The New Law That Puts Transgender Sex Workers in Danger
With SESTA now law, advocacy groups say the most marginalized sex workers are not only being financially hit hardest—they are also facing the most peril back out on the streets.
On Wednesday, President Trump signed SESTA/FOSTA into law—a combined bill that will make websites liable for their users’ speech, with the stated purpose of combatting sex trafficking.
The legislation, which went by FOSTA in the House and SESTA in the Senate, has been criticized by a number of advocacy groups, with complaints ranging from the bill’s conflation of sex trafficking and sex work to its potential to compromise free speech on the web.
While SESTA/FOSTA was only just signed, activists and organizers say that it has already had a negative impact on the sex worker community.
Survivors Against SESTA has been tracking the dozens of website that have shut down or modified their services over the past few weeks, self-censoring in preparation for SESTA’s enactment.
Sex workers used many of these sites to post ads and screen clients for their own safety. Additionally, the sex worker community is afraid that virtual harm reduction tools like shared bad date lists will also be at risk.
Users looking for Craigslist’s personals section will now be directed to this note: “US Congress just passed HR 1865, “FOSTA”, seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully. 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.”
Pounced, a personals website for furries—people who role-play as animals—elaborated on the legislation in a statement announcing their closure.
“FOSTA increases our liability significantly and chips away at one of the primary reasons we as a small organization can provide services to the community—the protection that had previously been offered to us by Section 230 of the Communications Decency act.
“We didn’t have to worry about what our users said using our platform, as we weren’t liable for what they said. FOSTA changes that in a way that makes sites operated by small organizations like pounced.org much riskier to operate. FOSTA essentially says that if we facilitate the prostitution of another person we’re liable.”
Separately, the classifieds website Backpage, a major source of income for many sex workers, was taken down by federal authorities last week.
Lola*, a community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, told The Daily Beast, “SESTA and these closures have already inflicted deep harms. Sex workers have returned to or started working for pimps to find clients since they can no longer do so online. Abusive clients are re-emerging, taking advantage of the blacklists and online communities that have been destroyed.”
Last week, Lola explained, “The small, niche corners of the internet are being hit the hardest, which also means the most marginalized communities are being hit the hardest.”
She continued, “HungAngels removing forums, for example, because it did not have the resources to handle any potential liability, is impacting the trans community. I’m already hearing stories of trans sex workers getting ready to go back on the stroll [return to the streets], where they may face more violence, harassment, and, especially, abusive policing.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality was one of the many advocacy organizations that publicly opposed the SESTA/FOSTA legislation.
In anticipation of the Senate vote, the NCTE issued a press release condemning the “dangerous” legislation. NCTE’s Executive Director Mara Keisling wrote, “The Senate will put trafficking survivors and other LGBTQ people trading sex at greater risk by passing these misguided so-called ‘anti-trafficking’ bills.”
Keisling stated that over 40 percent of black transgender women surveyed by the NCTE have participated in the sex trade, arguing, “We simply cannot afford to make careless decisions that will put members of our community in danger in the name of scoring political points.”
When asked about the organization’s opposition to SESTA, Harper Jean Tobin, NCTE’s director of policy, cited multiple reasons, one being the sheer number of trans people who have engaged in sex work.
According to Tobin, a 2015 national survey showed that one in five trans adults participated in “some kind of underground economic activity” for income at some point in their lives; “for most of them, that was trading sex.” Transgender women of color in particular reported engaging in sex work at “quite high levels.”
Whether through “choice, coercion, or circumstance,” Tobin pointed out that many trans people use sex work to get by. Housing and employment discrimination often act as barriers to traditional employment, and poverty and unemployment are rampant.
“People do sex work for a lot of reasons, but transgender people, for some of these economic and social barrier reasons, are much more likely to do it at some point in their lives.”
This notion that the legislation will hit certain folks the hardest—marginalized groups within an already marginalized community—is a through line in the SESTA/FOSTA opposition.
As Tobin noted, trans sex workers “face a great deal of violence, and it’s increased by not being able to readily access health and social services, by not being readily able to report crimes against them… Transgender people have tremendous negative experiences with the criminal justice system and face tremendous levels of violent victimization just in general.”
NCTE is concerned that SESTA/FOSTA will further endanger transgender people who trade sex, since working on the street is an even riskier proposition for this community.
Tobin continued, “I think in time, some of the legislators who voted for this are going to regret it, just like a lot of people who voted for some of the worst kind of war on drugs, mass incarceration legislation of twenty and thirty years ago have come to regret it. I hope it does not take policymakers that long to realize that they have made a dangerous mistake.”
Yve* is a long-time sex worker rights activist and advocate. She had already been working on setting up an emergency fund for sex workers when SESTA/FOSTA surfaced, compelling her and her fellow organizers to open ahead of schedule.
She told The Daily Beast, “We had a tentative plan to start this thing, and then we pulled the trigger because the need was sudden and immense—we just opened as fast as we could to help as much as we could as soon as we could.”
“Night one, it was just, ‘I need money for food. I couldn’t work today.’ It was immediate,” Yve recalled. At less than a month old the fund is still in its infancy, but it’s “gained traction a lot faster” than Yve expected.
