Australian sexworkers - If you don't have time to read the whole article, here's the facts:
- FOSTA/SESTA is a bill that was drafted in an attempt to combat online sex trafficking in the United States, but the bill conflates sex trafficking with consensual sex work.
- If you are an Australian sex worker and have a website, it should not be affected if it is not hosted in the US.
- If your ads are hosted with an online directory, contact them to ensure their website is not hosted in the US, and that they do not promote escort services for the US.
- Always ensure your ads comply with the Australian laws for sex work advertising, which vary from state to state.
FOSTA, which was passed by the House of Representatives on February 27, is a combination of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). FOSTA/SESTA was created in an attempt to combat online sex trafficking in the US, but the legislation wrongly conflates sex trafficking with consensual sex work. Essentially, the legislation will make websites hosted in the US, criminally responsible if they can be seen as facilitating sex work (including consensual sex work), by making a change to a key part of the Communications Decency Act.
Donald Trump signed the controversial bill into law today, but FOSTA/SESTA has already had a destabilising and devastating effect on sex workers around the world.
Aside from wide political support and advocation from the religious right, some celebrities have spoken out in support of SESTA, including Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers, who went as far as to make a PSA about it. At the same time, many sex workers and advocates for trafficking victims have spoken out against FOSTA/SESTA, arguing it will make these vulnerable populations less safe.
Prior to the introduction of the bill, adult performer Lorelei Lee posted to her followers on Instagram:
“This bill claims to target human trafficking, but does so by creating new penalties for online platforms that are overwhelmingly used by consensual, adult sex workers to screen clients, to share “bad date lists,” to work indoors, and to otherwise communicate with each other about ways to stay alive. Data shows that access to these online platforms decreases violence against sex workers, but I don’t need data to know that my friends are safer with the ability to screen clients, to share information, and to work indoors. In 2006, my friend Sequoia was stabbed and killed by a client while working alone and outdoors. I know that supporters of these bills want to end violence against women and against marginalised people of all genders. So do I. SESTA will only increase violence against the most marginalised.”
By attempting to hold liable the tiny minority of those platforms whose users do shitty things, FOSTA/SESTA does real harm to the majority, who will likely be subject to online censorship.
Adult performer Janice Griffith told Vice, “Under SESTA/FOSTA there is no true differentiation between consensual sex work and trafficking—because many lawmakers do not see sex work as real work and dehumanize us strictly because of the CONSENSUAL business we take part in. There is no such thing as nonconsensual sex work—that is slavery, trafficking, whatever you want to call it—it isn’t work, sex work contains consent and autonomy. Just as forced labor of any other kind is not employment, sex slavery is not sex work.”
FOSTA/SESTA stems from a two-year inquiry into popular classified advertising website backpage.com, which has been linked to illegal sex trafficking. The site was seized and shut down by the Justice Department Saturday.
Online censorship isn’t the solution to fighting sex trafficking. Sex trafficking needs to be addressed but will punishing the forums on which sex workers find community and safety be effective in preventing sex trafficking? We think not.
Here's what to know about SESTA:
What exactly is FOSTA/SESTA?
FOSTA/SESTA is a bill that was drafted in an attempt to combat online sex trafficking in the United States. SESTA is in theory, supposed to aid the victims of human sex trafficking. The bill means that victims of human trafficking will be able to sue the websites their abusers may have used to communicate with one another.
According to stopsesta.org, the new version of FOSTA would:
- Expand existing federal criminal sex trafficking law to target online platforms where sex trafficking content appears. Platform owners could be prosecuted under the expanded law even if they didn’t know that people were using those platforms for sex trafficking purposes.
- Open online platforms to new criminal and civil liability for sex trafficking at both the federal and state levels.
- Expand federal criminal prostitution law to cover those who use the Internet to “promote or facilitate prostitution.” Many platforms would feel pressured to become more restrictive in their treatment of sexual speech.
- Change the law retroactively: an online platform could be prosecuted under state law or held civilly liable for sex trafficking for failing to comply with the law before it passed.
What is Section 230?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will be amended to note that websites can be prosecuted if they engage in the “promotion of facilitation of prostitution” or "facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.” The supporters have framed Section 230 as a loophole which allows websites to profit from forums which “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking.” The range of online services protected by Section 230, and thus hurt by FOSTA, is massive, and includes review sites, online marketplaces, discussion boards, ISPs, even news publications with comment sections.
Sex trafficking is obviously terrible. What’s the problem with FOSTA/SESTA?
FOSTA/SESTA incorrectly defines sex work and sex trafficking as one thing. When Rentboy and myRedbook were raided 2015, many sex workers who were able to use the service to screen clients and get the names of dangerous clients were forced to go onto the street, removing their means of pre-screening and safety.
The implications of the law go beyond trafficking though, as consensual sex workers may be charged with facilitating prostitution if they are seen in online forums exchanging safety information such as bad client lists or sex work survival and safety tips (if the sites are hosted in the US). The threat of prosecution has already led to a number of forums shutting down prior to the bill being made, including subreddits: Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers, and SugarDaddy. None of the forums were described as for advertising and were mainly used by sex workers to offer advice, support and communicate with each other.
The bill means that even people who have left the sex industry could find themselves banned from online platforms if they have openly discussed their work years prior.
It’s anticipated that the bill will only drive sex trafficking underground and punish the consensual sex workers who choose to work on the own free will.
Bizarrely, some of the discussions most likely to be censored could be those by and about victims of sex trafficking.
Are sex workers the only ones who oppose SESTA?
No. While SESTA is likely to threaten the livelihood of sex workers, some free-speech and tech companies have also opposed the bill. Nuala O’Connor, President and CEO of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, expressed their disapproval saying, “Without Section 230, intermediaries could wind up taking a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to hosting their users’ speech. Anything controversial, unpopular, or outside the mainstream could be viewed as a major risk of liability that many intermediaries simply couldn’t afford to take on. An Internet without Section 230 is one that diminishes the voice of the individual online, limits our access to information and diverse platforms for our speech, and pressures all intermediaries to act as gatekeepers and judge user content.”
How does SESTA affect Australian sex workers?
Australian escorts should start by making sure their websites and online advertising are hosted with companies that have received approval to publish the advertising of adult and escort services, and that do not promote escort services for the US. Australian sex workers and Australian online directories should also ensure they comply with the Australian laws for sex work advertising, which vary from state to state.
Where can I get more information on protecting myself as a sex worker?
SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project) have posted a great response on their Facebook page detailing self-care, safety and security, hosting info and websites (read it here). For more information on how to stay safe as a sex worker and understanding your rights, visit SWOP.
Australian sex workers can advertise free with Penthouse online directory. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org get your ad up.