Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America stand with organized sex workers across the country in opposing both the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which were signed into law on April 11, 2018.
SESTA/FOSTA gives states the power to limit the freedom and safety of sex workers by amending the Communications Decency Act to not allow sex workers to advertise their services on any website. Previously, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provided speech protections for websites that published any type of third party content including user content that might be deemed unlawful. SESTA/FOSTA amended Section 230 to state that now websites can be prosecuted if they engage in the “promotion or facilitation of prostitution” or if they “facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.”
This legislation effectively shifts the duties of policing onto websites who are now responsible for self-policing their users’ content. This has already resulted in Google and Microsoft deleting private user content deemed “sexual content” from cloud storage systems. It is also retroactive, so even past postings are not safe, whether on a blog or a personals page. The Justice Department expressed concern over the passage of these bills as the retroactive aspect is potentially in violation of the constitution (clause 1 of Article I, Section 10), which states that the United States expressly prohibits the passage of any law that “retroactively changes the legal consequences of actions that were committed, before the enactment of the law”, though the Supreme Court has a history of occasionally allowing it.
Major classified websites like Backpage and Craigslist removed sections of their websites that served as tools for sex workers to advertise. This resulted in sex workers losing valuable resources that they used to ensure their safety. For example, workers kept “blacklists” to warn each other of violent clients that were lost during the websites’ purges. Advertising on the internet gave sex workers more agency by giving them the opportunity to screen clients better before meeting. Studies have even shown that violence decreased when online advertising was available to female sex workers. Even police agree that Backpage helped authorities catch traffickers and get tips on criminal activity. Closing it permanently drives the problem further underground. This also causes trafficked victims to be harder to track down, as they have no online presence.
Sex workers are placed in an even more dangerous position without internet resources to advertise, as they are being forced to engage in street work. Many also find themselves relying again on pimps, who, as the employers in the sex industry, end up exploiting young, desperate, and marginalized sex workers, treating them as commodities to be sold rather than human beings.
While human trafficking is abhorrent and needs to be eliminated, this legislative package does very little to actually fight the issue. It instead places all of the blame on consenting sex workers, who are doing what they need to to survive. Sex workers need protection, not prosecution. We will continue to stand with sex workers, and fight with them to repeal these bills. We support all efforts to decriminalize sex work, so people doing that work can come out of the shadows and have the protections that all workers deserve.