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SESTA’s Growing Threat To The Sex Worker Internet

Senator Richard Blumenthal testifying in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, with that sincere, constipated look one gets when testifying in favor of anti-trafficking legislation. (Via Youtube)

You can always count on a corporation to look out for its own interests. An existential threat to their business model will even trump the good PR that comes from beating on everyone’s favorite marginalized punching bags, sex workers). So, until recently, major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google opposed SESTA,the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Their business models depend on user-generated content, and SESTA would overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which previously protected internet platforms against liability for the actions of users.

But following a compromise earlier this month between Silicon Valley and the bill’s Congressional sponsors, SESTA has passed the House and is headed to the Senate. Though they tried to keep their involvement quiet, cloaking their advocacy in the lobbying group the Internet Association, tech companies pushed hard for changes to the bill. An amended version of the bill released on November 3 by Senator John Thune addressed many of their concerns. Initially, SESTA took aim at any facilitation of user sex trafficking. But an amendment to the bill now specifies only “knowing conduct” as “participation in a venture,” meaning in general terms that sex worker advertising sites are now the only ones on the hook while Facebook and company remain immune from sex trafficking liability. Another key revision that spurred a change in the Internet Association’s position involved the development of bots policing content. In earlier versions of SESTA, developing such bots would constitute knowledge of the platform being used to facilitate sex trafficking. Similarly, Backpage’s keyword filters for policing content were used in its Senate hearing as evidence that it had knowledge of and was facilitating sex trafficking. Its own reporting efforts were used against it.

The bill also now specifies that state law enforcement officials using SESTA to prosecute individuals or entities would have to use federal law as a basis for their actions. That’s very handy for the tech companies, as in some states, “sex trafficking” can mean just about anything. While the federal definition of sex trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (or the involvement of minors, though this leads to situations in which young street youth get arrested for trafficking for helping their friends in the business as soon as they turn 18), a number of states, such as Alaska, have much broader definitions. This can include cases such as two escorts simply working together. A 2012 records request found that two such escorts were arrested and charged with sex trafficking as well as with prostitution—both alleged victims were arrested and charged with sex trafficking each other.

The bill remains draconian. There are enormous liabilities attached to user content for internet companies, which is a huge incentive to police that content heavily. Platforms that host advertising for sex workers are definitely still in the crosshairs. In fact, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, SESTA will even target companies retroactively, a measure that was no doubt included as a way to go after Backpage. No actual intention to assist in any sex trafficking is necessary in the newest version of the bill either, so long as it is “facilitated” in some way, a term which courts have interpreted broadly.

Big Mother Is Watching You: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)
Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)

For our second installment of Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, we’d like to remind you of a few salient facts about Hillary Clinton and her relationship to Somaly Mam, after the formal launch of Clinton’s second presidential bid on Sunday. 

While U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013), Hillary Clinton was responsible for the continuation, from the Bush Administration, of trafficking-related foreign policy harmful to sex workers in the Global South. Under her tenure, the U.S. Department of State continued enforcing the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath, a policy that led to the defunding of a number of very effective anti-HIV/AIDS organizations operating in the Global South who were were unwilling to condemn the sex workers receiving their services. The U.S. government defended that policy to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 6-2 against them in 2013 on free speech grounds (Justice Elena Kagan recused). Unfortunately, that ruling only applies to organizations based in the United States, though it was recently reinterpreted to also apply to organizations based in the U.S. but working in affiliates or offices abroad.

During Clinton’s administration, the Trafficking In Persons Office, a division of the U.S. Department of State, also continued to reward Cambodia with an improved TIP Report ranking for its 2008 criminalization of prostitution, a Bush administration move that led to the imprisonment of sex workers in Orwellian “rehabilitation centers” and other horrors, including beatings, extortion, and rape.

Going Negative In The Champagne Room: 2014 Gubernatorial Edition

“I was never accused of having done anything wrong, but rather I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”—Paul Davis

“What’s the difference between a hooker and a politician? There’s some things a hooker just won’t do.”—an old joke I first heard from a lobbyist

Regardless of your opinion on reproductive justice, single-payer health care, or self-employment taxes, there’s someone running for office who will reflect that position. No viable candidate, however, supports sex worker rights. When it comes to the sex industy, a candidate need only be sex worker-adjacent to be subject to a vicious attack, no matter his party. Sex workers truly have no friends in major party politics in the United States (sure, Libertarians, in theory, but once they decide to run as Republicans they tend to neatly pull back on select issues of personal choice). This election year’s sex work-adjacent scandals are pathetically unimportant and an indication of campaigns that are desperate for distractions. One deals with a 15-year-old raid on a strip club; the other with a state-run jobs website that “accidentally” listed some adult-industry jobs. One’s a Republican attacking a Democrat; the other’s a Democrat attacking a Republican.

