We love when celebrities live their values and get behind politicians in Congress who are trying to make the world a better and safer place. But this month, the Senate is passing legislation that would hurt sex workers, and we have a feeling that some of the anti-sex trafficking bill’s celeb supporters — like Amy Schumer and Seth Myers, along with most of the politicians in both the House and Senate — didn’t really think the bill through. Or they did and they just don’t care about how this legislation conflates sex work and sex trafficking, which are two very different things. Either way, it’s time to call your senators, representatives, and get on your faves’ Instagram accounts and ask them to have a second look at what this bill really does. It was supposed to be voted on last week, but they put it on hold, so there’s still a chance that it won’t pass.
Let’s back up a minute, because there’s a lot going on with these bills. The one the Senate is voting on any day now is called the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), a bill that would clarify the country’s existing sex-trafficking laws and update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in an effort to theoretically protect sex workers. The House actually passed a similar bill called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, earlier this year which is basically the same piece of legislation and why you might often see the bill referred to as SESTA-FOSTA in the media.
Obviously, no one wants to *support* online sex trafficking. But the bills target websites, like Backpage and others, that actually allow sex workers to do their jobs safely. It really does very little to stop sex trafficking. Conflating sex work and sex trafficking, as these bills do, puts real lives at risk.
Supporters of SESTA-FOSTA feel like websites like Backpage or Craigslist take advantage of the Communications Decency Act so that victims of sex trafficking and state attorney generals can’t sue them or make them take illegal content down.
It makes sense that so many legislators and well-intentioned celebs hopped on the bandwagon without thinking. No one wants women or children to be trafficked for sex. That’s clearly terrible. And way too many people stigmatize sex workers in a way that makes them an afterthought, which is essentially what’s going on here. One of SESTA and FOSTA’s main backers is the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which is also partly behind all of those new state bills that label pornography a health risk. Creating a moral panic around sex work and sacrificing the safety and livelihood of actual sex workers by lumping them with sex trafficking victims is not something you want to get behind.
Actual sex workers use Backpage and other websites like it to share “bad client” lists, work indoors and not on the proverbial “corner,” and screen clients. Adult performer Lorelei Lee posted an impassioned plea to her followers to call their senators a wrote on her Instagram page:
Alexander Levy, an adjunct professor of human trafficking and human markets at Notre Dame Law School says in a statement on the Stop SESTA website, “Section 230 doesn’t cause lawlessness. Rather, it creates a space in which many things — including lawless behavior — come to light. And it’s in that light that multitudes of organizations and people have taken proactive steps to usher victims to safety and apprehend their abusers.” Instead of shutting down what can be used as a safe space for sex workers and forcing them into the depths of the internet or back outside, legislators and celebs could be advocating for better resources for sex workers. And as a result, also protect victims of sex trafficking.
Laura LeMoon, an anti-trafficking and sex workers’ rights advocate and victim of sex trafficking herself, told Injustice Today that both SESTA and FOSTA are based on dangerous assumptions and a desire for easy solutions to sex trafficking. “It’s the assumption that if we go after all prostitution, we will by definition get some trafficking in there anyway, since it’s all ‘exploitative.’ I know that from my experience being on Backpage, you can’t just assume everybody’s experience in one industry.”
Opponents of SESTA-FOSTA aren’t just sex workers and anti-trafficking advocates, but also organizations that fight against censorship online, which is another side effect of these bills. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, for example, called the House vote on FOSTA a “win for censorship.”
Sex trafficking is not an easy crime to target and put an end to. But not all sex workers are being trafficked. Actually, the online places these bills target helps sex workers create their own safe spaces and work independently. If we really want to end sex trafficking, listening to actual trafficking survivors, advocates, and independent sex workers is essential. They’re telling us all that these bills aren’t going to do anything stop actual trafficking and actually make their lives as sex workers more dangerous. There’s still time, so call your representatives and tell them to vote against SESTA. Or help get Amy Schumer to at the very least.