Ever since President Donald Trump signed bipartisan bills Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) into law this past April, panic has set in among the sex work community. Often lumped together as FOSTA-SESTA, this legislation was introduced to Congress with an intent to end human trafficking. However, it has also inadvertently targeted consensual sex workers, forcing many to resort to other more dangerous practices.
SESTA-FOSTA challenges section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act of 1996, which states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Therefore, websites like Facebook, Amazon, Craigslist, Reddit and YouTube were legally protected, should a user post unsavory or offensive content on their own accord.That was before FBI and other federal agencies raided the home of former Backpage.com owner Michael Lacey. Known for its adult personal ads, the controversial website was shut down and seized by the FBI, once allegations related to child sex trafficking were raised.
Now under SESTA-FOSTA, any site believed to be hosting ads related to human trafficking is at risk of prosecution, even if they are unaware that some of their users are promoting trafficking. Because lawmakers' stance on sex work seems to exclude the possibility of consensual sex work, SESTA-FOSTA appears to blur the line between consensual sex worker and actual human trafficking. Some sites preemptively removed its adult content earlier this year, including subreddits containing sexual content. Likewise, sex-work directories, like CityVibe and NightShift, have also been shut down. According to a report from Engadget, Google has even started to purge the Drive accounts of cam performers, who sell clips and videos to clients.
Blavity spoke with Tamika Spellman, policy and advocacy associate for Helping Individual People Survive (HIPS). A Black, trans woman and sex worker, Spellman knows firsthand how society looks down on those who engage in this work.
For 25 years, HIPS has provided laundry facilities, a syringe exchange, meals and other services to anyone in need. A safe haven offering assistance to full-service workers, the organization has recently experienced a surge in the sex workers they service because of SESTA- FOSTA. Spellman's position at HIPS often involves caring for marginalized individuals while advocating for laws that better protect those working in the sex industry.
"Because of this crazy f**king law, which was passed relatively easily, life has become extremely hard," Spellman said.
SESTA-FOSTA prevents workers from thoroughly screening potential clients and spotting bad dates. As someone who has previously experienced being beaten, robbed, raped and shot while engaging in sex work out on the streets, Spellman believes things will only get worse, especially for those who are forced to take their business from the web to the corner. Just speaking to a potential date could be misinterpreted as trafficking language.
"This new law has made me two things that I have never been in my life: A trafficking victim and a trafficker," she explained.
Since joining HIPS in 2017, Spellman has worked tirelessly to shift misconceptions of sex work among the public and advocate for sex workers' rights. Not only has she canvassed door-to-door, but she's even spoken with elected officials — including members of the Council of the District of Columbia — about the realities of consensual sex work.
"Here we have a law they are afraid to touch, because they don't want to [appear] they're going against trafficking and protecting children," Spellman said. "That tells me they are willing to disenfranchise me as a consensual sex worker in order to save face."
Daily activities, like opening business accounts, have become problematic for sex workers because of the overreaching legislation, according to Akynos, founder of the Black Sex Workers Collective (BSWC).
“It has made it impossible for us to walk into a bank and try to get a business account under our known title,” Akynos told Blavity. “As well, it has put many workers out, greatly reducing their income, which has a trickle-down effect that can last years.”
Akynos has worked in the adult entertainment and sex industry for two decades. From working jobs as an escort, dominatrix, exotic dancer, phone sex operator and more, her experiences have led to a writing career and advocacy work. She told Blavity that although SESTA-FOSTA seems new, different iterations of it have been around for years.
“It was revamped,” Akynos said. “Sex workers on this side of the world were too comfortable in thinking they were a protected class — and we never have been. Now, we have to do the work in order to switch the perspective on what is work, and what our work entails at its core.”
That is where the BSWC comes in — average sex workers are not only looked down upon for providing a service certain members of society seek, but they are often shut out of society altogether. A lack of resources makes their lives hard, short and brutal. The New York City-based organization services community members by giving basic necessities. Akynos explained that sister organizations Lysistrata and Desiree Alliance also send hard referrals to BSWC, so those who are in need can receive up to $200 for personal emergencies and other assistance.
With fluctuating income, permanent housing is a major issue that plagues the lives of sex workers. Because many sex workers turn to shelters or frequent hotels and motels to create some sense of stability, BSWC is also working on a housing initiative that will enable sex workers in the community to help others struggling to find shelter.
“For instance, if you found an apartment, and you can move people in as roommates without the need for a credit check or a request for an exuberant amount of money, why not offer the housing directly to people in need?” Akynos asked rhetorically. “It's a good way to keep people off the street, [who are] in housing crises and would otherwise not have a place to live, because of the racist and classist gentrification rules that have sprung up in the past several years.”
