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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.

On Hustling

Obama really cares about all of you, especially the ones who paid $35,000 for a ticket to have dinner with him (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

It’s no secret that politicians are whores—they lie to make you feel good and appreciated, but are always out to make as much money off as many people as possible. So it turns out President Obama is visiting my hometown tonight and getting a bunch of wealthy businessmen to pay for the privilege of having dinner with him. Sound familiar? And don’t fancy escorts call themselves “dining companions” these days anyway? Obama’s not giving it up cheap though, with tickets ranging from $25 to $35,800.

Donna Dalton, Jill Filipovic, And The Eternal Lightness of Anti-Sex Worker Feminist Being

Jill Filipovic in 2009. (Photo by Jim Miles via Flickr and Wikimedia)

On August 24, a police officer on duty with the Columbus, Ohio police department named Andrew Mitchell shot and killed sex worker Donna Dalton, leaving her two children motherless. Like others who habitually inflict state sanctioned violence onto the bodies of marginalized people, Mitchell says he “feared” for his life, despite friends describing Dalton as “100 pounds wet.” Images from the crime scene show an undeniably dubious scene: Mitchell was not in uniform and, after picking up Dalton, he wedged his unmarked police car against a building, preventing Dalton’s escape. The cop and his apologists claim that Dalton stabbed him, thus, he argues that his gratuitous violence—eight gunshots—was justified.

If a cop has ever cornered you in the sex industry, you know that the experience is its own kind of terrifying, even if you are engaged in legal sex work. The potential for bodily harm at the hands of a cop increases as an individual person’s social capital decreases. This is why so many sex workers and trafficking survivors experience police brutality—not only are we subhuman at a cultural level, we are subhuman at a legal level. Mitchell had an open internal affairs investigation against him at the time of the shooting and many complaints on his record, and he’d already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018. Yet his questionable credibility doesn’t matter when it comes to all these arrests or his shooting of Dalton, because he only requires his status as a cop to justify the criminalization or the killing of a woman suspected of sex work.

In the same new cycle that announced Dalton’s death, sex worker Twitter lamented the use of our ideas in an op-ed by the New York Times. The op-ed, penned by former attorney turned mediocre feminist writer Jill Filipovich, regurgitated some watered down ideas that the sex worker hive mind discussed eons ago. Specifically, the “profoundly misogynist virgin/whore dichotomy imposed on women” and the ways this dichotomy is particularly brutal for sex workers. 

I Did Not Consent To Being Tokenized

Do not use our passive bodies as props for your agenda (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)
Stop using our passive bodies as props for your agenda. (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I am a sex worker who was coerced into doing work I felt violated by, and I am horrified by SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists) who insist that all sex work is by nature coerced and non-consensual.

Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing rise in anti-sex work rhetoric that rests on the premise that all sex work is coerced. The proponents of this claim argue that because the workers may need the money and thus feel unable to turn down a proposition they are uncomfortable with, sex work encounters are always non-consensual. As far as they are concerned, if money is involved, sex can never be consensual. They claim that by promoting the criminalization of all forms of sex work, they are “protecting” sex workers and engaging in “feminist solidarity” with us.

I’ve already seen a number of brilliant sex workers debunking this argument: by discussing their own consensual sex work experiences, by pointing out that all professions involve money and thus a potential for coercion or abuse of workers, and so on. Tits and Sass contributor Red wrote a particularly interesting piece on her tumblr in which she notes that she finds the term “constrained consent” a far more accurate term than “coerced consent.” All of those points are valid and important, if often ignored by the audience they’re intended for.

But I’ve noticed one perspective missing from the discussion: that of someone who was sometimes unable to consent to sex work, and is harmed by those who would tokenize that experience and devalue the experiences of other sex workers. After seeing my experiences casually commandeered by SWERFs as a talking point, I’ve decided to speak up.