“If U Only Knew How They Were Really Doing Us”: Inside/Outside Communication During A Pandemic

Support Ho(s)e presence at and general sex worker contingent of TransUpFront March for Trans Liberation way back in 2017. (Photo by Love & Struggle Photos)

by Alisha Walker and Red Schulte (written by Red, with editing and considerable input from Alisha)

Alisha Walker is a 27-year-old former sex working person originally from Akron, Ohio. She was criminalized for an act of self-defense when a regular client threatened her life and the life of a fellow worker in January 2014. A jury convicted her of second-degree murder,and Alisha was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is currently incarcerated at Decatur Correctional Center in Decatur, Illinois.

As Alisha commented, “When [Judge] Obbish sentenced me to 15 years, he basically said that I should have died that night when my client attacked me. He basically said that my life didn’t matter as much as that white man’s. My punishment is another example of the racist and whorephobic violence of the police, courts, and prisons.”

The violent combination of racism and whorephobia, coupled with her attacker Alan Filan’s familial connections to the Chicago political machine—specifically, Filan’s sister is a judge in Cook County and was very close with Judge James M. Obbish, who presided over Alisha’s case, and Filan’s brother is a famous Illinois lobbyist—are what Alisha attributes her harsh sentencing to.

The Support Ho(s)e Collective is a small Leftist formation of currrent and former sex workers and our trusted co-conspirators and accomplices based in Chicago and New York City. We founded and continue to coordinate the Justice for Alisha Walker Defense Campaign, supporting Alisha materially and advocating for her release. We’re currently a closed collective, meaning we don’t accept new membership. We’ve decided to remain closed until Alisha is free.

Inside/outside relationships are already fraught with surveillance, especially those relationships built on mutual aid and political organizing. Alisha and I are members of the Support Ho(s)e Collective. We’re also affiliated with Survived & Punished, Alisha as an inside survivor/organizer whose story has been uplifted, and I as an organizer with the NY formation. Alisha is in regular contact with the Uptown People’s Law Center, often encouraging others experiencing rampant sexual, medical, or gender-based discrimination inside to advocate for themselves alongside UPLC.

Alisha will be the first person to remind you that what happened to her is nothing new. She’ll be the first one to cite the long history of anti-sex worker stigma and criminalization. Early on when we talked about Mariame Kaba’s writings on Black women having “no self to defend” in this country, LeLe would light up with angry excitement. She’d exclaim, “Yeah, that’s exactly fucking right, they don’t want us to survive. But sometimes we do, and here I am.”

What follows is an accounting of conditions inside as Alisha and our other comrades have recounted them. We’ve pulled a selection of call summaries, video visits, and email correspondences to highlight what communication and organizing to meet Alisha and her community’s needs has been like since the pandemic hit.

**

Writing about surveillance experiences makes them real for people outside who’ve yet to be impacted by incarceration personally. We must detail the arbitrary cruelty of prisons and the mundane chaos that is always present in them, bearing down on our friends and comrades inside. Alisha’s ability to report to and communicate with outside organizers like myself and our fellow Support Ho(s)e comrades during this ongoing pandemic is essential. Alisha and I both believe that taking the lead from our most impacted community members—incarcerated people—during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic will activate our networks to further our practices of mutual aid and care toward accessibility and freedom for us all.

Over the last two months, Alisha has used her allotted phone time to call us and give updates about herself, make sure we’re still alright out here, and update us on the prison’s ever-changing policy enforcements during the pandemic as well as the status of her entire unit. What has been consistent during these check-ins is uncertainty: uncertainty around the lack of precautions the prison is taking, about what this lockdown will bring, and how long we’ll all have to endure this pandemic moment.

There’s no such thing as social distancing in prison.” Alisha begins and ends just about every call with this truth.

Our pandemic check-ins really began on Friday (March 13th). This was when Alisha was able to get word to us that Decatur Correctional Center was going on (what would be its first) pandemic) lockdown. All in-person visitation had been cancelled. Video visits were still tentatively going forward, but it was unclear if the GlobalTel Inmate Call (GTL) tech staff would be allowed into the prison for technical support and the administration of video visitation.