The organization also plans on curating written histories of Black and trans sex workers through a new long-term research project, while funding becomes available for other projects. Through the efforts of the BSWC, Akynos and other sex work activists hope to change unfair laws and destigmatize sex work.
“It's going to take a long time,” Akynos acknowledged. “If the internet didn't make us feel so comfortable, maybe we would be halfway there.”
"Many sex workers relied on online platforms in order to find and screen potential clients. With so many of their outlets [now] closed due to this legislation, many sex workers are forced to work outside and take on potentially riskier clients," said Christa Daring, executive director of the from the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA.
Soon after SESTA-FOSTA was passed, furry dating site Pounced.org was reportedly shuttered, in fear of possible legal backlash. Motherboard reported that the cash-strapped, volunteer-run site could not weather a lawsuit or charges for violating this SESTA-FOSTA.
Until such time as the full implications of the United States government's FOSTA act, described at the link, are clear with regards to sites such as ours, Pounced will be offline. Thank your patronage, patience, and understanding.https://t.co/urcqloQ5yW
— Pounced.org (@GetPounced) March 24, 2018
Tumblr's latest troubles are reminiscent of other sites adapting to the law. According to a report from Yahoo Finance, the social networking and microblogging site was recently removed from Apple’s App Store after it was alleged that the site had perpetuated the distribution of child pornography.
“Every image uploaded to Tumblr is scanned against an industry database of known child sexual abuse material, and images that are detected never reach the platform. A routine audit discovered content on our platform that had not yet been included in the industry database,” Tumblr announced in a statement on its site. “We immediately removed this content. Content safeguards are a challenging aspect of operating scaled platforms.”
While users were fearful that the site would eventually be shut down, this controversy was especially concerning to those sex workers who had used Tumblr as a promotional resource. These concerns further escalated when Tumblr went on to announce that beginning December 17, 2018, all explicit adult content would be removed and banned. A precedent of censorship has been established on the web, leaving many to wonder which site will be next on the chopping block.
Suprihmbé is the alias of a 28-year-old, Black, Chicago-based sex worker, who initially gained a following on Twitter for her advocacy. While camming has been her primary source of income, she also has experience as a stripper, street worker, sugar baby and more. However, in a recent interview with Blavity, Suprihmbé said that SESTA-FOSTA has made it nearly impossible for her to post ads for “full-service work” — how those within the industry refer to prostitution.
The added fear created by SESTA-FOSTA seems to have stripped sex workers of the few protections they already had. Sex workers who depend on the internet as a primary business tool are already incredibly vulnerable to doxxing, which is defined as the malicious exposure of one's personal information on the web. As one of the few Black sex workers to publicly share her views on Twitter, Suprihmbé has often been a target for doxxing. Just earlier this year, the sex worker advocate and writer’s personal info — including her home address and legal name — was made public.
“It definitely exposed me to a lot of hostility — a lot of harassment — because sex workers are not considered a protected class on Twitter,” Suprihmbé said.
According to Suprihmbé, her doxxers and their followers have continuously terrorized her throughout most of the year. Though police reports have been filed, Suprihmbé claims that nothing has been done to ensure her safety. Women who engage in this work are often viewed as loose, wayward outsiders who are less worthy of protection. Couple that with systemic racism and the overall criminalization of sex work, and Black cisgender and transgender women become walking targets in an already high-risk profession. They are fetishized to the point of dehumanization.
"African Americans made up roughly 40 percent of all prostitution arrests in 2015. In addition, of all the documented cases of murdered sex workers in the U.S. that same year, approximately 41 percent were Black cisgender women and roughly 30 percent were Black trans women," one Blavity writer noted in a previous article.
"It's just compounded in sex work, because it is seen as more appropriate. [Sex work] is a profession that is based on our looks. Because of that, [clients] feel they can use preference as a justification for racism and sexism," Suprihmbé said.
The reason why screening via the internet is so vital is because, when push comes to shove, sex workers are the only people who are truly looking out for their own best interests. For Suprihmbé specifically, it is all about creating a community that watches out for one another. She does her part to help fellow sex workers by offering advice on the ins and outs of the industry, and she has even shared information on what safety measures to take via her DMs. Suprihmbé has also gone as far as shelling out her own money to assist those in need.
The advent of the SESTA-FOSTA has placed sex workers in limbo, as our post-SESTA-FOSTA world continues to make safe places for consensual sex workers obsolete online. Many are searching for alternative websites to find clients. Others are turning to street work to make ends meet. It is unlikely the law will stop the cycle of supply and demand within the sex industry. However, it does ultimately encroach on the internet freedoms we once enjoyed.
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