Last week, Congress passed SESTA-FOSTA. During floor debates on the bill, meant to curb sex trafficking, Senator Richard Blumenthal waved the picture of a woman killed by someone who found her ad on Backpage and said, “her voice could not be heard, but her mother came to our committee … her story helped us achieve unanimous approval [in committee.]”
There’s a cruel irony to his statement. Saving shivering girls from big scary men online is well-intentioned but misguided. Ultimately, Blumenthal and SESTA supporters shut out the very people they’re claiming to save: sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking.
The Democratic Senator from Connecticut couldn’t even be bothered to find a living survivor and listen to what their needs are. There are plenty of sex worker and trafficking survivor advocates, lawmakers just don’t want to find them. Even when they’re ruling on sex work, nobody wants to listen to a sex worker.
“They don’t want to give us the autonomy to say ‘yes I’m a victim’ or ‘no I’m not.’ ‘This is my body, I choose to work’ or ‘no I don’t want to work, I need help to get me out,” says Kristen DiAngelo, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP), Sacramento. “Nobody listens, they just want to talk for us. We are truly missing in the conversation.” And have been for most of her career.
DiAngelo and other sex worker advocates say SESTA-FOSTA will not stop trafficking. Instead, it will make sex work unrelated to trafficking more dangerous. It pushes sex workers back onto the street. It makes them less safe.
“Compromising the ability to work online means compromising the ability to work in safer spaces,” sex workers’ rights advocate and organizer Kate D’Adamo says.
Overall, the internet has made sex work far safer. Through online communities, sex workers can share referrals and warn their peers to avoid dangerous clients. Sex workers can tap into global networks to find resources for housing and legal aid.
DiAngelo recalls when the FBI shut down the San Francisco Redbook, a free posting venue like Craigslist, the result was disastrous. When they took it down, they removed 15 years of documentation of dangerous clients to avoid. Soon after, she was on a national call with other advocates and heard from numerous women about their fears. When the site was shut down, sex workers were forced back onto the street. Women who had to jump out of moving cars to escape dangerous clients they weren’t able to screen online.
“What we heard was pure fear, terror and grieving,” she says.
“We thought, ‘oh god, this is going to be a bloodbath.’” And she wasn’t wrong. After Redbook closed, DiAngelo and SWOP discovered the number of sex workers on a particular street had increased by 18 percent. The number of workers who were sexually assaulted on that street also increased by 50 percent.
Many supporters of the bill, like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, argue that they support sex workers, just not the buying of sex. DiAngelo calls bullshit. “What kind of business model is that?” she asks. “If you support the right to work, you have [her emphasis] to support the right to have a client.” You have to support their right to an income. To good clients. The unspoken argument is that supporters of the bill don’t believe sex workers have a right to clients they choose, because they believe sex workers are morally reprehensible.
The bill is aimed at victims of trafficking but it’s unlikely to provide any real help. D’Adamo and DiAngelo say trafficking survivors need long-term economic support, community and legal aid. Legal aid is especially important. Traffickers often exploit vulnerabilities like immigration status. Shutting down access to resources does nothing but push these survivors to the margins and too often, back into the sex work they never wanted to do in the first place.
“It’s going to shut down and isolate the sex trade, not end it,” says D’Adamo.
The bill was only passed six days ago but in that time, numerous sites have kicked off sex workers. Craigslist shut down its personal section, Reddit shut down several subreddits like r/SugarDaddy and r/Escorts, and Backpage removed its adult sections. “Platforms are closing at a rate that I’ve never seen before in almost ten years of organizing,” says D’Adamo. “People are really afraid right now.”
She and a few other organizers are collecting and updating tips for workers on how to continue their work safely, called Survivors Against SESTA. “A lot of people are feeling very scared and very dehumanized right now, so they don’t care about their safety and their lives,” she says.
Back in January, celebrities including Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers released a PSA saying “I am Jane Doe,” in reference to survivors. But they’re not Jane Doe. Jane Doe is the sex worker that was just kicked back onto the street. It’s time to listen to her.