Both sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking organizations have been watching a bill winding its way through Congress for a while. Here at Tits and Sass, we’ve had plenty to say about it. SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, the Senate version of the bill, would have been disastrous enough—it would create a trafficking-related loophole in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law which allows the internet to function by not holding service providers liable for user posting content. In practice, that would outlaw all sex worker advertising sites by opening them up to endless lawsuits, since any of them can be used for trafficking. That would send vulnerable people back into the streets and other dangerous venues and back into the hands of potentially abusive managers. Just think about the economic panic which followed the closures of Craigslist, MyRedBook, TNA, and Backpage’s adult section and multiply it a thousandfold if you want to imagine the impact this could have on the most defenseless members of our community. And as usual, when the sex trade is driven further underground, trafficking victims suffer as everyone around them is criminalized further, and they are further isolated with no one to turn to but their traffickers.
But the version that passed the House by an overwhelming majority last Thursday, FOSTA, the Allow States And Victims To Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, was even worse. It criminalizes “promoting” and “facilitating” prostitution without defining these terms, placing vital sex worker online harm reduction resources which both voluntary and trafficked sex workers rely on at risk, such as the verification sites and bad call lists we use to avoid violent clients. This blog you’re reading now could fall in the crosshairs of this legislation as well, as could other sites of sex worker community, making it much harder for an already closeted and stigmatized group of marginalized people to forge vital social and political connections with each other. FOSTA also includes damaging new additions such as a retiring Republican congressman’s clause expanding the Mann Act. It is a bill that has morphed into something much broader and more hurtful than its cosponsors originally envisioned, with law enforcement, social services, the ACLU, EFF, the National Organization for Women, AIDS United and even anti-trafficking organizations as well as the Department of Justice opposing it. Yet representatives rushed to embrace it in a show of bipartisan cooperation.
It seems likely that the Senate debate and vote on SESTA will take place on Monday, March 12th. If SESTA passes the Senate, the next step would be reconciliation between FOSTA and SESTA into one no doubt catastrophic law. Today and tomorrow, just as sex workers, free speech organizations, and anti-trafficking organizations mobilized against FOSTA in the House, tweet storms and phone/fax/email jams are planned nationally against this Senate vote on SESTA. We urge all our readers to call their Senators and encourage their social networks to do the same. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for more information and a sample call script.
Longtime sex work and trafficking policy researcher and Reframe Health and Justice partner Kate D’Adamo has led the sex worker and trafficking survivor charge against the House and now the Senate vote. Tits and Sass caught up with her last weekend to ask her what every sex worker should know about FOSTA and SESTA.
How did you mobilize action on the House vote so quickly? Are there any other organizations and individuals whose efforts against FOSTA you’d like to highlight?
This is so far from a solo effort! None of this would have been possible without Red from Support Ho(s)e and the group MASWAN doing some of the most fantastic grassroots organizing work. On the national support and lobbying front, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Center for Transgender Equality have truly shown up.
I think things mobilized so quickly because people have been waiting for a moment to plug in. A lot of times sex worker rights, and movement work in general, can feel intangible; SESTA isn’t and its impacts certainly won’t be. Which also points to how long we have been laying the groundwork. When I talk about what would be impacted, it’s because this movement has been doing harm reduction and anti-violence work for years, finding ways to turn online spaces into community and safety. When folks are connecting online and calling their reps and senators, it’s because we can stand on decades of sex workers demanding liberation and justice.
What do you think is the best rhetorical strategy to convince the Senate to vote against SESTA? What can we do in the face of the fact that sex trafficking legislation is almost always such an easy bipartisan win regardless of its damaging impact?
That’s the question I am asking myself every day. The stance I usually take is to meet people at their values. No one wants to make the internet safer and more accountable to people in the sex trade than people in the sex trade. No one wants to end exploitation in the sex trade more than sex workers. There are ways to mitigate harm against people who trade sex, including trafficking victims, and this bill will only increase vulnerability and harm.
