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What Real Sex Workers Have to Say About SESTA-FOSTA

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by Hannah Harkness

“Since day one, I have pushed for the strongest, most effective criminal and civil tools possible to confront the horrific abuses of online sex trafficking,” “H.R. 1865 with the Walters Amendment is the most effective way to empower victims, equip state and local prosecutors, and ensure websites can no longer traffic children with impunity. I am thrilled that with the help of the Judiciary Committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee, House Leadership, and Congresswoman Walters, we are bringing a bill to the House floor that will protect the fundamental rights of victims of sex trafficking. Online trafficking is flourishing because there are no serious, legal consequences for the websites that profit from the exploitation of our most vulnerable. This FOSTA-SESTA package will finally give prosecutors the tools they need to protect their communities and give victims a pathway to justice.”

This statement was made by House Representative Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) published in a press release when bill HR-1865 before she brought the bill to the house floor in February 2018. Sex workers protested this bill at every step warning that it would make sex work significantly more unsafe, but their voices were ignored and bill was signed into law on April 11th, 2018.

It is now August of 2019, SESTA/ FOSTA has been signed into law for over a year, and none of these goals have been accomplished. Sex work has become much more dangerous and child trafficking has not been reduced, the most glaring example of which is the child trafficking of migrants at the border that has not been prosecuted by the VERY same political party responsible for bringing this legislation to the floor.

Still, the statement above remains proudly on Wagner’s website and the legislation remains in place.

This bill was doomed to fail at the outset because the logic behind it was already harmful. When sex trafficking is equated with sex work it ignores the key difference between the two: Agency.

If you speak of victims of sex trafficking in the same way that you speak of sex workers, both are lumped in a category of people who are unable to advocate for themselves. This coupled with the general negative stigma on sex work as something you do when you have no other options makes it convenient for legislators to ignore all vocal opposition from those that the law effects.

When Sex Workers’ voices are dismissed, the only voices that remain are the ones who are the most misinformed, and the reality that they present to the public can be used to incite fear and accomplish ulterior motives under a smokescreen of visceral images of child trafficking victims.

The landscape of sex work one year after the passage of SESTA/ FOSTA is a direct reflection of this: sex workers have lost agency because they have been equated with trafficking victims in this legislation, and a major (more nefarious) ulterior motive has been accomplished… the restriction of expression online. 

TFW you accidentally fell into a sexy underground subculture back asswards

My first exposure to personal perspectives from sex workers began when I was working at Passional Boutique and Sexploratorium in Philadelphia in 2007, one of the oldest adult retail businesses in the city.

I took this job almost by accident-a creative writing teacher my freshman year at West Chester University gave us an assignment to observe any workplace for the semester and write your observations. As a (very mature) joke, I raised my hand and asked if I could work at the bondage store on South Street. The professor said “yes, that sounds like a great idea!”

I am very respectful of anyone who calls my bluff like that, so I walked into a store that had multiple leather face masks and ball gags in the window and asked them if it was okay for me to just hang out for four months and write about all of them. I ended up helping out at the store. What was I going to do, twiddle my thumbs in front of a shelf of dildos for a 12 hour shift?

When the semester was over, I was asked when I was coming in next week. I said “uhh…I don’t actually work here” and then I was immediately offered a job. I was handed the employee training manual (which I refer to as the BDSM SAT) and in it was a comprehensive description of sex work and how to respectfully speak to and sell to these customers.

Several staff members and customers talked to me candidly about their experiences as current and former sex workers. I began going to fetish events to sell our products, where I met sex workers from all over the world. We even had registries at the store left by sex workers so their clients could come in and buy them gifts. This in addition to the coursework I completed to gain my BA in Women and Gender Studies shattered my perceptions of the agency of sex workers, what it means to do this kind of work while it is criminalized, and how lumping sex trafficking victims (who I frequently studied in global feminism classes) in with consensual sex work creates legislation that creates much more harm than good.

For this piece, I reached out to some of my friends from this time in my life. Here is what they had to say about SESTA-FOSTA: 

Felicia Raw – Adult Performer (@feliciaroseraw)

Websites have become far more restrictive in terms of what is allowed to be advertised due to fear of repercussions from these extremely vague bills. Because of this many platforms I originally advertised my porn on have cracked down and banned anything to do with the selling of sexual images. This means I must use a porn-hosting website, instead of creating earnings on my own, and I now lose 40% of every sale made.

