By Noah Smith, RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the human rights MA program.
In 2017, President Trump signed into law two highly controversial bills projected to make it easier to reduce illegal sex trafficking online. The House bill known as FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Senate bill, SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, have garnered bipartisan support as well as praise from misguided celebrities and was hailed as a landmark victory for sex trafficking victims. However, since the FOSTA-SESTA’s conception it has done little to target and reduce online sex trafficking and conversely threatens to increase violence against the most vulnerable within society, specifically queer sex workers and sex workers of color.
Opponents as well as critics of the bill have articulated that it doesn’t appear to do anything concrete to target illegal sex trafficking, but rather targets a longstanding “safe harbor” rule of the internet: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Specifically, FOSTA-SESTA creates exemptions to Section 230 which means websites would be responsible if users are caught posting ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work. Therefore, to avoid any potential legal consequences, websites such as Craigslist deleted their entire personal ads section and Reddit removed all forums service providers used to find clients. Many advocates have voiced their concerns that FOSTA-SESTA threatens to erode internet freedom as we know it.
The bill endangers, rather than helps, sex workers who want to do their work consensually and safely. There is extensive evidence that giving sex workers a means in which to advertise, vet and pick their clients online makes them safer than they are without online systems such as Craigslist and Reddit. When sex workers are unable to contact and vet clients through online mediums, they are forced out onto the street in order to find constomers. In this scenario they are unable to prescreen clients nor are they able to ensure they will work in a safe and secure location. A 2017 study on Craigslist’s personals section, which is the only empirical study of online sex advertising’s effect on violence against women, found that the ability to advertise sexual services on the internet reduced female homicides by 17.4%. Baylor University professor Scott Cunningham who conducted the study has called FOSTA-SESTA ‘‘unambiguously evil” due to its willful ignorance and potential to engender violence against sex workers. The most vulnerable populations affected by this bill are queer sex workers and sex workers of color, who face high rates of violence from both the police and civilian population. Furthermore, queer sex workers and sex workers of color at times have no other option for employment due to systematic discrimination in the legal job market, housing, and education.
In addition to the risk FOSTA-SESTA poses to consensual sex workers, there is growing concern that victims of sex trafficking will be rendered less visible and even more vulnerable by being exiled from the accessible reaches of the internet, into the darkest crevices of real life and the deep web. Therefore, these bills have the potential to unequivocally remove human traffickers from the reach of law enforcement by sending them to the darkest corners of the web, where they may find safe haven. When all things are considered, FOSTA-SESTA is poised to further marginalize multiple vulnerable populations and will inevitably cause more harm than good.
In 2016, Amnesty International released a model policy that calls upon countries to decriminalize sex work in order to better protect the health and human rights of sex workers. Contrary to popular dogma, to reduce instances of human trafficking and human rights abuses of consensual sex workers, we must support the full decriminalization of sex work because decriminalizing sex work enhances sex workers’ legal protection and their ability to exercise other essential rights, including to justice. Preventing sex trafficking requires us to examine as well as acknowledge the divergen forms of marginalization that creates vulnerable communities. Thereby removing punitive laws, which deter the reporting of abuse and exploitation, legalization allows sex workers to work in safer environments, which reduce marginalization and mistreatment. Decriminalizing can also destigmatize sex work and help challenge the socio-political as well as cultural marginalization of sex workers.
Since the passage of FOSTA-SESTA a merger of sex workers , sex trafficking survivors , human rights advocates, and the Department of Justice have all opposed the doctrine that FOSTA-SESTA is an effective remedy to end sex trafficking. Queer sex workers and sex workers of color know better than anyone else that these bills will be ineffective in ending human trafficking and have been at the forefront of this opposition movement by amplifying their voices to articulate that they are the best positioned to help end human trafficking. However, they cannot be a part of the solution when they are being criminalized, having their platforms taken away and their lives disrupted. Vice president elect Kamala Harris has also voiced her support for the decriminalization of sex work, stating that “we can’t criminalize consensual behavior among adults as long as no one is being harmed.” The comments made by Vice President elect Kamala Harris point to broader and slowly evolving perceptions of sex workers’ rights as human rights– all of which underline the necessity to not discuss rights-based matters through the lexicon of patriarchal-based morality but rather through what is legally permissible in a society governed by human rights.
FOSTA-SESTA does nothing to fight for the rights of individuals but rather seeks to determine who is worthy of human rights as well as protection under the law and erodes internet freedom. The failures of this bill and its discriminatory policies have sparked innumerous grassroots movements and activists calling for its repeal as well as the full decriminalization of sex work. In order to advocate for the rights of all persons, we must acknowledge that sex workers’ rights are human rights. Sex workers are willing to and possess the knowledge needed to be partners in our collective fight to end human trafficking, but before sex workers can be a part of the solution, we as a society must honor their human rights.