Sex Workers Fear for Their Future: How SESTA Is Putting Many Prostitutes in Peril

With Congress passing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, many sex workers are worried they’ll be forced to go back on the streets. So they’re deciding to fight back.

Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Getty

On March 21, Senate passed SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, with a vote of 97-2. And already the bill, an iteration of the FOSTA legislation that cleared the House in February, has had a destabilizing and demoralizing effect on individuals who trade sex.

While FOSTA-SESTA is anti-trafficking legislation, FOSTA in particular conflates sex trafficking and sex work by arguing that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online intermediaries from being held liable for their users’ speech, “was never intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution.” The legislation, which was introduced by Republican representative Ann Wagner, makes it a federal crime—punishable by up to 10 years in prison—to operate “an interactive computer service” with “the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”

By contrast, the Senate bill would require proof that a website “knowingly participate[d] in the sex trafficking of children or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion.” But, according to Splinter, “Advocates remain concerned that Congress will revert to the House’s original language when the two bills are reconciled and the final version likely ends up on the president’s desk.”

On top of its bipartisan support, SESTA was backed by a “seemingly disparate coalition,” which ranged from certain anti-trafficking services and religious right groups to anti-sex work groups, Ivanka Trump, Amy Schumer, and Seth Meyers. The first daughter tweeted in celebration of the bill passing on March 21, writing, “Thank you for your leadership in preventing these horrific crimes & ensuring justice for survivors.”

Ivanka’s narrative is complicated by the legislation’s vocal opposition. The Daily Beast has previously explored this resistance, with Elizabeth Nolan Brown writing that, “Many sex-trafficking survivors and victims’ groups vocally opposed FOSTA, saying it fails to address the things they really need (like housing and job assistance) and will make saving future victims harder. Plus, even those being forced or coerced into prostitution benefit from things like screening out violent clients and not having to walk the streets.”

Online advertising and the ability to use the internet to work more safely has now been taken out from under people. So people are having a lot of confusion and concern about what’s next.
Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS

Cyndee Clay, the executive director of the D.C. harm reduction agency HIPS, fondly recalled the different groups and individuals who came together to push back against the legislation, including the Freedom Network, which is the largest network of anti-trafficking service providers and advocates in the United States (PDF). “I was really heartened by the number of national organizations and non sex work-specific organizations who could also see the damage that this law could do and spoke out,” Clay told The Daily Beast. “Even if working with sex workers or sex trade policy or even anti-trafficking policy wasn’t their main scope, they also saw that this was going to have damaging consequences.”

Arabelle Raphael, a Bay Area-based sex worker and activist, also emphasized the importance of communicating the many harmful aspects of this legislation, because “not everybody’s going to give a shit about sex workers.” Laughing, she continued, “Actually, most people don’t. But explaining to people, OK, this harms sex workers, it harms people who are actually trafficked as well as your own free speech and rights on the internet… giving a sense of the full scope might be really helpful for people to really understand or give a fuck about this.”

She added, “I see a lot of sex workers tweeting to clients like, hey, don’t want it to be out that you care about sex worker advertisements? You can be vocal about this bill under the guise of internet free speech too!”

Already, FOSTA-SESTA has had a chilling effect, with websites scrambling to self-censor. Craigslist shut down its popular personals section, replacing it with a brief explanation: “US Congress just passed HR 1865, ‘FOSTA’, seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully.” The statement continued, “Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”

But while the death of Craigslist personals is being mourned with personal reminiscences and nostalgia, FOSTA-SESTA is having an immediate effect on the sex-worker community, many of whom are watching websites that they use to screen clients, make money, and stay safe disappear in real time. Under the #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA hashtag or on, you can track reports of tech actions—a growing list of platform shutdowns and modifications since SESTA’s March 21 passage. In addition to Craigslist shuttering personals, items include CityVibe shutting down, TER closing its U.S. advertising boards, shutting down its U.S.-based ads, and Yellow Pages shuttering escort services, among many others.

Lola, a community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, told The Daily Beast that, “We’ve been sounding the alarm, but this is happening even faster than we expected.” She referenced Craigslist personals and Reddit, which has banned several subreddits including r/Escorts, r/MaleEscorts, and r/SugarDaddy, but emphasized that, “The small, niche corners of the internet are being hit the hardest, which also means the most marginalized communities are being hit the hardest.”

