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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.

Big Mother Is Watching You: Hollywood Edition

For her third installment of Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D goes to Hollywood to check out do-gooder celebrities and the whorephobic campaigns they run.

Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan

Susan Sarandon flexes her activist muscle at the Witness Focus for Change Benefit in 2009 (Photo by Kate Glicksberg, via Witness Flickr account)
Susan Sarandon flexes her activist muscle at the Witness Focus for Change Benefit in 2009 (Photo by Kate Glicksberg, via Witness Flickr account)
Meg Ryan doing a TED talk in 2010. (Photo by Flickr user redmaxwell)
Meg Ryan doing a TED talk in 2010. (Photo by Flickr user redmaxwell)

Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan were key players in NGO fraud Somaly Mam’s ascendence in Hollywood. Mam is the celebrity activist exposed by Newsweek in 2014, after a slew of articles about her fabrications appeared in The Cambodia Daily in 2012 and 2013. She ran a re-education camp filled through brothel raids and therefore populated by local sex workers held against their will and others deemed to be “at risk” through Mam’s organization AFESIP (Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situations Precaires). Both populations were instructed on at least several occasions to lie about their stories and concoct trafficking tragedy porn to relate to visitors and journalists.

“I have been personally inspired by the work of Somaly Mam and I encourage anyone who can devote time and money to help Mam continue to make a difference in this world,” Sarandon stated on the Somaly Mam Foundation website. Ryan appears in Nicholas Kristof’s documentary Half the Sky, which lauded Mam’s organizations for their work. Both Sarandon and Ryan were photographed multiple times with Mam at various Hollywood events and fundraisers.

Sarandon seems to have missed the point of the May 2014 expose of Mam in Newsweek, saying that she continues to believe Mam’s story regardless. Mam’s victims, though, apparently aren’t worth her consideration. Sarandon has made no public statement on the testimony of the women now saying that Mam coached them to lie and fabricate horror stories about being trafficked, including Srey Mao and Meas Ratha; nor on the medical records on purported Mam trafficking victim Long Pros’ eye, proving that her eye was removed in surgery for a tumor and not by an imaginary pimp gouging it out; nor the untold many sex workers who have been and continue to be imprisoned in “rehabilitation centers,” including AFESIP’s center.

Big Mother Is Watching You: The Polaris Project & Rhode Island

For her fourth installment of Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D. takes a look at the major advocates of the 2009 re-criminalization of indoor sex work in Rhode Island, where it had previously been protected by a legislative loophole. She also outlines heavyweight anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project’s major past and current staff members. 

Katherine Chon, Polaris Project President and Co-founder

Katherine Chon. (Photo via Katherine Chon's Linkedin account)
Katherine Chon. (Photo via Katherine Chon’s Linkedin account)

Katherine Chon co-founded Polaris Project with fellow Brown University graduate Derek Ellerman immediately upon their graduation from the Ivy League school in 2002. While sex worker rights organizations operate on shoestring budgets, Polaris operates on about $4 million dollars a year. Chon had read an article about sex trafficking in Korean spas in her home state of Rhode Island and decided that Something Needed to be Done. So, she filed a pro-criminalization memo with the Rhode Island state legislature and launched her NGO. You might remember that at the time, indoor prostitution was not illegal in Rhode Island, and that it was re-criminalized in 2009: “Rhode Island’s lax approach towards the sex industry in recent years has made the overall situation worse,” Chon wrote then, in a blog post entitled “One of the Terrible Two.” The other  of the “terrible two” she is referring to is Nevada.

Anti-trafficking advocates often claim that they don’t support criminalizing sex workers, just the people around sex workers. But when the rubber meets the road, their actions put the lie to these claims. Rhode Island is a clear example. Chon and her Polaris Project were up in arms about indoor prostitution being legal in Rhode Island, claiming it tied law enforcement’s hands too much. If we can’t arrest and deport sex workers and trafficking victims, they argued, how will we compel victims to testify against their abusers? Sex workers’ lives are destroyed through open criminal records and deportation. So, some of us believe law enforcement’s hands should be tied a little more when it comes to their treatment of sex workers and trafficking victims. Professor Ann Jordan or American University wrote, in a memo to the Rhode Island Senate,

Through extensive experience with trafficking cases, [Director of the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Section of the Civil Rights Division, Robert] Moossy has learned that women who are trafficked into prostitution are typically afraid of law enforcement because they fear being prosecuted for prostitution and deported and because they often are highly traumatized. Thus, mass arrests of women for prostitution are extremely unlikely to lead to the identification of trafficked women. Instead, Moossy advises patience, intensive and extensive covert investigations and working with non-governmental organizations that are likely to come across trafficking victims. Law enforcement must assure these organizations that they are only interested in going after traffickers, not their victims, in order ultimately to have the successful prosecution of traffickers. The bill [to recriminalize indoor prostitution in Rhode Island] clearly attempts to use threat of prosecution for prostitution as a blunt instrument to convince women to testify against traffickers. It is extremely disturbing to learn that there is some support for the proposed law because it would allow the police to detain women (apparently for their ‘own good’) so that they can be interviewed as possible trafficking victims.

[…]

Women in prostitution need nonjudgmental support and assistance, not arrest, detention and prosecution.

There are many reasons the Rhode Island recriminalization bill could never have and did not help victims of trafficking, as the Sex Workers Project elaborates on in its memos and releases relating to the legislation. But why did Chon and her allies consider everyone else in the sex trade expendable in the first place?

Chon also participates in whipping up false sporting event-related anti-trafficking hysteria.

“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.