New laws strip sex workers of their storefront and safety tools

The bill’s supporters have framed FOSTA and SESTA as vital tools that will allow officials to police websites and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimisation. This is a disingenuous portrayal, however, because it fails to acknowledge the ways the internet makes it easier for sex workers to do their work safely, while also making it easier for law enforcement to document and gain evidence about illegal activity.

Melissa Mariposa, who responded to the bill by creating an offshore-hosted, sex worker-friendly ISP, described the risks to the Daily Dot:

“If sex workers lose their storefront and safety tools, two things are going to happen,” Mariposa explained. “Number one, the predators will come out to play. Number two, prostitution is going to be pushed right back on the street and in hotel bars by women who will no longer want to see internet clientele and would rather take the risks freelancing. This will create more victims than it helps.”

The stigmatisation of sex workers — men and women, cis and transgender, escorts, streetwalkers and masseuses — has knock-on effects that make the work more dangerous than it needs to be, says Elena Jeffreys, the co-ordinator of advocacy group Respect Inc.

“They arrest us for things like working in pairs, sharing a workspace, sharing overheads and our phones, making a referral for a booking to another worker, hiring a receptionist or using a driver that another sex worker has used and recommended to us,” Ms Rose said.

Despite the suspicion and tension that exists between sex workers and police, Ms Jeffreys says she counts police officers among her clientele.

“They usually don’t talk about their job, they don’t want to be known as a police officer because I guess that would make them vulnerable too,” she said.

“So, they are worried about their privacy and protections just as much as the workers are.

“I do think most people are quite confused about the laws. Unless you’re a sex worker, even most police wouldn’t have a reason to be 100 per cent across the laws.”

“Our basic safety strategies are illegal.

“Police pose as clients to identify if we’re implementing these safety strategies, and then sex workers are charged.

“Sex workers have to choose between working legally, or working safely.”

Meanwhile, Asian sex workers claim they have a much tougher time staying on the right side of the law because of language barriers.

Sex worker Vicki said the advertising laws were very complex for those whose first language was not English.

“The police have the power, we don’t have any,” she said.

“It’s very difficult for any Asian sex worker to convince the police we are there [consensually.]

“The attitude of the police is, they don’t trust us and they don’t like us and they say things like ‘we’re going to send you home’.

“The police don’t believe that we have the ability to work independently. They believe we are controlled.”

The task of identifying and effectively prosecuting sex traffickers continues to be challenging, however. In 2017, according to the same State report, U.S. law enforcement agencies initiated a combined total of 1,795 trafficking investigations. Of these, the Department of Justice initiated just 282 federal investigations involving human trafficking, and ultimately opened just 266 prosecutions for charges predominantly involving sex trafficking. Overall, of 553 defendants who were prosecuted on a range of smuggling charges including sex trafficking, just 471 sex traffickers were convicted, with sentences ranging from one month to life in prison.

The bill’s language penalizes any websites that “promote or facilitate prostitution,” and allows authorities to pursue websites for “knowingly assisting, facilitating, or supporting sex trafficking,” which is vague enough to threaten everything from certain cryptocurrencies to porn videos to sites for perfectly legal escort services. (In fact, one of the bill’s main supporters, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, is arguably using the bill as a path to attack consensual adult pornography, which it has characterized as “violent,“ “degrading,” and “a public health crisis.”)

In addition, Reddit banned multiple subreddits in response, including r/escorts, r/maleescorts, r/hookers and r/SugarDaddy. Redditors at other forums, like r/SexWorkers, rapidly began redefining and re-articulating their rules in order to keep their own communities safe from the crackdown. Meanwhile, sex workers who had been relying on jobs coming from various websites were left grappling with a complicated litany of precautions to take in order to continue trying to conduct their business safely in the shadow of the new law.

Motherboard also reported that in the wake of SESTA’s passage, Google began reviewing and deleting content directly off the Drive accounts of several of its users. Though the tech giant has a longstanding policy against stashing sexually explicit images and videos on its popular cloud storage system, it appears to have begun a proactive sweep of its user accounts in response to the bill.

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