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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.

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.

It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest? 

Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.

Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved. 

More Than Silence: Tjhisha Ball, Angelia Mangum, and the Erasure of Black Sex Workers

Angelia and Tjhisha
The fundraising page for the funeral expenses of Angelia Magnum and Tjhisha Ball; two slain strippers from Jacksonsville.

Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum: Two names you should know but probably don’t. Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum were 19 and 18 years old, respectively, two young women who were brutally murdered on September 18th. Their bodies were found in Duval County, Florida, reportedly thrown off an overpass, by passerby in the wee hours of the morning. Little has been said about the murder of both of these young women, and what has been said either glosses over or luridly magnifies one very important factor in this case: Tjhisha and Angelia worked as exotic dancers.

Over at PostRacialComments on Tumblr, the blog not only redacted the information about Mangum and Ball working as dancers, but proceeded to break down for readers questioning its motives why they would not include, comment, or discuss the girls’ work or the criminalization of the girls by the few media outlets to highlight the story of their murder.

In “Black Girls Murdered (But Do YOU Care)” from Ebony Magazine, Senior Digital Editor Jamilah Lemieux says, “Someone(s) apparently murdered two women and left their bodies on the side of the road for the world to see. We shouldn’t need for them to have been “good girls”—or White girls, or, perhaps good White girls—for this to be cause for national concern. There is a killer, or killers, on the loose.”

 

In “Rest in Peace: Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” from GradientLair, owner, activist, and blogger Trudy writes, “As I’ve stated before, Black criminals are treated like monsters. Black victims are treated like criminals. This further complicates, in addition to the dehumanization and criminalization of Black bodies, because they are Black women. Black women regularly go missing and at times are killed; our stories are underreported or shaped as “criminal” even when we are victims.”

While both pieces were necessary and both began to address the case of Tjhisha and Angelia’s murders, they are certainly the anomaly in terms of the majority of the coverage. Even in the case of “Black Girls Murdered,” a mostly positive portrayal, I thought to myself, “Why are we not acknowledging their work? Why are we pretending their work doesn’t matter? Why is their work becoming the elephant in the room?” I walked away from most articles I read feeling both shameful and shamed, as if they were written to say, “News reports say they were exotic dancers, quick, let’s fight to erase that so the girls can appear deserving of our sorrow and rage.”

At Salon, writer Ian Blair penned “Grisly Murder Ignored: How We Failed Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” and went so far as to completely erase input given on this case by sex workers. Not only did Blair not reach out to any sex workers, he neglected to quote any of a wide pool of us who have been posting regularly about these girls for nearly a week straight. Blair’s piece barely nods to and briefly namechecks “the sex work activist community,” with no mention of the YouCaring fundraiser Melissandre (@MeliMachiavelli) and I set up to fund the victims’ funerals. The piece reads as if Blair simply copied and pasted information he read online and didn’t bother to interview a single person for his article. There is no acknowledgement that much of his information came directly from current and former sex workers on Twitter. Salon’s writer fails to point out that neither Ball or Mangum’s families have enough money to bury the girls and the YouCaring fundraiser exists solely to help them with this endeavor. Blair prattles on, without much reference to Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum themselves (the subjects of said “failure” on “our” collective part), instead devoting most of his column space to regurgitating words of well known and more respected Black people; quoting Ta-nehisi Coates at length; discussing Ferguson; Mike Brown; #IfTheyGunnedMeDown; Daniel Holtzclaw; Marlene Pinnock, and seemingly anything other than what the Salon write-up ostensibly set out to address: two beautiful young women who were brutally murdered and who also happened to work as strippers. This offering from Blair also casually ignores the reports that each of Daniel Holtzclaw’s alleged victims, save the last woman he is accused of having victimized, were also either sex workers, drug users, or both.


In fact, in the cases of Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum, as in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw and his alleged victims, the idea of sex work as an important factor in the crime continues to be obscured by other supposedly more important issues, watered down to nothing in order to be considered palatable to sensitive audiences. The few conversations I’ve seen on Twitter, Tumblr, and the occasional news articles and blogs focus only on the collective (non)reactions of people when a Black woman is the victim of violent crime. I do not want to take anything away from that analysis. I know it’s absolutely true: Black women are the least and the last in line for anger, rage, justice, pity, sympathy, and empathy.

@PhilOfDreams said it wonderfully on his Twitter feed:

“murder of a white woman: there must be an investigation.
murder of a black woman: there must be an explanation.”

Black women are upset, we are incredibly sad, we are begging to be cared for, and we have a right to feel this way. We are completely correct in our steadfast refusal to simply disappear into the ether when we are violated, when our lives are snuffed out. We are justified in our anguish and in our anger. We are righteous in this, and I am not here to take away from it. I am here standing with my sisters and speaking out too. We are the most spotless of lambs, sinless in our desire to simply be seen as just as important as anyone else. But, what I am also here to say is this: in the midst of the tangible and thickening silence from what could arguably be called one of the most vocal corners of twitter, Black Feminist Twitter, and even Feminist Twitter as a whole; in the midst of the silence from virtually everyone and everywhere: where is the outrage for two teenage girls who were brutally murdered? Is the outrage lacking because of their race? Definitely. Is it non-existent because of their reported interactions with law enforcement? Absolutely. But it is also lacking because they were reported as working as exotic dancers. This cannot be denied. It is unfair and unethical to say anything different.

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 1

Upon the publication of her book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets and the Rescue Industryanthropologist Laura Agustín became a hero to many sex worker activists. Her research cuts through the usual moral hysteria and emotionality invoked by the idea of trafficking to radically revise discussions about migration and sexual labor. Both her blog (linked above) and her book contain rational assessments of an unfair world in which people exercise choice even when they have limited options; where citizens of developing countries, like citizens of developed countries, have an urge to see more of the world; and where a single story cannot usefully articulate the experience of multiple, diverse human beings. When it comes to her approach, she explains, “I am disposed to accept what people tell me, and believe in their ability to interpret their own lives.” She kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about the current state of trafficking laws, what she calls the Rescue Industry, and public (mis)conceptions.

How did you first become interested in the sex industry?

My interest was in the experiences of friends and colleagues in Latin America who wanted to work in Europe. Travelling outside the formal economy meant having very limited choices, and, for women, selling sex and working as live-in maids were practically the only choices. People I knew conversed in a normal way about how to get to Europe and which of the jobs seemed better for them personally. I saw how certain outsiders were focussing on something they called prostitution, but I didn’t understand their anxiety about it. My original question wasn’t about migrants at all but about these people, who wanted to stop others from travelling and stop them from taking jobs they were willing to accept – all in the name of saving them. During my studies I decided that thinking in terms of commercial sex and the sex industry were one way to resist this Rescue ideology.