As yet another terrifying resurrection of the zombie Republican health care cut bill looms over the nation, sex workers have their own nightmare legislative threat to deal with this month. That’s because, in the midst of this year’s iteration of commemorative 9/11 pomp, two anti-trafficking bills passed unanimously in the Senate which would vastly expand federal power to criminalize and harm sex workers.
The Trafficking Prevention Act (TVPA) of 2017, introduced by Republican Chuck Grassley but immediately garnering the bipartisan support anti-trafficking bills always accrue, is an expansion of a 2000 law. This 2017 version of already odious legislation makes the phrase “broad overreach” a piddling understatement. It begins with an amendment named for Frederick Douglass, referencing the historical Black suffering of slavery in legislation which would actively harm Black sex workers in an act of supremely tone-deaf appropriation, and goes downhill from there.
The TVPA allows attorney generals to file civil suits against people committing or even planning to commit violations of many trafficking and sex work-related federal statutes, such as
- violating the Mann act, a hundred year plus old piece of legislation with a notoriously racist history forbidding the transportation of people for sex work purposes across state lines
- using “misleading” domain names, words, or images leading someone to view “obscenity”
- harboring an undocumented immigrant in a place of “prostitution” or “any other immoral purpose” without reporting it in a written statement to the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization
If the court rules in favor of the attorney general in these civil suits, the feds can then shut down businesses, sites, apps, search engines, and encryption services which could be used to communicate for the purposes of these violations. These past years have brought a series of economic panics for sex worker communities as our advertising sites were busted or pressured to shut down. To have these shutdowns enshrined into federal law can only make our situation more dire.
The bill goes on to bring anti-trafficking organization influence into training for federal law enforcement, with references to “ending demand,” a model which has endangered sex workers globally by driving them further underground through increasing client arrests. It also sets up an Office of Victim Assistance within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—because being criminalized wasn’t bad enough without including ICE and its paramilitary xenophobia in the arrest of sex workers and their clients.
The other bill, the Abolish Human Trafficking Act, also furthers funding for anti-trafficking training of federal officers by “victim services agencies.” This curriculum will no doubt include the reactionary generalization that all sex work is trafficking as well as the anti-trafficking movement’s coercive understanding of “rescue.”
Reason, the only news outlet to report on the progress of both pieces of legislation so far, misstated the latter bill’s breadth slightly in its piece on the topic this week. The AHTA would forbid federal funding for “any organization that (1) has the primary purpose of providing adult entertainment; and (2) derives profits from the commercial sex trade.” That does not mean that “no one who gets federal grant money—to help human trafficking victims or anything else—can knowingly work with any sex workers or any nonprofits that offer support to sex workers.” Sex worker rights organizations and their non-profit allies will not be stripped of all federal funding in a reversion to the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath, since these organizations cannot be interpreted as existing primarily for “the purpose of providing adult entertainment.”
But even without that worry, this legislation is certainly ominous enough.
In the meantime, the hopeful spirit of bipartisan support is also heating up for SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, which would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to exclude minor sex trafficking.
If you think you’ve heard of that subclause before, it’s because Section 230 is the only thing which still allows sex workers to use any advertising platforms at all—or indeed, because it’s what allows the internet to function in the United States.
That section protects sites from liability for the crimes of third-party posters. If any site in which minor sex trafficking were ever advertised or could be advertised were suddenly liable for it, not only would we lose the sex work ad posting sites we retain, but not even Facebook or Google would be safe. People trawl for sex over any and all social media platforms, after all. And remember, if this bill were to pass, no actual child trafficking victim need be involved in order for these sites to be prosecuted or sued. State and federal officers consistently make child trafficking arrests in stings in which undercover officers pose as minors.
However, at least in SESTA’s case, the bill is opposed by First Amendment rights activists in a bid against censorship and Silicon Valley in a bid for its own self-interest. The chilling effect the law would have on the Internet is obvious, and thus debate on the bill is actually being covered and lobbying power is actually being utilized against it. The first two pieces of legislation which passed the Senate will only harm sex workers and their clients, so let’s not hold our breath hoping for vocal opposition from our allies.