Politics

Home Politics

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.

A Sex Worker’s Open Letter to the Australian Media

Victorian sex workers at a December 17th event (photo courtesy of Jane Green)
Participants at the Red Umbrella Rally, Festival of Sex Work, Melbourne 2013 (photo courtesy of the Scarlet Alliance Archives)

After the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial promoting the Swedish model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients, exploiting the murder of Australian street sex worker Tracy Connelly to further an anti-sex worker agenda, many sex workers responded to the piece by writing to the news outlets that printed or re-printed it. Jane Green wrote a version of the editorial that appears below and sent it to both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. The Sydney Morning Herald didn’t respond or return phone calls. The Age did, eventually, but after two and a half weeks of discussions decided against running an edited version, indicating they’d provide better access to sex workers “next time.” We at Tits and Sass thank Jane for allowing us to post the what other outlets declined to publish.

As a Victorian sex worker, I looked on in horror at the article seeking to exploit the death of sex worker Tracy Connelly, published in the Sydney Morning Herald days before the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

It is horrifying and traumatizing to the sex worker community to have an article proposing the Nordic Model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients—proven to have devastating effects on sex workers’ health and safety—released on a day used to protest violence against sex workers. Horrifying, but not surprising.

Looking back on the month of sex worker Tracy Connelly’s death, July 2013, which encompassed four high profile sex worker deaths internationally, I am struck not just by the tone of the writing, but by what it highlights to me as a sex worker regarding what the media are willing to, or interested in, discussing. It tells me what is newsworthy about our lives.

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.

Holy Shit: Adventures In Survival Sex Work And Stimulus Checks

(Image by Jared Rodriguez)

by Jackie and Alex

Jackie’s story, like that of so many, begins with domestic violence, violence she weathers with the help of her sex work. Her son’s father continuously uses abusive financial tactics, severing any ability she’s ever had to gain ground in her life. Her ten-year-long saga has kept her working under the table, which in turn has constantly disqualified her from government perks, benefits, and safety nets, most recently The 2020 Economic Impact Payments, aka the stimulus checks.

In California Family Law, child support is often awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, and Jackie’s ex demanded an amount that he knew she could not pay. As a young mother with no representation, she had no ability to fight back, and thus began her downward spiral out of mainstream existence. She tried to make her child support payments, but she was caring for her son almost half the week, working, and going to school. Then came garnished wages. She couldn’t afford to live, so she moved her job underground.

She’s not alone; low-income sex workers have complicated financial lives. We often arrive at sex work in the first place because the gray or black markets were our only options. We wake up every day with debt collectors, past convictions, or neglected forms hanging over our heads, but it’s impossible to coherently state exactly how we ended up here. Our individual stories become so dizzying that we had to focus this article on Jackie to keep it digestible; our lives are filled with the type of bureaucratic adventures that enrage and derail us while boring readers.

Sometimes, our entire households or extended families have stories too complicated to relate, even if it all began with a single misstep. For Ana, a young Chicana woman with disabled migrant parents who don’t speak English, the bureaucratic nightmares target multiple generations. She thinks the trouble started with a car accident years ago. Nobody in her house is getting a stimulus check. She says: “It’s not helpful. We used to collect recycling, but we aren’t supposed to anymore. I’d get a panic attack explaining this all to you and it still wouldn’t make sense.”

In Jackie’s situation, her driver’s license was suspended after continued non-payment, further affecting her ability to work and care for her child. Of course, with no license, you cannot insure your vehicle; with no insurance, it’s impossible to register your car. A client added her to his insurance for one month and paid for the registration, which of course expired when the DMV received notice that the insurance was canceled. She had to hope that the tags were enough and that the cops wouldn’t scan her plate. Eventually, she was pulled over.

No credit, no license, no insurance, no registration—the court doesn’t care that it’s nearly impossible to find work under those conditions. Just pay the child support!

Many sex workers face similar spirals, where one situation becomes a multi-year financial disaster. This precludes us from living normal lives while compounding our other vulnerabilities. For example, the stimulus checks are sent out based either on recent tax reports or on receiving specific government benefits such as SSI (Supplemental Security Income), unless you actively choose the option meant for non-tax filers who make under $12,200 a year. Sex worker media written from the perspective of more privileged workers makes it seem so simple for us to pay our taxes! But it should be no surprise that structurally oppressed people, including the multiply marginalized in our community such as transgender and Black sex workers, often can’t or don’t prioritize organizing our financial lives in socially acceptable ways.