In 2017, The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act was introduced by Republican senator Rob Portman. More commonly known as SESTA, the law would assist attorneys looking to sue websites that provide a platform for sex trafficking; a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through means of force, fraud, or coercion. Countries have been working relentlessly to put a stop to human trafficking, and when SESTA was presented, it seemed as if the only way to protect victims. According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 4.8 million people are forced into sex trafficking globally. Although the SESTA bill was supposed to aid in ending sex trafficking, it has received criticism from sex workers like Sarah for having an underlying agenda. I interviewed Sarah regarding SESTA, she says that “SESTA is taking away vital pieces of advertising and communication. “High end” workers with huge fan bases and websites will probably be fine but “low end” workers like I once was will be forced outdoors, or to accept clients who won’t screen.” Sarah went viral this past month regarding the bill and its impact Backpage, which was seized by the government last month. SESTA is partnered with a number of bills regarding online trafficking including FOSTA (the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act). This bill officially holds sites like Backpage responsible for posting ads for prostitution — including consensual sex work — on their platforms.
‘Sex work’ is an umbrella term that applies to a range of services in the sex industry. Sex work is completely consensual but still illegal in many states. SESTA makes sex work and sex trafficking interchangeable which is dangerous. Sex work is consensual while sex working is not. There seems to be a common misconception about sex work. Before, the term was limited to prostitution, escorting and adult filming. In the past 5 years, sex work has gotten a lot more attention. With television shows such as The Girlfriend Experience and YouTubers detailing their sugar baby experiences, sex work has gone mainstream and expanded its reach. Thousands of individuals have started businesses in the sex industry such as distribution and sex education. As more people enter the industry, more discuss the discrimination they face. The taboo of the sex industry has kept venture capitalists from investing in the industry. While advertisement platforms such as Facebook Ads refuse to let sex industry in on promotions. Even Paypal has been criticized for pushing sex workers off the platform. The discrimination that sex workers face isn’t limited to money and advertising. Sex workers have pushed for the decriminalization of sex work. By decriminalizing sex work, victims of harassment and sexual assault can come forward without being arrested. Unfortunately, sex workers won’t see that day due to SESTA.
This year, it seemed as though sex workers wouldn’t be affected by the bill. Why should they be? After all, it is consensual, and none of them are involved in sex trafficking. But after BackPage and Craigslists’ personal ads were shut down, it became obvious that SESTA was in fact anti-sex work legislation. Within a 3 month period, NightShift, CityVibe, and Pounced shut down entirely. Other sites that facilitated safety in sex work like The Erotic Review, VeryfyHim, Hung Angels, YourDominatrix, and Yellow Pages shut down their discussion boards, advertising boards, and community forums. And one of the biggest cam sites, MyFreeCams has been forced to ban ‘cammers’ who discuss anything related to ‘transactions’ on the site.
When the internet emerged in the 80’s, it provided sex workers with a safe space. Sites like Mr. Number were created by sex workers to screen clients by their telephone number. Others like Red Umbrella created a space to host and service clients without having the leave the safety of their homes. Right now, sex work horror stories are flooding social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. People are being kicked out of their homes and losing their main source of income over personal sites being shut down. Mistress Velvet, a Chicago Dominatrix talks about the effect of SESTA in a recent Huffington Post interview. She states “We’re losing access to resources that literally keep us alive.” Thousands of sex workers have flooded to the ‘sex work Twitter’, Switter, to discuss issues, find resources and connect with clients. By cutting off internet sources for sex workers, they may be forced to to find work which will result in their being more susceptible to sex trafficking.
SESTA has officially been passed into law and should concern everyone, not just sex workers. Companies like Skype and Microsoft have also adjusted their terms of service in lieu of the new law. Beginning May 1st, companies like Skype and Microsoft began banning users for ‘offensive language.’ Microsoft defines this language as “the public display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity).” So what happens when you want to have a private chat with your significant other? Since Microsoft updated their terms, a number of companies have chosen and/or forced to comply with what many are calling a basic violation of human rights. For sex workers, it’s another way they’re being forced out of conversations regarding decriminalization.
In recent years, the pro-hoe movement has encouraged women to be sexually liberated by adopting the word “hoe” as their own. The word, like many others, has been redefined in order to empower rather than shame those who live differently. “Hoe” is also a term used to describe sex workers and the life they live. Many sex workers have called the using of these terms ‘appropriation’ due to the recent glamorization of the industry. To many, it seems as if sex work has gone mainstream without mainstream support. Stripper heels, sugar baby aesthetics and ‘findomme’ has allowed those who aren’t primarily affected by laws like SESTA the chance to experience the life from afar.
It is true that sex is a profitable industry but it isn’t what the media portrays it to be. Sex workers risk their lives to take care of themselves and their families. Although SESTA won’t affect sex workers with are fan bases and clients, it will hurt some of the smaller, sex workers who used Backpage regularly. It’s important that as individuals adopt these terms and aesthetics that they learn more about SESTA, FOSTA and anti-sex work legislation. A petition for to repeal the bill was closed due to a lack of signatures this May. Instead, you can visit stopsesta.org to learn and protect sex workers from SESTA.
Written by Taylor Black