“HungAngels removing forums, for example, because it did not have the resources to handle any potential liability, is impacting the trans community,” Lola continued. “I’m already hearing stories of trans sex workers getting ready to go back on the stroll, where they may face more violence, harassment, and, especially, abusive policing.”

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As the executive director of HIPS, which works with “a lot of people who are doing street-based sex work,” Cyndee Clay described the immediate aftermath of SESTA as “disaster.”

“People are scared, and they’re definitely experiencing shutdowns of platforms already, of ways that they’ve been able to advertise in the past, but also farther-reaching things,” Clay told The Daily Beast. “We’re seeing Reddit enforcing certain parts of their Terms of Service, and Skype is now no longer a way that people feel like they can screen clients or do cam work or online appointments. Online advertising and the ability to use the internet to work more safely has now been taken out from under people. So people are having a lot of confusion and concern about what’s next.”

Clay said that the bill is already impacting people who have utilized online platforms to move off the street. “Those individuals now, because they can’t put up a Craigslist ad, and because they are concerned about their email being targeted or losing access to their emails entirely, they don’t know what to do. They think that moving back into street work is the only way that they’re going to survive.”

An oft-cited 2017 study illustrates the importance of sex workers being able to use online advertising to stay off the streets (PDF). The authors of the study attempted to identify the causal effect of Craigslist’s “erotic services” section on female safety. They found an incredible 17.4 percent reduction in the female homicide rate following the introduction of “erotic services.” According to the authors (PDF), “Our analysis suggests that this reduction in female violence was the result of street prostitutes moving indoors and matching more efficiently with safer clients.” In 2010, Craigslist announced that it was permanently closing its adult services section, in response to pressure from advocacy groups and attorneys general.

Arabelle Raphael explained that, in perpetuating a shuttering cycle that ultimately puts sex workers’ lives in danger, SESTA has already begun to affect some of the most marginalized members of the community. “All the things that have been taken down are all the low-priced or free advertisements,” she explained, meaning that people who can’t afford to pay for expensive advertising have been made even more vulnerable. “Some people, if they don’t have any other options, are going to be forced to do riskier things,” Raphael continued. “Maybe take it outdoors, which just puts you at risk for more assault, murder, arrest, rape.”

Kate D’Adamo, a sex-worker rights advocate and partner with Reframe Health and Justice, explained, “You’re talking about an entire community that’s going into a fear and a scarcity mentality. The comfort that comes from being able to refuse a client that either won’t screen or that you know pushes boundaries, all of a sudden that disappears. Because that comes from a sense of safety and a sense of security, and when you lack that you’re less likely to reinforce your boundaries.”

In addition to a loss of free advertising forums—very real sources of income which, as many advocates pointed out, fell through just days before rent was due—SESTA has already begun to compromise ways in which sex workers communicate online: shared resources, communal bad date lists, and sex worker-only threads. Activists and sex workers are imagining a virtual world in which warning the community about a violent client or disseminating harm-reduction tools is criminalized. This world is already a partial reality. Verify Him, a bad date list that markets itself as “a verification tool… to avoid rapists, stalkers, and fake sugar daddies,” has closed its discussion board and mailing list, noting that it is now “working to change the direction of the site.”

D’Adamo told The Daily Beast that, “I don’t think that anyone anticipated the scope and the breadth of how this would impact folks trading sex.” She continued, “Every single day I feel like I’m getting not just one, but three to four reports of different platforms closing down or different pieces of platforms going down. Straight advertising platforms that are closing down, as well as different elements of websites where sex workers interact. So it’s been everything from Reddit closing sex workers-only threads to pieces of other websites that interact with the sex industry.”

While D’Adamo emphasized the need to prioritize the people who aren’t sure where to find their clients anymore—who may have already lost the advertising venues that they relied on—she pointed out that, “The other thing that’s being lost is a lot of the communication, so the ability to screen clients and to find harm-reduction tools and techniques, that is all of a sudden gone as well. And when you close a thread, you don’t only lose the conversation you were about to have, you lose every conversation you’ve already had. And so there’s not really a mechanism for someone who didn’t know that already to go back and to find that information.”

D’Adamo said that she’s begun to hear reports of people “losing things” on their Google Drive—informational content and presentations about sex work. “People are asking, is hosting this information going to put me in jeopardy? And we can’t really say no,” D’Adamo continued. “So people all of a sudden need to make that liability decision of: Do I host this information? Do I facilitate this sharing of information? When relating to each other as sex workers is a potentially criminal experience, how do I stay safe, when everything I know about harm reduction relies on me and my peers?”

