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Progressives Unveil New Bill to Investigate How Anti-Trafficking Law Has 'Demonized and Harmed' Sex Workers

"Instead of preventing sex trafficking, SESTA/FOSTA made it harder for sex workers to access critical health and safety resources. We need the full picture."

Sex workers and activists

Sex workers and activists protested outside Parliament in London on July 4, 2018 as MPs debate a proposal to outlaw online prostitution platforms in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA legislation in the U.S. (Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

A small coalition of Democrats in both chambers of Congress marked the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on Tuesday by introducing a bill that would launch an investigation into how 2018 legislation that aimed to combat sex trafficking has negatively impacted sex workers and put them at increased risk.

The SAFE SEX Workers Study Act (pdf) would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to study the "unintended impacts on the health and safety of people engaged in consensual, transactional sex" of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)—U.S. Senate and House bills known as SESTA/FOSTA that President Donald Trump signed into law on April 11, 2018.

Puneet Cheema, staff attorney at Lambda Legal, was among the various advocates who welcomed the measure introduced by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). As Cheema put it: "This bill is historic in recognizing that the lives, health, and safety of people who trade sex matter."

SESTA/FOSTA amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make websites and social media platforms accountable if third parties post ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work. Even before it became law, legislators, digital rights advocates, and sex workers expressed concerns about its actual consequences.

"Last year I warned that forcing websites to take down any mention of sex work would remove agency from sex workers and put them at great risk of violence and abuse, all while making it harder to catch sex traffickers and aid victims of human trafficking," Wyden said Tuesday. "So far, initial reports from cities across the country show that violence against sex workers is rising dramatically and there's little evidence that this law is helping victims."

Khanna noted that "despite these reports, no national study has been conducted to assess the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers."

Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate, said that "as lawmakers, we are responsible for examining unintended consequences of all legislation, and that includes any impact SESTA/FOSTA may have had on the ability of sex workers to protect themselves from physical or financial abuse."

Shortly before Trump signed the legislation, Maxine Holloway—a Bay Area sex worker, activist, sex educator, artist, and filmmaker—told Rewire.News, "It's really a scary situation that is going to affect the most marginalized of sex workers the most intensely."

As Rewire.News reported on April 2, 2018:

Survivors Against SESTA, a coalition of former and current sex workers, has been documenting the tech sector's response to the controversial bill since it passed the Senate two weeks ago. So far, the coalition has logged at least 18 platforms, including Craigslist and Reddit, that have either shut down, closed verticals or forums, or changed their policies on transactions, content, and language in that time.

The significant change in or outright loss of these sites causes real harm to sex workers, especially those living at the margins, such as transgender women and women of color, says Survivors Against SESTA member Kate D'Adamo, a national policy advocate and community organizer at the Sex Workers Project. Sex workers who advertised their services on Craigslist Personals, My Scarlet Book, Pounced, and similar online classifieds could screen their potential clients and determine whether or not it's safe to schedule a session. Through these type of online service sites, people who trade sex can get identifying details from their clients—names, email addresses, phone numbers, and usernames, for example—and do a bit of digging online to find out more about their history interacting with sex workers.

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And that's where platforms like Reddit, Hung Angels, and VerifyHim, a screening site for online daters, came in. Those online spaces gave sex workers a way to share more information about those potential clients, as well as exchange safety tips, tech advice, and support, she says.

Critics continue to argue that SESTA/FOSTA has had the precise impact that they initially warned about: making sex workers less safe.

Cheema of Lambda Legal explained that "some members of the LGBT community, particularly transgender women of color, sometimes rely on sex work for survival because they face extreme discrimination in the formal employment sector."

"The SAFE SEX Worker Act is recognition that sex workers should not silently live these collateral consequences but instead be looked at as a valuable voice of expertise and a community deserving of dignity."
—Kate D'Adamo, community organizer

Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, "trans sex workers have been pushed to hit the streets late at night or take other risky actions, which put them in more danger," the ACLU's LaLa B. Holston-Zannell wrote earlier this month. "They aren't able to screen their clientele and can't take precautions to protect themselves in case something bad happens to them."

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Tuesday that "the data show that criminalizing the lives of those who trade sex hits transgender people especially hard."

In the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, "we've heard communities across the country raise the alarm that it is making people less safe," Keisling added. "We need to understand those unintended consequences so we can take action." She thanked those behind the new bill and urged every member of Congress to support it.

D'Adamo, who was interviewed by Rewire.News in April and is now a partner at Reframe Health and Justice, said Tuesday that "the SAFE SEX Worker Act is recognition that sex workers should not silently live these collateral consequences but instead be looked at as a valuable voice of expertise and a community deserving of dignity."

Some critics of SESTA/FOSTA responded to the new effort by thanking the sponsors while also pointing out that lawmakers were warned of the consequences for sex workers, but some voted in support of the 2018 legislation anyway:

"For far too long, SESTA/FOSTA has demonized and harmed sex workers," said Lee. "Instead of preventing sex trafficking, SESTA/FOSTA made it harder for sex workers to access critical health and safety resources. We need the full picture."

Original co-sponsors of the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act are Democratic Reps. André Carson (Ind.), Judy Chu (Calif.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.) as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

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