On Wednesday, April 11, President Donald Trump signed the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (FOSTA) into law, effective immediately. Although sex trafficking, specifically of underage girls on the internet, is rampant and needs to be stopped, this bill has some negative consequences for sex workers. Sex workers should not have their already dangerous and difficult career made more dangerous under the guise of reducing sex trafficking.
The bill is designed to grant prosecutors on both the state and federal level more power to take on websites that contain sex-trafficking ads and allows lawsuits to be filed against the sites. While on the surface this may seem like a great thing and a proactive step toward ending the sex trafficking trade, many of the websites that are being or will be targeted serve as the only safe source of business and income for many sex workers.
Outrage from the sex worker community has followed the signing of the bill. According to Harvard’s Journal of Law and Technology some sex workers claim that FOSTA “eliminate[s] sex workers’ main way of warning each other about dangerous clients, and will make it impossible for trafficked people to reach out to the public.”
Internet sites have already started shutting down sex-related pages and some will no longer accept sex-related advertising, according to the Washington Post. Even Craigslist shut down their personal ad section, which could possibly be seen as sex-related.
This bill comes just days after the downfall of Backpage.com, a website known for its offering of “adult” or sexual services, many in the form of classified ads. On April 7, the government seized all of Backpage’s websites around the world. The Washington Post reports that seven executives of the site were arrested on 93 counts of facilitating prostitution and laundering tens of millions of dollars, as well as the allegation that teenage girls were trafficked through the site, resulting in the death of some of these girls.
These executives should absolutely be brought to justice for their harmful and unethical practices, that is clear. However, the shutdown of a site such as Backpage creates an even more unsafe world for sex workers who relied on the site in order to screen clients and have a safe way to find business. With this new bill, it is likely that other sites like Backpage that provide sex workers safe ways to find business, will be targeted and possibly shut down. Many current and former sex workers have taken to social media to share their own experiences with Backpage and how it kept them safe. The Cut talked to seven sex workers about the loss of Backpage. “Sex workers have used the internet over the last decade to carve out some independence, safety and community in their work. For many, advertising online is a form of harm reduction — a way to choose how to work and whom to work with,” the article claims.
One former sex worker referenced in the article, only referred to as Sarah, stated, “Backpage helped keep me safe during one of the scariest, most dangerous times of my entire life. Being homeless and under the control of an abusive man who needed an illegal substance to stay semi-functional was scary. Backpage was the best option I had for people who would give me money, so I could stay alive.”
Sex trafficking is a horrible industry, and it is even worse that it is one of the most lucrative industries in the world. According to Equality Now, the sex trafficking industry makes around $99 billion dollars a year, making it clear that this is an issue that needs to be fixed but this bill is not the solution. Instead, there should be regulations put on websites in order to stop the online market for sex trafficking in a way that does not harm or disadvantage sex workers. Sex workers have enough obstacles as is, and websites can offer safe ways for sex workers to avoid predatory and dangerous clients, as well as the chance to be more selective in their field.
Graphic by Caroline Polich.