Alisha also mentioned during this call that Decatur’s GTL staff were working on installing a video visitation kiosk on the unit but no one had shared with the prisoners when it might be operational. Alisha also relayed that no one seemed to be sick yet, and that she and her friends on the on unit were being proactive and buying soap at commissary—the hand sanitizer they are offered at commissary has no alcohol content, which means it’s virtually ineffective.

By this point on the outside, the existing calls to “Free Them All” had multiplied, and new people were becoming activated and radicalized because of the public health crisis the pandemic posed. An email received from Alisha on March 14th informed us that all activities at the prison have been cancelled. This included all educational classes, contract work, certification courses, and their Shakespeare rehearsals. All that remained, for now, was “chow” and gym, but she also wrote that the COs had told them that those were the next activities to be cancelled. They were currently only being allowed two 20 minute phone calls a day.

On Wednesday, March 18th, Alisha and I had another check-in call. Her voice was bright and hopeful. Alisha let us know again that so far no one inside Decatur was sick or showing symptoms. Their commissary was still open; they were still able to go and shop for themselves, with soap still available for purchase (albeit at its typical exorbitant rate). Alisha’s tone shifted halfway through the call as she began to articulate her worries about her incarcerated family: “…because so many of them are immunocompromised and the ‘care’ we all receive inside here isn’t really care.” She was horrified by the news of some prisons, like the ones in New York, cutting off access to commissary and care-packages. She said, “We all rely on shopping to survive. How will they [those incarcerated in NY] survive without commissary?”

I told her about Survived & Punished NY’s expansion of our commissary giving along with other comrades to create a “Soap Brigade” and Abolitionist Mutual Aid Fund. She was ecstatic to hear this news, and expressed hope that it would catch on as an organizing trend. I assured her that it already had.

She also reported that regular phone use had been reinstated (though this would be short lived), and that gym and chow were still happening for now. Our video visits were still on, and she wanted to encourage everyone who didn’t already have a GTL account to set one up, as well as a Connect Network email, because people inside were feeling even more isolated without access to in-person visits while on lockdown.

Alisha said the prison was taking some precautions about the COs’ health, but she didn’t feel like it was enough to keep her safe. She had been following Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s public statements and efforts and was hopeful, but she also expressed that even when people get things right on the outside, people on the inside are the ones always left behind.

Alisha wanted to express support for the Chicago Community Bond Fund‘s actions and demands that everyone be released to prevent an outbreak at Cook County. She said, “Unless Cook County releases everyone, they’re condemning us in here to illness and likely death.” She was also very worried about friends and comrades at Logan Correctional—it was almost impossible to get word about their well-being.

Even though her Shakespeare theatre-troupe practice and her classes had been cancelled for now, she was practicing her lines, doing math problems, and working through her Introduction To Soil horticultural science text on her own time. She had gotten back into writing poetry and making art to process this new trauma of being trapped inside prison during a pandemic as well.

Those of us on the outside who are close to Alisha had already weathered her being put on “B Grade” with no access to email, phone calls (except for “legal calls” with lawyers), and video visits a few times before. We continue to endure retaliation from the mailroom COs who censor and lose her mail with abandon. We’ve been through so many versions of this communication breakdown and yet there are different fears and anxieties we’re holding because of this new contagion.

**

602 Imaginary Prostitutes Were Arrested in Alaska Three Years Ago

(Screenshot of "Alaska State Troopers, VIce Squad"—a cop wipes a arrestee's hand after she's touched an undercover officer)
(Screenshot of Alaska State Troopers, Season 2, Episode 12: “Vice Squad”—a cop wipes an arrestee’s hand after she’s touched an undercover officer)

In the FBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Report, released in November 2014, Alaska reported 648 prostitution arrests: 1 juvenile and 647 adults. This number is up from 38 arrests in 2012 and 69 in 2011. How could prostitution arrests have jumped so much in just one year?

They didn’t. Alaska maintains a report entitled Crime In Alaska, based on the same numbers that are submitted to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Report. In Crime In Alaska 2013, released in 2014, the state reports only 46 prostitution arrests in 2013: 22 sellers and 24 buyers of sex. This number seems correct: the Anchorage Police Department reported 41 prostitution arrests, and the state made five prostitution charges in 2013. Stephen Fischer, an FBI spokesman, explained that the issue was caused by “an error for entering data.”

Just what kind of trouble can 602 imaginary prostitutes created by a typo by the FBI cause?