When asked about reports of sex workers’ files disappearing on Google Drive, a spokesperson for Google referred The Daily Beast to its Drive policy page: “Specifically the section around sexually explicit material—these are long-standing policies that apply to content shared using Google Drive.” D’Adamo agreed that, “Generally, we knew that Google Drive was maybe not the safest place to keep porn or nudity or that kind of thing.” However, her observations seriously call into question claims made by a Google spokesperson, who insisted last week that there has been no increase in the enforcement of Drive’s longstanding Terms of Service. Vice recently spoke with six users who said that “they suddenly can’t download adult content they keep on Google Drive.”

One Google Drive user who asked to remain anonymous told The Daily Beast that, while she had been hearing from other sex workers about issues with their files, she knew she wasn’t hosting anything pornographic on her Drive. “I help facilitate a group for sex workers with another mental health therapist, and we were hosting a community training. She had sent me slides to look over and reorganize for the advocacy panel.” She continued, “The next week my slides on community advocacy for sex workers were deleted from my drive. My partner, who works on a sex worker safety list (similar to a bad date list) had the files he was sharing with another sex worker disappear from both of their drives.” Emphasizing that “neither of these things should violate Google’s TOS,” she claimed that she had never had an issue like this before, despite having previously stored resource lists and other related information. She concluded, “I didn’t get an explanation of why they were deleted, they were just gone from my drive all of the sudden, and the person who sent them couldn’t access them anymore.”

D’Adamo said that, “We’re definitely going to be seeing and have been seeing a lot more policing of those terms of service, which, sure—those have always been the rules. But the enforcing of them? I have never seen anything like this… people are losing things left and right at a staggering, shocking rate.”

While sex workers, organizers, and advocates have come together under Twitter hashtags to share resources and voice their opposition to the legislation, they’re all too aware that this very online presence is also at risk. Citing the legislation’s “vague langue,” Raphael mused that, “It could potentially affect any social media, like Twitter could decide to shut down sex-worker handles even if they’re not necessarily ads. So it’s kind of like erasing us from all of public discourse.”

For HIPS, a direct service organization with a wide online platform, FOSTA-SESTA threatens to undermine crucial services. Clay emphasized that HIPS’ first priority is the direct impact the legislation is already having on clients—“Sex workers in D.C. being able to pay their rent and buy food”—but said, “We’re also a little concerned about what this is going to mean for our ability to give out safety information, and to help sex workers learn ways to better take care of themselves.”

She continued, “Being able to organize and advertise and work online has also created a lot of amazing communities where sex workers can help each other stay safe, because they don’t have access to things like going to law enforcement when they’re victims of violence, they don’t have access to a lot of the other communities that we take for granted. We’re definitely concerned about what this law is going to mean for harm reduction in general. Being able to have honest conversations about safety and about wellness and about how you plan for the future and saving money, those are all things that could now potentially come under scrutiny because of this new legislation.”

Lola told The Daily Beast, “We basically found out like a week before the bill went to vote in the House that it was moving.” In the span of around 72 hours, she recalled, there was a Twitter campaign (Survivors Against FOSTA), a call your rep campaign, and a letter of opposition. For SESTA, she continued, “we had a little bit more time”—an estimated three weeks of organizing, which included a letter of opposition signed by 57 organizations, including the ACLU and the National Center for Transgender Equality. “We had two different webinars for organizations and Hill staffers to hear about the impact of the bills, and a lot of calls,” Lola added. “On the grassroots side, we had two more twitter campaigns, #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA, and there was also an academic letter opposing the bills.”

According to D’Adamo, “When we started, the message was really clear: this bill, the way it’s written, we know how it’s going to play out. It’s going to shut down services, it’s going to shut down the communication tools that we use to stay safe, it’s going to make a lot of people very precarious who are already precarious. And there’s a lot of people that said no, that the standard was really high, that websites shouldn’t worry… and sex workers were right, because we’ve been saying this for a very long time.”

Raphael noted, “Since I’ve been doing sex work, every law that uses the word ‘trafficking’ specifically always gets passed, no matter what the law actually is. So yeah, we knew it was going to pass.”

