • host ads, enabling more opportunity for safety and screening for violence;
  • host harm reduction information, including safety and health tips for workers;
  • offer services, including screening services;
  • create community for people who trade sex to share information. 

SESTA is still currently in the Senate and can be called to the floor for a vote at any time. A vote is likely to take place the week of 19th March.

What Do Sex Workers Think?

Sex workers from all industries alongside survivors of trafficking have launched a grassroots movement [#StopSESTA #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA #LetUsSurvive] to resist SESTA-FOSTA, which includes support from several allies (including the ACLU, Freedom Network, NCLR, and the National Center for Trans Equality). They say lawmakers are conflating sex work and sex trafficking, and that the SESTA-FOSTA efforts will only make it harder for both sex workers and victims of trafficking to speak up about violence and exploitation.

Adult performer Janice Griffin said: “Under SESTA/FOSTA there is no true differentiation between consensual sex work and trafficking—because many lawmakers do not see sex work as real work and dehumanize us strictly because of the CONSENSUAL business we take part in". 

While both bills target online platforms in an effort to combat trafficking, sex workers and sex worker organisations assert that if made into law, the SESTA-FOSTA combined bill will ultimately hurt the very people it intends to help while also subjecting sex workers to further violence and job insecurity. “By making social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter liable for their users’ speech, the bill could force tech companies to push all talk of sex work off their platforms.” Jessica Peñaranda, director of strategic initiatives at the Sex Workers’ Project, said: “They think that shutting down any online platform is going to miraculously end human trafficking. They think it’s an easy way to do this.”

“Make no mistake, if these bills pass, sex workers will die. I need you to know that is not hyperbole.” 

The negative effects will be especially harsh for certain groups. Laura LeMoon, SWOP Behind Bars, noted that life has already gotten much harder for sex workers and survivors of trafficking, and will only continue to worsen. “It’s had a real disproportionate effect on low-income sex workers, sex workers of color, trans sex workers, sex workers who are most at the margins,” LeMoon says, “because we’re the ones who really rely on Backpage as a means of income.”

If passed, SESTA will not immediately go into effect, rather it will go through a further legislative editing process alongside FOSTA. Once SESTA and FOSTA have been revised to match language (i.e. reconciled into one Bill) both the House and the Senate need to approve it before President Trump gives final authorisation.

While these sanctions will not be immediately enforced, sex workers are urging the community to further continue sharing information and resources, including bad date lists and other harm reduction methods. “If this is a debate committed to holding websites accountable for things that harm users, sex workers need to be in that conversation—and not just in terms of trafficking. … However folks respond, collective resilience has to work for the most precarious.” 

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