Yve and her fellow organizers quickly tapped into a community of workers on Instagram who were isolated and in need.
She continued, “We were really not prepared for how many people were unsafe and unconnected to other organizations, and losing their ads in one day was extraordinarily damaging to their daily safety and well-being.”
Yve emphasized that most of their requests have been directly related to SESTA-prompted website closures—workers who were self-sufficient up until the websites started closing.
“Our first wave of requests was, ‘Oh my god, rent is due in five days, and now I don’t know how to work’… They can no longer find clients to earn what it is that they need to survive.”
The emergency fund has approximately 450 group members, and “somewhere in the realm of 350 requests.”
“Every time we look at it there’s more,” Yve said. The fund gives out “micro-grants” between $5 and $100 to any worker who reaches out with an urgent need.
Yve explained, “We operate on an honor system, and we are trusting that our community can be respectful of a limited resource for emergencies. We believe that if you need something to survive, you deserve help. And that’s it. We are not here to scrutinize you.”
According to Yve, the “overwhelming majority” of requests that the emergency fund has fielded are from “marginalized persons”: “The bulk of the people that are needing emergency assistance are people of color, queer folks, people with disabilities.” She continued, “Trans workers—you had mentioned trans women of color, but I want to be clear that there are also trans men. And now we are also seeing more struggling parents.”
Common requests for urgent assistance include medical expenses, child care expenses, rent and grocery money. “I’ve got workers who are crying because somebody gave them food money, and they didn’t know how they were going to eat.
“We’ve had more than one request for prescription lenses or contacts, because people literally cannot see if they are safe in a room with their clients. And we’ve also had requests for child care expenses.”
Lola explained to The Daily Beast that while a “well-established, privileged” sex worker might be OK for a couple months without income, “those who already had housing instability or food insecurity cannot take that hit.
“Exploiters know that. They take advantage of that. Pimps are texting providers to recruit them every day now, explicitly citing SESTA and the closures as having ‘changed the game.’”
Reflecting on the SESTA’s initial blows to the sex worker community, Yve noted that black trans workers have fewer resources than privileged white workers. “So it’s not always about individual isolation, it’s about access to anything. The damage is starting at the bottom of the societal food chain and it’s probably going to keep working up higher.”
Ceyenne*, the founder and director of the advocacy organization GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society), is currently “in shock over all of this political mayhem.”
Over the weekend, before the bill was even signed, Ceyenne went to a party where community members were discussing their fears and reacting to the impending legislation.
She said, “I heard stories like, ‘If I get evicted, I’m just going to take my life. I can’t go back home.’ These are children and adults that were chased away from their family for their right to be themselves. That can’t fathom having to go back to their parents or be marginalized by the people in their lives…It’s already happening. The children are hitting the streets; they have no choice.”
Ceyenne said that the legislation has already had repercussions beyond sheer panic and uncertainty. She said she knew at least a dozen trans women who had been living in motels, and now can’t afford their housing due to the sudden loss in income.
“Girls are facing homelessness, it’s inevitable, because they won’t be able to pay their bills, they won’t be able to sustain,” she told The Daily Beast.
Additionally, advocates’ warnings of sex workers turning to more dangerous street work has seemingly come to fruition.
In New York, Ceyenne recalled, Christopher Street used to be “the area for trans women to go and make their coins and basically have a way to take care of themselves.” She continued, “The city fought hard to get that area clean, to get the girls out of that area, and what I witnessed this weekend is, guess what? We’re back. And we’re back in staggering numbers. And why are we back? Because this new law has prevented us from being able to post safely, to screen clients safely.”
Ceyenne told The Daily Beast that SESTA/FOSTA has re-awakened something “we never thought would exist again, which is pimps.”
She continued, “They’re coming out of the woodwork. And this is not just in New York City, I’ve gotten phone calls from Kansas City, Ohio, Dallas, Nashville… In cities where there were already pimps, they have stepped up. They have crawled out of their old, nasty looking Cadillacs and they are back in popular demand.
“This is not good,” Ceyenne concluded. “We’re already being hunted all over the world. Trans women are dying at alarming rates. And you really created SESTA and FOSTA? I can’t even think what’s going to happen because of this.”
Nona Conner, a program manager with Collective Action for Safe Spaces in D.C., described the shutdown of Backpage and Craigslist as “like the great depression for transwomen of color.”
In a CASS blog post, she elaborated, “A host of girls I know are now facing extreme homelessness… sleeping on the street, being rejected from shelters. It leaves the girls hungry and unable to even travel on the Metro.”
Ceyenne has been inundated with phone calls from community members who are “scared for their own lives, wanting to know, ‘What’s next, what do I do, how can I survive?’”
“These are the questions that are coming up that I have no answer for,” she sighed. “How can I protect these babies and tell them it’s going to be OK? Mentally it’s such a mind fuck because I can’t break down in front of these children, but I can’t tell them it’s going to be OK because I don’t know. I can’t tell them where they can find a job or housing. The government put this bill in place, but where is the money to back up the lives they have disrupted?”
*Lola, Yve, and Ceyenne all declined to give their full names, citing unwanted attention, as well as the criminalization of both sex workers and advocates.