New laws regulating online content are putting people who work in the sex industry in danger
One of the most memorable and distressing moments in journalist Noor Tagouri's new documentary on the sex industry in the US surrounds the death of 16-year-old Desiree Robinson. The teenager was found dead after having become the victim of sex trafficking through an ads-based website called Backpage, an ads-based site similar to Craiglist. In the documentary, Robinson’s mother Yvonne Ambrose is seen addressing the government and telling them her daughter’s story.
“On December 23, 2016, a 32-year-old man named Antonio Rosales was looking through Backpage.com for a child to have sex with,” Ambrose explained. “During the search he came across the picture of my 16-year-old daughter (which had been uploaded by her pimp)… This was the last night of my daughter’s life. And her pictures were moderated and posted by Backpage.com”.
Ambrose’s testimony was part of the campaign led by Senator Rob Portman, and controversially backed by celebrities like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyer, which has recently led to a change in American laws around online prostitution and liability. Thanks to a bill called the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), posting or hosting online prostitution ads is now a federal crime. In March, a bill called the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act (SESTA) also passed in combination with FOSTA, making websites liable for what their users say and do on their platforms. The only thing that stands in its way is, apparently, a signature from President Donald Trump, who has already applauded the bill.
The bill has had immediate ramifications. Yesterday (April 6), according to a banner that appeared on the site, Backpage was seized by the US justice department and its founders indicted. It had already shut down its adult ads section following a two-year investigation in January 2017, but adverts for sex still appeared on the site. “Today, Backpage was shutdown. It’s a huge step. Now no child will be sold for sex through this website—not in ND, the US, or around the world. Proud of the 2 yr long Senate investigation I was part of that helped lead to this point. And next week #SESTA will be signed into law," wrote Senator Heidi Heitkamp on Twitter.
At first glance this outcome might look like a good thing; no-one wants for another case like Desiree’s to emerge and, according to Yiota Souras, senior vice president for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 74 per cent of suspected child sex trafficking cases over the past five years have involved Backpage. The emotive language and the idea of saving vulnerable people is compelling reasoning for its existence; the bill seems to be looked at by some as a way to fight forums where human traffickers abound.
“I cannot even describe the fear and insecurity that are present on our message boards right now. People are very, very scared” – Odette
But the reality is, for sex workers, the bills pose more danger than reassurance. “I cannot even describe the fear and insecurity that are present on our message boards right now,” says Odette, a sex worker based in Texas. “People are very, very scared”. Definitions are important here. Unlike consensual sex work, sex trafficking is when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a ‘commercial’ sex act with an adult, or causes someone who is underage to commit a commercial sex act. But the bills have conflated the two, and may have inadvertently – if not consciously – led to an even more serious situation for consensual sex workers.
Arabelle Raphael, an artist, writer and sex worker based in San Francisco, says that the language of the new laws is so “ambiguous” that it has meant sex workers have not only lost access to free advertising spaces, but also resources they use “to keep each other safe”. Bad date sites are widely used to help log and keep track of potentially dangerous ‘johns’ seeking their services. “Under SESTA, these sites support sex work, and they have already been taken down or limited,” adds Odette. “This is disastrous. Sex workers use client verification and bad date sites daily to background check clients in a community database. To lose these databases means that we cannot provide mutual aid and safety to one another.”
They have also lost places used to store information, such as Google Drive. There have been reports that the adult content they keep on the cloud has suddenly become unavailable to download, share, or is simply disappearing.
What’s more, many sex workers are worried that the disappearance of online advertising platforms will lead to more street work. Soliciting sex online is generally seen as a safer option than stalking outdoors. Studies suggest people doing street work face higher rates of violence, sexually transmitted diseases and general vulnerability. Rainny Daze, a sex worker based in Texas, also believes that the passing of the bill will force online sex workers to “put themselves in harm's way by becoming ‘street people’”. There’s nothing wrong with soliciting on the street, she explains further, but some people are “terrified” of it. “We have figured out different systems to vet and screen clients – without the internet we would have no way of doing that,” says Arabelle.
