The sex police are at it again.
In a society so rife with sexual scandals involving men (and the occasional woman too) in high and powerful places it seems somehow hypocritical when righteous Senators and Representatives legislate yet one more obstacle to the safety and honest labor of sex workers.
Yet, that is what they have done, by passing the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SOSTA). FOSTA was passed by the House and the Senate passed SOSTA, and then they were combined into one law, now awaiting what seems to be the almost certain signature of President Trump (of course, with him, it’s not done until its actually done and he can’t take it back).
Here is relevant language from the bill:
“§ 2421A. Promotion or facilitation of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking
“(a) In General.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.
“(b) Aggravated Violation.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person and—
“(1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons; or
“(2) acts in reckless disregard of the fact that such conduct contributed to sex trafficking, in violation of 1591(a),
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 25 years, or both.”
The casual observer might well feel good that Congress has taken a step to stop sex trafficking. I certainly want sufficient tools to combat the horrors of forcing people to be sexual with others against their will (certainly when children are involved but also adults who are coerced into being the sexual tools of others). So, this law ought to make me feel good, right?
Sadly, no. There are two aspects to the legislation which feel especially egregious to me. First, the act conflates sex trafficking with legitimate, chosen sex work by using the term “prostitution” as that which is subject to its provisions. Thus, sex workers, not just sex traffickers, are affected by the law.
Second, the act has the very clear potential to increase risks to the safety of sex workers. By holding web hosting companies and others responsible, and subject to jail time and fines, when they knowingly allow ads and other notifications of prostitution on their sites, the law actually can contribute to the inability of sex workers to screen clients. How is this so?
Basically, web companies and others don’t want to be involved in federal or state investigations and lawsuits due to sex-focused advertising. A zealous prosecutor can quickly make things expensive and burdensome for a company. What is the solution? Stop accepting advertising that promotes sex (prostitution in the language of the act).
And that is already happening. The upshot is that sex workers are forced back on the streets without ways to screen clients. Craigslist, which had closed down its erotic notices section in 2010 in response to earlier legal problems, now, as the result of this law, has closed down its “Personals” section, which many individuals who are not sex workers used for sexual hook-ups.
Which is why I speak of the sex police.
This new law, while having a commendable intent to prevent sex trafficking, adds yet one more layer to the criminalization, or at least prohibition, of consensual sex acts between and among adults (with and without compensation).
Indeed, it perpetuates the mistaken notion that the government can and should stop sex work. This is not unlike the unsuccessful campaign to end drinking by banning the sale of alcohol. Prohibition acts in the states and the constitutional amendment were passed but drinking did not stop. If that campaign were going on now, it seems likely that the advocates would, like the sex-focused Congress now, penalize online promotion of drinking alcohol.
In both blogs, there is a recognition of the centrality of sex to the lives of human animals. And there is a positive valuation of various consensual ways people endeavor to exercise their sexual muscles, to live in ways that reflect their own sexual desires and attitudes in concert with willing others.
These two points—the centrality of sex in our lives and the honoring of the various consensual ways we are sexual—are base line, theological, spiritual values for me. They are grounded in my belief that every body, every single body—regardless of size, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, age, and all other ways we humans set up to draw lines around individuals and groups of people—is beautiful and reflects the Creator. The entire universe—every human and non-human being as well as all rocks, molecules, trees, everything—is, for me, the Body of God, and each of those is valued in itself for carrying divine DNA to make that Body.
And key to this is the energy source which keeps it all going. I call that source eros, the divinely inspired and desired power of connection among us all. Sex is the opportunity for making connection.
So, instead of continuing efforts to penalize people for wanting sex, we should be encouraging an openness to it, a celebration in fact of our desire for connection. Desire is not encouraged or made possible through coercion—that is abuse and rape—but through creating safe conditions that make it possible for us to explore and share our sexual selves with others.
I wish I thought the President would veto the legislation, but I know it will not be so (even though the Justice Department raised some concerns about possible restraint of speech).
We need to promote the decriminalization of sex acts among consenting adults and oppose efforts which perpetuate old attitudes about the evil of sex. Congress has failed that test, again.
Recently, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). SESTA closes the loophole in section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, in which websites were not liable for the content users produced and shared on their website. FOSTA makes online ads for prostitution a federal crime- either posting the ads or hosting the content.
