Anti-Trafficking Laws Are Hurting, Not Helping, but Sex Workers Are Fighting Back

Three years ago, Kristen DiAngelo met a mother in a desperate situation. The mother was being coerced into sex work by the father of her baby. He had threatened her and her family’s lives and had recently kicked in the door to her mother’s house.

“I can’t leave you out there,” DiAngelo, the co-founder and executive director of SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Program) Sacramento, remembered thinking.

She paid for the mother to stay in a hotel room for a night. Later, the mother stayed on her couch. DiAngelo also took her to the local domestic violence shelter, which required her to file a police report. From her own experiences with local law enforcement, DiAngelo knew that local police would do little to protect the mother, who had numerous arrests for sex work. In contrast, the man trafficking her had no arrest record and a college education.

The women approached the FBI about pressing trafficking charges against the woman’s exploiter. They shared emails and voice mails in which he threatened her. But, while the agents they spoke with were sympathetic, DiAngelo recounted, they said that, because the woman was over 18, the FBI would not investigate her claims.

That was the start of SWOP Sacramento’s safe house, a six-bed house where sex workers could live and find support services. Since then, the safe house has provided safe housing for dozens of sex workers. Some are fleeing exploitative and abusive situations. Others needed a safe and supportive environment to address drug addictions or mental health issues. Sex workers learned about the safe house through the organization’s website.

Then, in April 2018, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). These laws amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, now making it a federal crime to operate a website “with the intent to promote and facilitate the prostitution of another person.” The laws also allow state attorneys general to bring civil actions against website operators. Though FOSTA targets website operators, not sex workers, they have still resulted in a chilling effect on sex workers’ safety and survival options.

“Many people find us [and the safe house] through our website,” DiAngelo explained. But with FOSTA, advertising a safe house for sex workers might mean a 10-year prison sentence. “What does facilitating prostitution look like?” asked DiAngelo. “Is it giving a girl three to six months in a [safe] house to detox and get healthy?” None of the attorneys or legal advocates they consulted could tell SWOP Sacramento about what constituted the promotion and facilitation of prostitution. Volunteers and staff began scrambling to find beds elsewhere for the house’s residents. Less than two months after FOSTA became law, SWOP Sacramento closed its safe house.

Without the Internet, She Might Have Remained Trapped

It was the internet — and the ability to advertise on-line — that enabled Cecilia Gentili to escape her trafficker. Gentili, a trans woman originally from Argentina, met a man who convinced her to engage in street-based sex work. “He said it was for us, but really it was for him,” Gentili told Truthout. “There wasn’t much of an option [not to work],” she continued. “It would have put me in a dangerous situation.” Not only did her exploiter threaten to call immigration authorities on Gentili, but he also played on her insecurities as a trans woman. “I felt I needed a masculine figure validating me and taking care of me,” she explained, before adding, “I also didn’t understand the definition of trafficking.”

About a year into what she describes as “the situation,” Gentili realized that she could advertise online — and, with the ability to screen potential clients — didn’t need to rely on someone to physically protect her. “I was able to break from that situation because of advertising online,” she said. “I was able to procure my own clients without having someone else ‘take care of me,’ and by ‘take care of me’ I mean take all my money.” But, had FOSTA existed at the time, shuttering many of the sites where she might advertise her services, Gentili might have remained trapped.

Increased Reports of Assaults Against Sex Workers

Websites have been an invaluable tool for sex workers to not only screen clients, but also share information with each other about violent or dangerous clients. “Before, you could go into an [on-line] database to see if this person had been reported for violence,” explained Ceyenne Doroshow, founder and executive director of GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society). “That database is history.” Doroshow has a long history of working with trans sex workers, a population that was already particularly marginalized, criminalized and vulnerable to violence before SESTA and FOSTA became law.

Even before SESTA/FOSTA took effect, websites began removing content from sex workers while others shut down altogether. In 2014, the FBI shut down and, two sites where sex workers had exchanged safety and community information, in addition to being able to advertise for free. In October 2017, the crowdfunding site Patreon changed its guidelines to prohibit fundraising “to produce pornographic material such as maintaining a website, funding the production of movies, or providing a private webcam session,” resulting in suspensions and bans of many adult content creators who had relied on the platform for regular income.

On April 6, 2018, even before the president signed FOSTA into law, the Department of Justice seized and shut down Backpage, where many sex workers advertised. FOSTA is the latest removal of online options for sex workers, but the effects have been immediate—and, in the words of sex worker rights groups, alarming.