But I think it’s also a question of audience. Right now I think the most important message to get out there is that sex workers are not collateral damage—sex workers are a powerful force for change who will gladly clog your phone lines and show up in your offices and demand not to be silenced.
In my view, what we can do is stay vigilant and show up. Often, when I sit down with staffers they are hearing one narrative behind these bills. Even with SESTA, staffers think it’s a fight between big tech and trafficking victims, so the first thing we can do to push back on this bill, and set ourselves up for the next ones, is to show up and demand space.
Is there any way we can rely on the tech sector as an ally after Google and co’s about turn on SESTA some months ago? As FOSTA will curtail internet freedom even more broadly, is there a persuasive argument we can make here for their involvement? What other allies can sex workers and trafficking survivors appeal to as the Senate vote on SESTA approaches?
The tech sector is just as monolithic and singular as “people who trade sex.” For me, it really comes down to the individual groups and which ones commit to shared values. There are some groups I have found to be incredible allies because they recognize that the internet is only as free as it’s users.
When I think about the intersectional approaches in this fight, I always come back to shared values and whose liberation is tied in with sex workers. For every advocacy fight, the allies are going to be vast and diverse, as this is an issue which impacts so many different struggles. In this moment, especially because of the timeline, I’m going to those allies who have been powerful allies thus far—LGBTQ organizations, HIV and health organization, and even supportive anti-trafficking spaces. But I also truly believe that for sex worker rights to evolve, the more bridges we can build, the better.
What legislative strategies have been proposed to fight FOSTA and SESTA, in terms of proposing an amendment or attempting to delay the vote, etc.?
Right now the most important thing is for people to call their senators and tell them to vote no on SESTA, S. 1693. Call the Washington office, call the home office. And if there are organizations you work with, ask them to call and tell these offices that this bill puts people in danger. Service providers make a difference. Senators are voting for this bill because they think the opposition to it is tech firms worried about internet sites that don’t exist. Offices aren’t hearing that people’s safety is at
stake and we shouldn’t assume anyone else is getting that message out.
As to strategy beyond that, I want to move this conversation to a new place. If this is a debate committed to holding websites accountable for things that harm users, sex workers need to be in that conversation—and not just in terms of trafficking. I want there to be options when a website steals your ad, post it on their site, and charge to pull it down. There has to be recourse for companies violating the contracts of performers by selling content to mirror sites. No one should post mug shots after stings. I would really hope that this can become a conversation about privacy and standards and who owns their content; something proactive and long-term and without the collateral damage of SESTA.
Should SESTA pass the Senate, what is the worst case scenario sex workers and trafficking survivors should be prepared for? What can we then do to mitigate the damage?
The thing I always say is that sex work is a commitment to resilience. Sex work is a euphemism for survival. If you are an online worker and you are wholly dependent on one website, diversify. Be prepared for a time where everyone figures out what survival looks like in this landscape. But also trust that this is a community that will figure it out. When Backpage stopped taking credit cards, we organized Bitcoin trainings. When we lost Rentboy, we figured out how to support each other to make ends meet. Sex workers survive.
And I implore folks—these moments always hit the most marginalized first and hardest. The folks with the fewest resources are going to feel any changes the hardest. People recently off the street, trans women who have fewer website options already, undocumented folks or those with records or those on benefits who may not be able to put their government names onto anything. However folks respond, collective resilience has to work for the most precarious.
Tweet against #SESTA using the hashtags #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA, #LetUsSurvive, #StopSESTA, and #SESTA.
Call your Senators and urge them to vote against SESTA. You can use this sample call script:
“Hi, my name is ____________ and I live in ___________ (state). I’m calling to urge Congressperson ____________ to vote NO on SESTA, Senate Bill 1693.
I am a [loved one of a/parent of a/service provider to/an ally of] sex worker[s] and this bill would compromise the lives of people who trade sex, including trafficking victims, by taking away the platforms people are using to stay safe. I am calling to ask you not to put [me/my community/my loved one/my child] in danger of greater violence and victimization. Please vote no on this terribly misguided bill, which is expected to be voted on March 12. Thank you for your time!”