Why Sex Workers are Fighting the Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill
Guest post by collaborators: M. Dante, Lola Li, and Heather Berg
On March 12th, the Senate votes on SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act.
SESTA would criminalize the online advertising, information sharing, and support networks that sex workers use to do their jobs safely. Sex workers, trafficking survivors, and allies came together to fight the bills, building support under the #LetUsSurvive hashtag. I spoke with M. Dante and Lola Li of the campaign to learn about their work and find out what readers can do to support it.
HB: What’s the story behind the #LetUsSurvive hashtag?
LL: A couple of us (shoutout to Red of Support Ho(s)e and Kate D’Adamo of Reframe Health and Justice) heard this piece of legislation was starting to move in Congress. We rallied people to do a massive organizing push. With #LetUsSurvive, we wanted a hashtag we could continue to use beyond this fight so we could capture the momentum. There’s so much momentum! People who, at least from their online presences, it seems have never participated in action around sex workers’ rights, have been getting very very involved with this. So we chose #LetUsSurvive.
We want to reframe the narrative around surviving. Our community is full of survivors. Many of us are trafficking survivors. And survivors of violence (much of which is at the hands of police). It is also a nod to economic survival. Many of us trade sex to survive. To pay rent. To pay bills. Many of us are LGBTQ and/or PoC and systematically denied means of employment or housing or education and sex work is a viable economic alternative. It helps us survive.
HB: Why are sex workers concerned about bills that say they will fight sex trafficking?
MD: The problem with this particular piece of legislation is the conflation of child sex trafficking with consensual adult prostitution or other forms of mutually consensual adult sex work. There’s also a lot of uncertainty around enforcement. The goal seems to be to have all prostitution and commercial vice silenced and all commercial sex transactions stopped.
LL: Because the laws that prosecutors need to go after traffickers ALREADY EXIST. We don’t need more laws. That’s not going to address the root causes of the problem. This bill is not about fighting trafficking. It’s a way for self-interested politicians and self-interested “anti-trafficking” (rolling my eyes, as if anyone could be pro-trafficking) groups to pat themselves on the back while actually doing nothing to help.
HB: What would these bills mean for trafficking survivors?
MD: I really do not know, and that does not feel good. It is frightening. By federal definition I am a former victim of domestic minor sex trafficking –a “survivor”— yet that was a long time ago, and I have also worked as a consensual adult worker. Congressional representatives and anti-trafficking agency heads often view us as ‘opposition’ if we acknowledge having worked in any capacity. We are not often welcome at the meetings. After a certain point we are simply not considered to be people.
LL: There’s a reason a lot of service providers that serve trafficking victims (see the Freedom Network’s opposition, for example) oppose this bill. It’s because this bill is going to make their job harder. Sites like Backpage already cooperate with investigators on trafficking investigations. When sites like Backpage shut down, traffickers don’t stop trafficking. They just move their victims onto the streets or onto non-US hosted sites, where it is much harder to identify and support these trafficking victims.
As the community most vulnerable to sex trafficking, we care about fighting sex trafficking. We need housing and resources and the ability to provide support to one another. We need decriminalization to fight the stigma and incarceration that empower abusers. We don’t need another law that will actually just be used to target consensual sex workers.
Readers can support the #LetUsSurvive campaign by calling their Senators.
M. Dante has been writing on sex work since the early 1990s, supporting programs and legislation essential to empowerment, community health and human rights. She works with Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars and the Erotic Service Providers Union (ESPU).
Heather Berg is a researcher and labor activist. She writes about work in the porn industry and teaches Gender Studies at the University of Southern California.