Coyote (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) RI, a sex worker rights organization, conducted a survey of 262 sex workers between April 14 and May 25, 2018. Seventy percent (or 188 people) reported that sex work had been their primary source of income before FOSTA and 77 percent (or 207 people) were the sole providers for their families. Within a week of the laws’ passage, 70 percent noticed a drop in their income, rendering them unable to pay for rent, food, utilities or phone. In one instance, Doroshow told Truthout, the decrease in work forced one of her clients to give up her car, thus decreasing her mobility and safety, and also to forgo health care for her chronic illness, which, without treatment, is now worsening.

This decrease has forced many to compromise safety and boundaries, whether by accepting clients they might otherwise decline or agreeing to acts — including riskier sex and taking drugs — that they would have previously avoided. Sixty percent (or 157) of the people that Coyote RI surveyed said that they now take on less safe clients in order to make ends meet. Sixty-five percent (or 170) reported that someone had tried to threaten, exploit or get free services from them.

Now, with websites shuttering, more and more of the sex workers that she works with are reporting being pushed into dangerous situations. Doroshow told Truthout about one woman who was raped, choked and beaten “within an inch of her life.” She survived, but remains haunted by the attack.

Website closures have also affected organizing for labor rights. In New York City, one dancer, who spoke to Truthout anonymously, said that even before FOSTA, the fear of being fired and blacklisted made many strippers and dancers hesitant to join organizing efforts for improved working conditions. At the club where she worked, dancers began talking about the need for more security to prevent dancers from being sexually assaulted. They also wanted cleaner club conditions. “We never talked about strikes or a union,” she clarified. Still, fear of being fired –and blacklisted among the city’s club owners — made many hesitant to press their demands. With the passage of FOSTA and fewer websites, dancers see fewer work options if they are blacklisted in retaliation for organizing. “If you can’t dance, you can’t just put an ad online anymore,” she said.

The websites’ closures and censorship of sex workers’ content also means that many are turning to street-based sex work. In Sacramento, DiAngelo notes that the number of sex workers in the city’s three strolls (areas for sex-based street work) has increased, including people who have little to no experience working on the streets. Engaging in street-based sex work forces them to make a snap judgment about potential danger from a prospective client.

It also increases vulnerability to predators, including police harassment, arrest and violence. Many cities have ordinances against loitering that are used against street-based sex workers, particularly women of color. “As people are being pushed onto the stroll and off the Internet, cities are continuing to enforce ordinances against loitering,” explained Andrea Ritchie, a police brutality attorney and author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. “Sex workers are being arrested and fined even though the reason they’re doing this work is because they need money. This just drives them into the crosshairs of the criminal legal system and the revolving cycle of fees and fines.”

Street-based sex work, with the accompanying risks of arrest and prosecution, also increases risks of HIV and STIs. In some cities, police and prosecutors use condoms as proof of prostitution, explained Gentili, now the assistant director of public affairs at GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). Though some cities, such as New York and San Francisco, have eliminated condoms-as-evidence of prostitution, Gentili pointed out that sex workers new to the city — or to street-based sex work in the city — may be unaware of the change. “They don’t know about the laws changing and so they continue to go out without condoms.”

At the same time, support services and advocacy are being taken offline — and thus becoming less accessible to those who need them most. Gentili, who worked at HIV prevention organizations, explained that she and other service providers often identified sex workers through their online ads. They then sent them emails with information about HIV prevention, testing, and health and social services. In addition, she noted, “most of the sites [with sex workers’ ads] had a lot of ads about preventing STIs and HIV.” With these sites gone, those working around HIV prevention and treatment must find other ways to reach their target audiences.

The Desiree Alliance, which hosts the country’s largest annual conference for sex workers, announced the cancellation of its 2019 conference. The conference page explains, “Due to SESTA/FOSTA enactments, our leadership made the decision that we cannot put our organization and our attendees at risk. We hope you understand our grave concerns and continue to resist every law that exists to harm sex workers! Keep fighting!”