Please let me be clear: sex trafficking is a horrendous violation of human rights and should be prevented and stopped. There is no equivocation on this fact. FOSTA/SESTA does not achieve this goal; in fact, it makes it harder to catch those dealing in human trafficking as they are forced to go “underground” and limit internet exchanges. So not only does this bill not do what it was designed to do, it also makes consensual sex work significantly more dangerous.
I have many friends who are consensual sex workers- adults who have been in the industry for years and continue to stay in the industry of their own volition. Some enjoy the work; others view it as a job. A friend recently pointed that out we place expectations on consensual sex workers such as “is the job fulfilling?” and “do you feel empowered by your work?” She pointed out that we do not require “fulfillment” or “empowerment” or any such conditions on other jobs- grocery baggers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, etc. Some find it fulfilling; others do it for a paycheck; she argued that requiring sex work to be considered “fulfilling” in a specific way was still placing moralistic judgement on the work. For her, it is a job; she doesn’t love it and doesn’t hate it, but it pays the bills and she’s been in the industry long enough that she has a good client base and is able to work relatively safely.
I say all this to say- consensual sex work is, like any other profession, a job. There are good days and bad days. I don’t pretend that there aren’t risks associated with sex work, but I do recognize that requiring that those doing the work feel a specific way about the work (a) continues to reinforce this idea that sex work isn’t work in the same ways we view other jobs as work and (b) makes it harder for sex worker to talk about “bad days,” because the default answer is almost always, “Well, why don’t you stop doing it then?”
One of the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA is that it shuts down online ads for prostitution- including the ads of consensual sex workers. This means that advertisements leading people to personal websites where workers are able to screen clients safely (rather than being forced to meet in person) are now illegal. This forces many workers who do not already have a client base to engage in higher-risk sex work (including, but not limited to street-based sex work and meeting clients in-person for screening). This also means that sharing information about sex work in online forums- such as exchanging names and information of bad clients, or tips for how to screen new clients- is now a federal crime.
Websites such as craigslist have already taken steps, such as shutting down it’s personal section rather than face prosecution for hosting prostitution ads. The craigslist personals section covered everything from sex work ads to people looking for random hookups local to their area. Fetish websites such as FetLife have put out their own guidelines for complying with FOSTA/SESTA, which means those who advertise the exchange of goods for sex (which sometimes includes professional dominatrices, or pro-dommes) will be subject to having their accounts deleted, and any mention of prostitution in any form will be deleted from the website- including those who engage in consensual interactions where they roleplay prostitution scenarios.
The implications of these bills are vast and with the ambiguous language, are able to be interpreted quite broadly. Conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking does a disservice to both groups- in fact, I know of no group more vocal in stopping the abuse of sex trafficking than sex workers. FOSTA/SESTA not only puts consensual sex workers in a significantly more dangerous position, and not only does it elevate safety measures for sex workers (such as online screening) to a federal prostitution charge, but it makes it harder to catch those engaging in sex trafficking, driving them offline and forcing them to create new networks that are not as easy to track as online networks.
These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex. It is unclear how these bills might impact things like the #MeToo movement (more on that here) or censor online discussions of sex at all (a comprehensive look at the impacts of FOSTA/SESTA can be found here). The reality is, this bill is an atrocious piece of legislation that impacts everyone- but specifically makes sex work more difficult, more dangerous, and does not protect victims of sex trafficking.
We must do more to fight trafficking and protect and support victims of sex trafficking. But measures such as FOSTA/SESTA, however good-intentioned they might be, do significantly more harm than good and do not achieve their goal. We need to look at ACTUAL measure to protect victims- many suggestions and resources come from within the sex work community. Criminalizing consensual sex work in an effort to protect victims of trafficking not only removes the autonomy of adults to make their own decisions about their employment- never mind choices about their bodies- by conflating all sex work as a form of trafficking, but it also removes a vital, necessary resource toward ending trafficking- the resources and knowledge of sex workers who are connected to the sex industry. Sex workers are far more knowledgeable about the sex industry than those peering in from the outside with a savior mentality, and have been fighting trafficking for years, often without legal and social support. It’s time to stop criminalizing sex work and focus on supporting sex workers- which will do more to end trafficking than ambiguous, blanket-statement legislation written by those who don’t fully understand the implications of these actions.
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