On Wednesday, President Trump signed House Resolution 1865, commonly known under the acronym FOSTA, or Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. The bill makes websites liable for what users say and do on their platforms, and gives federal and state prosecutors and attorney generals greater power to prosecute, in criminal and civil court, sites they believe are hosting sex trafficking ads.
On Friday, before the bill had gone into effect, Representative Mimi Walters tweeted that, “Thanks to #FOSTA with my #SESTA Amendment the Department of Justice has seized backpage.com and affiliated websites that have knowingly facilitated the sale of underage minors for commercial sex.”
Counter to this claim, however, is the indictment that shows Backpage owners and staff have not been charged with trafficking, but rather with money laundering, and violation of the Travel Act for facilitating prostitution.
For many advocates, the distinction between trafficking and consensual sex work is conflated in this bill, creating dangerous situations for those engaged in sexual labor. By taking away relatively affordable advertising platforms for the sex trade that allow participants the time and agency to vet clients, the bill may, in fact, force sex workers to solicit unvetted clients on the streets and rely on pimps for safety. It also provides no recourse from harassment and abuse by police, a common problem.
Melissa Sontag Broudo, the co-executive director of the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights Institute, explained the distinction between consensual sex work and human trafficking to Refinery29 saying, “Sex work is a broad umbrella term that encompasses all forms of sexual labor including prostitution, as well as many legal forms of erotic work such as stripping, porn, and fetish work. All forms of sexual labor can be performed consensually. Many choose this line of work, sometimes out of set of life circumstances that make it the best option, but also of their own free will.”
Broudo continues“Trafficking is defined as force, fraud, or coercion, which may include some level of physical, emotional, or sexual violence and manipulation that does not allow for free will, or individuals under the age of 18 who are induced into prostitution. People can be forced into sex work, but not all sex work is forced.”
This distinction is an important one, not just for the understanding the dangers FOSTA poses to sex workers, but also the ways in which it could undermine essential internet freedoms. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act currently prevents web platforms for being held liable for their users’ speech. Platforms that could be at risk for censorship include social media sites, review sites, and discussion boards.
In the meantime, many advocates acknowledge that the legislators who passed the bill and celebrities who have endorsed it are well intentioned but have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nuances surrounding the issue.
“We have to see sex workers’ rights and the rights of survivors of trafficking as a joint cause,” says Broudo. “Sex workers want to combat trafficking and end exploitation more than anyone, but the pragmatic result will be to harm the livelihoods of sex workers and force people in sexual labor into more coercive and dangerous situations”