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Sex workers say anti-trafficking law fuels inequality

Rose Conlon Apr 30, 2019
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Mark Mainz/Getty Images

Before Maya was a sex worker, she worked in retail. She hated it — long hours on her feet, difficult customers and low pay. Once, while she was making $10 an hour as a sales associate at a women’s clothing store, she had to supervise a group of undocumented immigrants her manager hired to deep clean the entire store.

Maya, 25, who goes by her stage name, is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient, and the irony wasn’t lost on her.

“People in corporate jobs do illegal things all the time, but because it’s a legal company, it’s OK,” she told Marketplace.

Sex work is illegal in most of the United States, but it’s still work, and there are a variety of reasons why people do it.

“Sex and sexuality is a huge part of our national economy in so many ways, but we don’t like to talk about it,” said Barbara Brents, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

When Maya started doing sex work, she discovered that she could be her own boss, set her own schedule and make more money than she could in retail. That is, until last year, when Congress passed a package of laws known as FOSTA-SESTA that dramatically changed sex work in the U.S.

“Almost immediately, people were made homeless. It’s been absolutely devastating,” said Alex Andrews, a former sex worker and current board member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. In the past year, the organization’s community support hotline has been flooded with calls from sex workers struggling financially because of the legislation.

What is FOSTA-SESTA?

FOSTA-SESTA is shorthand for two congressional bills: the House’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. As the names suggest, they were designed to reduce sex trafficking.

But sex workers and scholars say they have had the opposite effect. By making it harder for sex workers to be their own bosses, the legislation has forced them onto the street and into relationships with pimps and escort agencies, where they’re more vulnerable to violence and coercion.

FOSTA-SESTA amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (considered key in upholding freedom of expression on the internet) to make websites criminally liable for user content that could “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”

Website owners now face up to 10 years in prison if one instance of prostitution-related content is posted to their website and up to 25 years if the content facilitates the prostitution of five or more persons.

The biggest problem with the law, according to Brents, is that it fails to differentiate between sex trafficking (in which victims are forced or coerced into sex work, or are minors) and voluntary adult sex work.

The two are often conflated in popular media — so much so that when Brents first started studying the industry 25 years ago, she admits not being entirely sure of the difference herself.

“The whole question of sex trafficking is real and concerning,” she explained. “But it is, by all of the research that’s been done, a very small part of a very large industry. And it’s not at all clear that trafficking exists because of the larger sex industry, or that getting rid of that industry will get rid of trafficking.”

Still, FOSTA-SESTA sailed through Congress with bipartisan support (it passed 388-25 in the House97-2 in the Senate) and was signed into law on April 11, 2018.

President Donald Trump signs the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act at the White House on April 11, 2018.

The internet responds

Websites began going above and beyond to prove they weren’t enabling sex trafficking, according to author and journalist Lux Alptraum.

“Which means that now they won’t allow anything even remotely related to sex work to happen on their platform,” Alptraum said.

Reddit closed subreddits like /escorts and /sugardaddy. Microsoft issued a ban on “inappropriate content or material” on Skype, in Outlook emails and in Office 365 Word documents. Google Drive users reported being locked out of sexually explicit files stored on the platform or those files vanishing altogether.

Facebook added a Sexual Solicitation section to their terms of service prohibiting discussion of “sexual partner preference” (a move that sparked fear in LGBTQ communities) and reportedly suspended some users who shared content related to sex work advocacy. You can see a list of all websites that have been affected here.

Consensual sex workers lost the networks they had developed to make a dangerous job safer. Sites for verifying client identities went down, as did community forums where sex workers could share safety tips and circulate names of abusive clients.

But most significant for a lot of sex workers were the closures, within weeks of each other, of personal classifieds site Backpage.com and Craigslist’s “personals” section.

Craigslist removed the section from its website and redirected visitors to a statement about FOSTA. Two weeks later, the FBI seized Backpage and posted a federal seizure notice on the website.

Federal authorities seized Backpage.com and posted a federal seizure notice on the website’s homepage on April 6, 2018.

Maya used to advertise on Craigslist. “It was a really valuable resource,” she said. “But unfortunately, we don’t have that resource anymore,” she said. “It’s horrible now,” she said, describing the process of finding clients without the platform.

How the internet changed sex work

The closures hit low-income sex workers the hardest because Backpage and Craigslist were among the only free or affordable websites where they could advertise.

What had been revolutionary about these websites was that they enabled even the most marginalized sex workers — people who, before the internet, generally worked on the street — to start working indoors.

They could find clients on their own without relying on third parties like pimps or escort agencies; they could screen prospective clients before meeting them through methods like speaking on the phone or requesting things like photo ID, proof of workplace and references; and they were less subject to arrest by law enforcement.

Researchers at Baylor University recently found that Craigslist’s personals section reduced the female homicide rate by 10% to 17% after studying its geographically-stratified rollout between 2002 and 2010.

“The internet enabled sex work to become safer. Not being on the street is fundamentally safer because there is less opportunity to be exposed to violence,” Alptraum said.

And, says Heather Berg, a sex work scholar at the University of Southern California, Backpage and Craigslist were the most democratic websites out there.

“For working-class and survival sex workers, their modes of advertising and screening clients have been really decimated by this,” she said.

With the sites gone, this group of sex workers — who are more likely to be transgender and more likely to be people of color — don’t have anywhere else to post ads online.

Many have ended up working on the street.

In the last year, cities across the U.S. have seen an increase in street-based sex work. In September, law enforcement in San Antonio, Phoenix and Sacramento told the Associated Press that arrests for street prostitution had increased significantly since FOSTA-SESTA was passed. Police in Houston reported seeing more 14- to 17-year-olds working on the street.