“New Zealand Is an Important Model”

In 2003, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalized sex work and expunged past arrests and convictions for sex work-related acts. “Under this model, you can do sex work in any setting and it’s not criminalized,” explained Sienna Baskin, former co-director of the Sex Workers’ Project at the Urban Justice Center and now the director of the NEO Anti-Trafficking Fund. This means that sex workers can legally work out of their homes, on the street, in a collective setting or on the Internet. Trafficking, however, remains a crime. So does promoting a minor in prostitution, though if a person under the age of 18 is engaged in sex work, the child is not arrested or prosecuted. Basically, explained Baskin, who received a Fulbright grant to study the results of New Zealand’s decriminalization model, “you cannot harm others and get away with it.”

Baskin notes that it’s hard to say whether decriminalization resulted in a decrease in violence against sex workers, in large part because of a lack of data about assaults before the 2003 law. However, she noted, “The relationship between sex workers and the police was completely transformed. The police went from being a potential enemy to becoming a potential source of support and safety.” Sex workers were able to report incidents of violence without fear of arrest and with the knowledge that their complaints would be investigated.

“New Zealand is an important model for everyone around the world to understand,” Baskin stated. “It doesn’t solve everyone’s problems all the time, but it has eliminated one source of harm and stigma.”

But, she cautions, the US political structure means that decriminalization would have to happen on a state-by-state basis, in the same way that gay marriage or marijuana legalization have taken effect.

Sex Workers Keep Fighting

While sex workers and advocates have long fought for their rights and safety, the federal law has galvanized even more people. “FOSTA politicized a lot of people,” noted Lola Balcon, a community organizer for sex workers’ rights. That politicization has taken many forms — from rallies to lobbying representatives to door-to-door canvassing.

On June 1, dozens of sex workers took to the halls of Congress to talk with their representatives about the impact of FOSTA on their lives and safety. “We spoke about how these laws were directly impacting marginalized communities, how sex workers used the internet to stay safe,” Phoenix Calida later wrote in Motherboard/Vice. “We talked about how sex workers used websites to screen clients, and now not only was that option gone, it was illegal to share our bad date lists with each other because of how broad and vague this bill is. Even the staffers who knew about the bill seemed shocked to learn that harm reduction practices like handing out condoms or emailing names of dangerous clients to other sex workers can be seen as criminal.”

The following day, hundreds of sex workers took to the New York City streets, commemorating International Whores’ Day, the anniversary of sex workers’ 1975 occupation of churches in France, and denouncing SESTA/FOSTA.

Less than two weeks later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, 200 sex workers, advocates and allies skipped the city’s annual Mermaid Parade to gather inside Dreamland, a DIY queer arts venue in Queens, for a town hall where they aired their concerns to congressional candidate Suraj Patel, who was challenging incumbent (and FOSTA sponsor) Carolyn Maloney in the Democratic primary. (Patel lost by 11 percent or approximately 7,200 votes).

Undeterred by Patel’s loss and galvanized by the idea of sex workers as a force in local elections, many have shifted their energy to campaigning for Julia Salazar, a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidate running for New York State Senate. “The State Senate is where piecemeal parts of sex work decriminalization often get stuck,” reflected Balcon, who helped organize sex workers to support Patel. On August 1, sex worker organizers threw a pizza party in which Salazar met with and listened to 150 sex workers. More than half of the attendees have signed up to knock on doors and canvass for the candidate around her northern Brooklyn district.

On the federal level, FOSTA is facing its first legal challenge. On June 28, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, Human Rights Watch and the Internet Archive, along with individual sex worker rights advocates, filed a federal lawsuit charging that FOSTA violates the First and Fifth Amendments and requesting a preliminary injunction to stop the law from remaining in effect until the suit is decided. At an injunction hearing the following month, federal judge Richard Leon made no decision on the request; he also did not set a date as to when he would issue a ruling.

As the lawsuit winds its way through federal court, sex workers and their allies continue to organize and to create their own financial safety nets. Sex workers and their allies have organized emergency relief fundraisers for those most impacted by FOSTA. One fundraiser raised $17,000 in one night. But, noted Balcon, “it’s not a new job. It’s not a new economic opportunity. Even if you had ten times the relief that you have now, it would not be enough.”

Put another way, she said, “Say that 90 percent of mining jobs were eliminated tomorrow. Would five figures of donations be enough to stymy the jobs lost?”

Despite the ravages of the law, Gentili remains hopeful. “I see sex workers fully engaged in organizing,” she reflected. “Sex work has always been under the shadow of stigma and shame. So, to see sex workers coming together to find solutions rather than having senators make decisions for them is really important.”