Sir Brian – Pro Dom & Sex Educator (@PhillySirDotCom)

The implementation of SESTA/FOSTA has directly harmed sex workers in all walks of life, but the implications of such loosely written legislation are terrifying for all people: websites can now be held liable for the content posted by their users. Hours after the bill was passed, Reddit, Craigslist, Twitter,and other platforms purged MASSIVE amounts of their content and userbase.

 Gathering places where sex workers can share tips on safety, bad clients, health, and community happenings have been shut down. As a result of this, some workers are turning to unsafe, outdated methods of gathering clients, are being driven underground, and are straight up disappearing. Unsavory clients, knowing that the law is driving providers underground, feel emboldened to make requests or even assault sex workers. 

After all, who are they going to tell? And of course, no-one cares about “some whores” That is, until it starts affecting YOU. Thanks to this bill, Facebook has updated their “Community Standards” regarding “Sexual Exploitation of Adults” to prohibit “sexual solicitation slang terms” and “Offering or soliciting sex or sexual fetish partners.” In short, writing “I love blowjobs” on your wall is now forbidden. But what about “urgh, he’s so rude, fuck him?” Are these now sexual solicitation terms? Doesn’t matter: if Facebook says they are, they are. 

Consider what this does to websites that are meant to inform, enlighten, or educate. Is teaching at-risk populations about sexual safety now considered “helping traffickers?” Is showing a piece of slightly risqué art considered “support for sex trafficking?” Does it matter? ISPs also fear repercussions. At which point does this stops them from blocking any website they don’t like? 

A comparative example: The population of the United Arab Emirates is right around 9.6 million inhabitants. The entirety of the country is under strict Internet laws, and ISPs restrict access to certain websites to comply with said law. One of these restricted websites is the World Health Organization, which is classed as “pornography” in the UAE. Think about that for a moment. How horrible! How barbaric! Almost ten million people are affected by this obvious control of information! So why are we not talking about the 42 million sex workers who are directly affected by the exact same type of censorship in our very home country? Because sex work is not seen as valid work in the United States, and those who do it are seen as sub-human. 

All this bill does is ensure that providers are driven underground, exposing them to higher dangers and a HIGHER likelihood of trafficking. And it doesn’t stop there… It is also quite telling that as a male-presenting professional Dominant, I am under much less scrutiny than sex workers who are women. It was never about trafficking, it was always about controlling what people, especially women, do with their bodies.

(You can find Sir Brian in the following places: email, website)

Kaytlin Bailey –  (@kaytlinbailey) Director of Communications for Decriminalize Sex Work

Sex workers are not a homogenous group. We come in all colors and creeds, we come to this work for different reasons, and have wildly different experiences, but SESTA/ FOSTA brought us together. It also brought a lot of allies from across the political spectrum out of the woodwork. 

After backpage was raided and seized, after Trump signed SESTA/FOSTA into law, after platforms began erasing sex worker spaces from the internet, after police officers, entrepreneurs, and all kinds of people who don’t engage in commercial sex began to feel censored. After police officers, harm reduction advocates, health care providers began to complain because they couldn’t do their jobs because of this law, sex workers and their allies came together.

Dozens of organizations were founded to fight this legislation and to fight for full decriminalization of sex work. Funders and supporters were motivated to publicly support our efforts. This bad law became a rallying cry. If we can create a broad coalition, we can win this. Or we can lose freedom of expression on the internet. Those are the stakes.

(You find Kaytlin in the following places: The Oldest Profession Podcast, her website, and her Broke-Ass Stuart articles)  

Writing this article was another lesson in how the best perspectives come directly from the source. It would have been easy to put together an article on how damaging SESTA/ FOSTA is with all of the information easily available, but just like I learned more about sex work in a store than a classroom, I learned so much more getting these perspectives from my friends than anything I looked at to get background research online. For more perspectives and to find out how to support/ donate to organizations fighting SESTA/FOSTA, visit the links below:

https://stopsesta.org/

https://www.nswp.org/members/red-umbrella-project 

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Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness is a stand up comedian, writer, and neo vaudeville human surviving in Brooklyn, NY.