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.
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.
The stated legislative objectives of the prostitution laws that the Canadian Supreme Court recently struck down in Bedford v. Canada were the prevention of public nuisances and the exploitation of prostitutes. However, upon closer examination of the history of these laws, their real objectives become transparent. Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were really there to protect society’s whiteness/maleness. As such, these laws were disproportionately applied to racialized and indigenized bodies. Thus, to understand what the Bedford decision means for Indigenous sex workers is to understand the essence of colonialism and the history of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.
On December 20, 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court found the following laws relating to prostitution unconstitutional:
the bawdy house offense, (which prohibits keeping and being an inmate of or found in a bawdy house);
the living on the avails offense (which prohibits living in whole or in part on the earnings of prostitutes); and
the communicating offense (which prohibits communicating in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute). 1
Black Marxist scholar Frantz Fanon best defines colonialism in his seminal work Wretched of the Earth. Fanon writes that “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two” and that colonialism “is the entire conquest of land and people.” In other words, colonialism is the complete domination and exploitation of Indigenous lands, bodies and identities (and not the fun kind of domination). When colonialism is incorporated into this discussion, the racial undertones within the laws, their application, and objectives are revealed.
The fact that porn workers have always been popular scapegoats for the broadest strokes of politics and media is hardly news for those who work in the sex industry. There are myths claiming pornography leads to violence and there is the historical fact that porn workers have protected our civil rights. Protecting our First Amendment rights is just scratching the surface of sex workers’ contributions to labor and women’s rights movements, among others, since antiquity. Although more is at stake for sex workers than free speech, the passage of FOSTA and SESTA will not only affect us but civilians too, especially in light of the repeal of net neutrality. In a titillating cross-section of lawmaking and scandal, we have on one side Stormy Daniels suing 45 for unlawful payoffs and calling him to account publicly for his associates’ threats against her, and on the other side, legislation that has already silenced common sex workers, with the overlaying intersections of race and class; good whores and bad whores; victims and perpetrators; and misinformation all around.
You might see liberal celebrities championing Daniels, but you won’t see them championing sex workers’ rights.
The Seattle City Council’s unanimous vote to change the legal terminology for buying sexual services from “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation” is an example of the limits of the city’s politically progressive character. Seattle’s progressive leaders think it’s their mission to perpetuate the idea that sex workers are victims who need rescuing and eradicate the adult entertainment industry to stop violence against women.
There have been a shocking number of bills introduced in the Washington state legislature this session regarding sex work and human trafficking. The language in these bills synonymizes consensual adult sex work with trafficking, coloring all sex workers as victims and all sex work as victimization. Senate Bill 5041 goes so far as to say that prostitution is “modern day slavery.” The bills embrace the increasingly popular “End Demand” model and suggest such measures as giving local law enforcement the authority to seize clients’ assets if they are used in the crime of buying sex (e.g., confiscating their vehicles if they negotiate with street workers from them), increasing the penalty of soliciting a prostitute from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, and amending the state’s definition of human trafficking to include forced labor by “abuse of power, or abuse of position or vulnerability.” This vague language conflates sex work with trafficking and the bills as written would erase any remaining legal concept of sex workers’ individual agency.
These bills are a reaction to the trafficking hysteria pervading the country and Seattle in particular. Anti-trafficking groups in the area are more active than ever, hosting panel discussions and other public events, spreading misleading statistics and creating moral panic in concerned citizens. These groups fail to recognize that their efforts directly endanger consensual adult sex workers. They cannot conceive of anybody willingly choosing to do sex work.