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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.

Who Gets Left Out: The People Who Coined The Term—Addendum to the Respectability Politics Round Table

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Black feminist scholar credited with coining the term "the politics of respectability" (Image courtesy of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research)
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Black feminist scholar credited with coining the term “the politics of respectability” (Photo courtesy of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research)

When we posted the Respectability Politics Round Table, Black beauty blogger and sex worker Peechington Marie immediately spoke up on Tumblr with a well-justified critique: Why, given that the term “respectability politics” itself originated within Black feminist scholarship, did the round table not include any Black sex workers as participants? We apologized for having this kind of Oh Shit Moment and asked Peechington Marie to write a short addendum to the round table elaborating on the history of the concept within the Black community and how respectability politics affect Black sex workers.

We call it “respectability politics,” but when the phrase was first coined in 1994, it was called “The Politics of Respectability” and was used by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham as a chapter title in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. But respectability politics, even before Ms. Higginbotham called them by name, affected every African American person in one way or another, and still affect us today. Try asking a Black friend of yours: “Do you know anyone who goes out in public with curlers in their hair?” and you’ll likely get an earful, maybe about why they absolutely don’t know anyone who would do that (except for their great aunt who always acted like she never had home training anyway).

Being respectable in the early Black community meant behaving in a way that would not embarrass yourself or other Black people. For example, The Baptist Women’s Convention used to visit poor Black folks, giving them pamphlets with titles like “How To Dress” and “Take A Bath First.” This was done to educate working class people on what were both the accepted and acceptable social norms established by wealthier Black communities. No one wanted their cousin LeRoy or his wife to show up to a church function improperly dressed or without their manners, and so the politics of respectability were born.

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?

The Week in Links: March 4

Studies are being conducted to evaluate whether some lubes might increase risk of HIV transmission.

Louisiana currently requires citizens convicted of having oral or anal sex in exchange for money register as sex offenders. But the law is now being challenged. (Deon Haywood, who is quoted in the linked article, spoke on this very same issue at last year’s Desiree Alliance conference.)

A baby was born in a strip club parking lot. Nice try, baby, but if you want to be a true badass, you’d have been born on the strip club stage.

On health & safety regulators and the porn industry.

Indianapolis man sues for damages after being hit by flying stripper shoe (definitely watch the video, which includes vaguely douchey footage of the plaintiff, a visit to a stripperwear store to look at shoes, and a comparison to the President Bush shoe-throwing incident)

Missouri strip clubs are finding ways around a recently passed law that attempted to ban nude dancing.

The Giggles Comedy Club turned Jiggles strip club owner is still fighting the city of Seattle.