In October, San Francisco police said crimes related to pimping and sex trafficking had more than tripled in 2018 and called an increase in violence against sex workers a “concerning trend.”

In December, New York City arrest data showed a 180% increase in arrests for loitering for the purpose of prostitution, even though other prostitution-related crimes had been declining for years.

The problem is that street-based sex work is lot more dangerous.

“[It] means having to negotiate business in person: meaning, it’s potentially life threatening to say no to a client’s request,” wrote Seattle-based sex worker Laura LeMoon in October.

Reinforcing income inequality

LeMoon has struggled with homelessness in the past, and in the last year, she’s had to take additional jobs as a maid, at McDonald’s, at a pizza parlor and as a freelance writer.

She said that the only sex workers who haven’t struggled financially after FOSTA-SESTA are those who are established, with regular clients from the old days.

“What these laws have done is to bifurcate the sex industry so that there is now only high-income career escorts (usually white) who are little affected by these laws and everyone else,” she wrote on the law’s one-year anniversary.

There are still websites out there where sex workers can advertise, but they cater to a more elite client base than Craigslist and Backpage did — they’re more expensive for sex workers. Posting a basic ad on one of these sites can cost between $200 and $400.

“A lot of sex workers can’t afford that,” Maya said.

In part, these sites have been able to survive because they have the resources to locate their IP addresses overseas.

But according to Alptraum, there’s probably also a class dynamic at play. Sites used by low-income sex workers are considered easier targets for law enforcement because of the assumption that women making less money are victims of exploitation.

“When in reality, it’s often much more complicated,” she said. “This may just be the best way for them to make the money they need to make.”

For Berg, the fact that the elite sites are still around is an important indicator. “I would argue that FOSTA-SESTA was never meant to actually eradicate online prostitution but rather to target a specifically vulnerable community of workers.”

She said the sites allow wealthy sex workers to purchase the privacy that FOSTA-SESTA made impossible for the majority of sex workers.

“FOSTA-SESTA made the sex industry whiter and more privileged,” Maya said.

Some sex workers have tried to work in legal areas of the industry, like brothels or porn. But in Maya’s experience — she’s done both — there’s more racial discrimination there.

“They won’t hire you unless you look a certain way,” she said. “It’s a very white world, the brothels and the porn industry.”

Because some sex workers have been pushed out of the industry entirely, there’s less competition between those at the top. High-end escorts have been able to raise their prices even further.

“I’ve seen girls who used to charge $1,000, now charging $2,000, or $3,000,” Maya said.

This is while the majority of those still doing sex work have lost a lot of their freedom.

The rise of escort agencies, massage parlors and pimps

“The biggest and most worrying shift is that it’s harder for sex workers to work independently,” Berg said.

“In terms of logistics, it made it much harder to advertise and screen clients on one’s own,” she explained. “What that means from a business perspective is that workers are starting to associate with third parties.”

Those are the escort agencies, massage parlors and pimps who provide the kind of access to clients and protection from violence that sex workers used to be able to secure for themselves via the internet.

It’s safer than working on the street independently, but it means giving up a lot of power.

Maya has tried working for massage parlors and escort agencies. But, she said, “You become a working girl. You have to work every day. And a lot of your profits are taken away. Before, if I priced myself at $500, I got $500. But an agency might price all the girls at $200 — and then pay them $100,” she said. “That kills me, after working independently.”

In short, she lost what had made sex work so much better than retail.

“The outcome has been that sex workers have lost income and the ability to be independent. It’s made them more dependent on criminals,” Brents said.

The irony of FOSTA-SESTA is that a law that was supposed to reduce exploitation has made sex workers more likely to enter into exploitative relationships.

Meanwhile, it didn’t remove predatory opportunists from the internet — it appears to have emboldened them. When the law passed, there were multiple reports of sex workers being flooded by messages, online and offline, from pimps trying to recruit them.

The dynamic makes sense to Brents, because she’s seen it play out in her research on Nevada’s brothel industry: “We encountered a lot of individuals who were able to get away from bad relationships thanks to the legal brothels, because they could work legally and they had a way of earning an income outside of the control of their pimps.”

Exploitation in the sex industry, Brents said, is largely a product of its criminalization.

“If it were out in the open, there would be ways to regulate it just like you regulate any other business,” she said.

Legal brothels in Nevada have helped some sex workers escape bad relationships with pimps, says University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor Barbara Brents. Above, the Shady Lady Ranch brothel in Nye County, Nevada.

What happens next?

Andrews, the Sex Workers Outreach Project board member, said FOSTA-SESTA is the result of lawmakers being out of touch with the economic realities sex workers face.

“There’s so much money going into policing these marginalized communities, but there aren’t any community organizations to serve them,” she said.

“Folks are definitely scrambling to find other alternatives, but those alternative just don’t exist,” Berg said. “The push factors remain the same: Wages are stagnating in the formal economy, and rents are going up. In my experience, a majority of people are still making do through the informal economy in the ways they can. … One point of strength here is that sex workers, before any other sector of the gig economy, got really crafty at managing freelance labor.”

Maya will probably keep doing sex work.

“I don’t really see another option at this point,” she said. Because of the stigma it carries, sex workers often face employment discrimination when they try to leave the industry.

“It’s hard because now, sex work is on my record. I’ve done porn, I’ve worked for a brothel — both of which are on my record, because that was legal. So trying to work for another job would be really hard. It’s not like I haven’t tried applying for other things — I have. But it’s hard to get hired for anything,” Maya said.

For now, she’s trying to stay afloat: “Even though I’m getting shut out of a lot of opportunities, I’m trying to find ways to make money. I’m going to persevere, like all sex workers do.”

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