“We have figured out different systems to vet and screen clients – without the internet we would have no way of doing that” – Arabelle
Backpage may be attached to some of the worst sex trafficking cases in America, but according to The New York Times, there was a “conspicuous rise in street prostitution” in at least one area of the US after the Backpage sex ads were removed. In contrast, a 2017 study from West Virginia and Baylor Universities found a 17 percent drop in female homicide rates correlating to Craigslist opening its Erotic section (which it has now closed thanks to the bills). There is clear evidence that points towards the internet giving safety to sex workers.
Odette further argues that online advertising has allowed sex workers from marginalised backgrounds to take control of their bodies and careers. “This legislation is a direct attack on the self-determination of women, femmes, POC, people with disabilities, queers and transfolk”, she says. “In sex work, many marginalised people have found a financially viable way to make money, and I feel that this legislation reflects a desire to control and subdue these specific demographics.”
Daze agrees. “For me as an African American worker in America, it will certainly hurt my business by taking away my overseas clients or rather diminishing their numbers”, she explains. “The clients overseas love African American femmes more than the ones in America do.” Black women make up the highest percentage of sex workers in America, but the picture isn’t pretty for other minorities either. Zora Armani, a disabled sex worker and writer who also cares for a disabled person and once was the victim of sex trafficking herself, believes that it is “truly the most marginalised communities who will — forgive me — get the ass end of the stick they didn’t consent to”.
She goes on: “I firmly believe that the overreaching effects are too wide and deep for me to predict no matter how hard I try or how much I think about it, but I even more firmly, believe that further marginalising minority or otherwise disadvantaged sex workers will give human traffickers an even higher upper hand, as we know they like to exploit weaknesses, and having zero back-ups legally is the ultimate vulnerability.”
Many sex workers say they are at the frontline of tackling the problem of underage sex trafficking and that the bills won’t help that particular issue in any meaningful way either. “I have called and reported to the centre for exploited children multiple times, as have all of my compatriots and advertisers”, says Odette. “This legislation will force traffickers further underground and compromise the ability of consensual sex workers to collaborate with law enforcement.”
“What we need from ordinary people is engagement and voice. Sex work is deeply intersectional: this is a feminist issue, a labour issue, a disability issue, an income equality issue, a race issue” – Odette
Already, sex workers have been mobilising. An activist uprising is taking place; sex workers are protesting SESTA and begging the government to let them survive. These new laws, they argue, will become a matter of life and death. Hashtags like #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA, plus a Survivors Against SESTA website have sprung up. A petition asking the US government to repeal or stop SESTA has reached over 7,000 signatures in five days.
“We have a lot of work to do to make sure we can keep working online,” explains Arabelle, who has been organising for her community in the Bay area. She doesn’t want to go into too much detail as she believes it could compromise the safety of herself and her peers, but she has compiled information on the bills and their effect on sex workers, as well as funding sex worker organisations like Red Light Legal, which provides lawyer services for people in the industry.
“I am currently changing up my website”, says Rainny Daze. “I will also be using an encrypted email service and moonlighting as a stripper to make some extra cash.” For Zora, her new focus is “CryptoDomme — that is to say, financial domination via cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin over cash, which is American government regulated and owned”.
Considering Trump’s recent treatment of Stormy Daniels, it seems unlikely that the plight of sex workers will stop him from signing these bills. If things go to Senator Rob Portman’s plan, they'll be wrapped up next week. But, Odette argues that we shouldn’t give up hope:
“This law is untenable and in direct violation of our rights to free speech. If challenged in the Supreme Court, it will not stand. But our voices are silenced and marginalised and we need the help of larger organisations. What we need from ordinary people is engagement and voice. Sex work is deeply intersectional: this is a feminist issue, a labour issue, a disability issue, an income equality issue, a race issue. We need support and solidarity free from antiquated sex-negative morality. We need more people to talk and yell and care.”