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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.

“Dragged Off By The Hair”: An Indian Sex Worker Recalls a Raid

VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)
VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

Sitting in a warm room in Phnom Penh with several other women from the Asia Pacific region, Kamalabai Pani, a sex worker and a board member of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) in India, became visibly upset when discussion turned to the efforts of U.S.-led feminist groups to discredit several United Nations bodies’ recommendations to decriminalize sex work in support of HIV prevention. These recommendations have been welcomed by sex worker-led groups as they believe criminalization endangers not only condom use but their very livelihoods.

In their writings and speeches, Western feminist groups have used the tactic of labeling sex worker collectives—essentially a form of trade union—as “promoters of prostitution” and “traffickers.” This lack of logic infuriates sex worker union advocates and the impact on sex workers’ lives is far more severe.

A warm woman with a demeanor of quiet strength, Pani spoke with anger recalling the raid on the VAMP community on May 20th, 2005. “These guys came to our brothel area and gave out contraceptives and sweets. Then they asked us details about the girls, how much they studied and things like that. The next day, a Friday, then came the police. There were about 40 people in plain clothes, 20-30 police in six vehicles that came to the red light area of Gokulnagar. They blocked off about five lanes and the houses. They did not ask us anything, they just came in.”

Cyntoia Brown and the Commodification of the Good Victim

Cyntoia Brown graduated Lipscomb University with an associate’s degree in prison. (Photo via Fox 17 Nashville/WZTV)

Imagine at the age of 16 being sex trafficked by a pimp named “cut-throat.” After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men, you were purchased by a 43-year-old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him. You arrested [sic] as result tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

So reads the text in an image Rihanna reposted on Instagram, referring to trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown. Judging by the swirl of news media coverage recently about the case, you would think it had just happened within the past few months. But actually, the shooting death of the Nashville man took place in 2004 and Brown has been in prison for it for more than a decade. A documentary about her plight came out in 2011 and reached an international audience; a local paper, The Tennessean, has been running in-depth coverage about Brown’s case since last year; and Tennessee lawmaker Gerald McCormick was inspired to co-sponsor a bill in the Tennessee legislature in February offering parole to people with lengthy sentences who were convicted in their teens because of Brown’s story. This begs a couple of questions: firstly, why are we just hearing about this case more than a decade later? Secondly, why have anti-trafficking abolitionists stayed so quiet about this?

The answer to the second question, and perhaps the first one, is because Brown does not fit the profile of a “good victim.” Victimhood is a commodity in the anti-trafficking rescue industry. It is used, exploited, and manipulated as a means for supposed  “nonprofit” organizations to acquire more funding and political power, wealthier donors, and increased media coverage. Nonprofits tokenize survivors by having us speak for their fancy fundraisers, they use our stories for their newsletters, and they tote us around like little anti-trafficking freak show exhibits.  

It Happened To Me: I Read And Believed Nick Kristof

War_on_the_White_Slave_Trade_01Despite ample warnings about the prevalence of con men seeking to prey on easily malleable puppets like me, it is indeed a sad truth that I almost became the victim of a murky, seedy, dark, sex trafficking ring operated by equally murky, seedy, dark (-skinned) men. Eww! As we all know, prostitution—er, sex trafficking?— is never a victimless crime. Physical violence against prostituted women is underreported, which can only be true because…feminism! Indeed, all fact-based evidence to the contrary should be deeply scrutinized using right-wing silencing tactics and progressive rhetoric, ie: “You can’t possibly speak to your own experiences because your experiences perpetuate violence against women.” Furthermore, prostitution and sex trafficking are synonyms because if you disagree with that statement, you’re a pedophile! So, if you want to end modern day slavery worldwide, don’t talk about structural constraints like poverty or growing discrepancies in wealth. Instead, let the logical fallacy of “appealing to emotion” be your guide and, please, listen to my super sad story.

As a woman who dabbles in psychotropic drugs like cannabis and occasionally listens to rap music—both of which, mind you, glamorize “The Game”—I should have taken heed of cultural mouthpieces’ contentions that even consensual sex for girls like me is not consensual at all. That’s why academics, the state, and philanthropists must define consent for me. Of course, being the rebel that I am, I ignored all this socially inflicted self-doubt and left the house alone, anyway. Full disclosure: I was wearing a short skirt and was slightly tipsy off a glass of wine, so I alone am responsible for any and all violence encountered. But since I clearly suffer from false consciousness—I would have worn pants, after all, had I not suffered this insufferable condition—I am certainly incapable of being held accountable for any of my actions, ever.