We are planning a national lobby day on June 1st and a national direct action day on June 2nd, which is International Whores Day.
Lola, community organizer for Survivors Against SESTA

But the organizing has just begun, from community debrief calls to resource-sharing meetings that are being held around the country.

Raphael, who was one of the activists behind a Bay Area sex-workers meetup, briefly summarized the agenda, which included an overview of FOSTA-SESTA and how soon it might actually go into law. The meeting also covered recent website closures, cybersecurity tools, next steps, and plans for sharing resources moving forward. Raphael recalled, “Devising plans of how we can keep our bad dates lists alive, and having backup plans if our advertising websites are taken down, that kind of thing. We went over what platforms we had left, and also what we could do to help people that are affected directly right away, as well as not censoring ourselves immediately, trying to keep our tools that we have as long as possible before they disappear. It was us kind of just creating space and supporting each other.”

Meanwhile, two community debrief calls aimed to make this sort of resource-sharing and community-building even more widely accessible. Lola told The Daily Beast that there were somewhere between 250 and 300 dial-in numbers, but noted that, since many people were listening in groups, the actual number of participants was probably much larger. Moving forward, Lola said, “We are planning a national lobby day on June 1st and a national direct action day on June 2nd, which is International Whores Day, which has a long history of really radical, women of color-centered organizing that we want to honor in our movement.”

D’Adamo elaborated on the lobbying day, describing plans to reach out to and engage staffers and politicians: “To say, you were really committed to voting for this bill, now we want your same commitment to ending violence against sex workers, because that is the impact of this bill.”

“And that’s not only going to happen in D.C., because we know that there are state and local laws that really impact people—especially communities of color, especially trans folks, especially migrants, every day,” D’Adamo continued. “SESTA only built on the criminalization that they are subjected to constantly. And so it’s not just about D.C., it’s not just about our federal representatives. It’s about going to every single place that we can and saying sex workers are your constituents, and we are asking you to value our lives.”

Many of the activists and sex workers who spoke to The Daily Beast described the legislation as a catalyst for an unprecedented groundswell of organizing, sharing, and action. Lola explained that, “I’ve been organizing for four or five years, I work with people on this stuff who have been in the movement for 10 or 20 years, and they say it is the largest groundswell of action and voice around a single issue in the sex-worker rights movement that they’ve seen in the U.S.”

“This community is the most resilient that I’ve ever seen,” said D’Adamo. “It is brilliant, it is innovative, it’s really funny—and so, even though lawmakers let this community down, this has been a moment of coming together, and of reaching out, and of realizing the value of those connections in a way that is huge.”

Still, Lola warned that the pace of shutdowns and self-censoring would likely only increase, “Because critical to this piece of legislation is not whether or not trafficking is actually happening on that platform, it’s the conflation of sex work and trafficking, and if there’s even a trace of sex work on any [website]. And every corner of the internet has that! So I think we’re going to see tech companies announce a lot of different censorship and bans and shutdowns over the next couple of weeks, and I think we’ll continue to see the community react.”

Clay voiced her frustration with the legislation in terms of her personal experience, as someone who’s “been doing this work with sex workers for over 20 years”: “I was there when Craigslist became an online platform that people could use to advertise, I was there watching people who could and who had the capacity to transition into online work away from streets.

“When I started in this business you often worked the streets, which meant in D.C. that you probably had to have a pimp, and oftentimes that was an abusive situation, so that totally fits within the definition of a sex-trafficking victim,” she continued. “Online work got people off the streets, and it got people working independently. And that allowed a bunch of people who were formerly our clients to not live hand to mouth, and to not have to deal with the violence and the various challenges of working the streets. We saw a significant decrease in street prostitution and community complaints around street prostitution. And this law could turn all of that back.

“The part that makes me the angriest about all of this is that they’ve put these new laws in place and they’ve shut everyone out of these online communities but they haven’t offered anything other,” she concluded. “There aren’t more resources to help sex workers find different forms of employment. We have done nothing nationally and, in fact, we’ve taken many steps backwards in terms of helping trans women who often are forced to do sex work because of employment discrimination. The anti-trafficking organizations certainly haven’t added more services or housing for people who are now potentially not going to be able to pay their rent because they can’t put up ads and work online. This is backwards. This is the worst possible way to try and help trafficking victims, and yet we passed it in the name of saving people. Saving people is not shutting down a website. Saving people is offering real resources, and real opportunities for people to save themselves.”