The Federal Attack on Sex Workers’ Rights Is a Threat to Everyone’s Free Speech

On March 23, Craigslist decided to do away with personal ads. Last week, Microsoft announced plans to make it illegal to get naked on Skype. The company is also out to ban any “offensive language” from Xbox and Office. Reddit has changed its content policy as well: Now the site explicitly forbids users from advertising paid services including “physical sexual contact” on its platform. And it’s not just the big names that are making such urgent amendments. Pounced.org, a dating website for those into Furry Fandom, just shut down.

While some companies acknowledge it and some don’t, this trend appears to be spreading in anticipation of a sweeping piece of federal legislation that could soon become law. Enter FOSTA, or the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. The bill intends to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which prevents online intermediaries from being held liable for their users’ actions. The legislation was passed by the House of Representatives in late February. By late March, the Senate had voted to advance the measure (SESTA). It just needs Trump’s signature to be passed. Needless to say, tech companies and Internet freedom activists aren’t pleased.

Section 230 has governed the Internet for the past 22 years, which is why major platforms like Craigslist, Reddit and Microsoft have been able to host content that toes the legal line. But that kind of immunity became a significant point of contention in 2016, when the CEO of an online classifieds ad company called Backpage.com was arrested for helping facilitate child sex trafficking. A judge eventually dismissed the case, ruling that Section 230 ultimately protected the company. The law prevented the prosecution from going after the company, so politicians decided to go after the law instead.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to defend civil liberties in the digital world, says FOSTA will force online platforms to become “much more restrictive in what sorts of discussion — and what sorts of users — they allow, censoring innocent people in the process.” Other advocates for free speech say the measure violates the first amendment. Of course, there’s a sector of the U.S. workforce that stands to lose pay and basic safety protections if this measure goes into place: sex workers.

“Since their invention, online forums for advertisements and community-building have been essential to sex worker survival,” says Liz Afton, a counselor at the Sex Workers Project, an initiative of New York City’s Urban Justice Center (UJC), which provides legal and social services to people involved in sex work. “The bill strips away their access to online platforms that allow them to post advertisements for employment opportunities, build community with other sex workers, and share safety materials such as Bad Date lists—a life-saving resource that alerts other sex workers to predatory individuals so they can avoid dangerous interactions.”

Afton tells In These Times that taking away the ability to contact clients from home will effectively force sex workers back onto the street, where they risk exposure to police violence, street harassment, cold weather and inebriated clients. It also places sex workers in high-pressure environments, where they may not be able to negotiate things like compensation and condom use as effectively as they could online.

Moving offline also makes members of marginalized communities more visible to police and potentially problematic clients. It’s not uncommon for workers who are transgender, disabled, and people of color to rely on web buffers to stay safe. 

“Being arrested for ‘walking while black,’ or ‘walking while trans’ is outrageously common,” Red, a queer, non-binary sex worker and community organizer, tells In These Times. “Advertising online is a method of harm reduction. If sex workers can access affordable and reliable methods of advertising and screening clients, they are better able to work in-doors and in conditions they feel safer. Sharing client experiences and information is a method of harm reduction. Being able to communicate online about surviving violence and seeking resources is a method of harm reduction.”

“Losing the ability to organize, communicate and generate income by advertising puts sex-working people at risk for loss of work, violence, and cuts people off from larger online communities,” they add. “It threatens free speech but, more importantly, it threatens the bodily autonomy and self-determination of sex working people.”

The impact FOSTA will have on those involved in consensual sex work is obvious, and ominous. Of course, proponents of the bill argue that taking away access to platforms where sex services can be advertised is necessary to combat illegal sex trafficking. But critics fear the ostensible attempt to target traffickers will end up doing more to silence their victims, instead. Big-name companies that can afford to track libelous content will likely do so by way of imperfect algorithms. The language victims of sex trafficking may use in telling their stories, or even outing perpetrators, could be easily confused with the language used by the traffickers themselves. Computers, after all, aren’t so great at picking up context.

“What’s most important here should be centering the voices of people doing sex work and in the trade, and who are survivors of trafficking, who know what’s best for their well-being and futures,” says Red. “If politicians actually listened to sex workers on how to help support survivors who have experienced the violence of trafficking, there would moratoriums on raids and arrests, expanded access to emergency immigrant visas, expanded housing, food and cash assistance programs for starters.”