Under the guise of saving trafficking victims, our government passed a bill that may actually increase the amount of trafficking in the sex industry and could result in the deaths of women, trans people, and LGBTQ people in disproportionate numbers. It’s called SESTA/FOSTA, and if you know someone who does consensual sex work (and maybe you do, even if you don’t know it) or you consume sex work (and chances are you have — ever watched porn?) then it’s affecting the lives and livelihoods of people you know.
SESTA/FOSTA — which stands for Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) — was presented as a bill to combat online sex trafficking. Advocacy groups found families and victims who were victims of sex trafficked and who shared their truly horrific stories. As a result, Craigslist dropped their personal ads section and Backpage was shutdown.
Basically everyone is against sex trafficking, but it’s a sloppily-written law that is doing more damage than good both to consensual sex workers and trafficking victims. And don’t take my word for it. Major organizations have come out against SESTA/FOSTA. The ACLU opposes it. One of the biggest anti-trafficking groups in the country — Freedom Network USA — opposes it. Even the Department of Justice opposes it, saying it will make it harder to prosecute sex traffickers.
But while it’s nice to know that big groups aren’t with this law, let’s focus on some of the people it actually affects: Sex workers. The law makes any website liable for “knowingly facilitating sex trafficking,” but doesn’t clarify what that means. Fearing legal action, sites where consensual sex workers advertised, screened clients, and exchanged reviews (among other things) have been taken down. And, as a result, the safety measures that sex worker communities created to protect themselves have been stripped away — and people have seen a significant loss of income.
“Basically, sex workers have lost their access to safe sources of income,” Lola Balcon, community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, tells Bustle. “And how that’s played out is people still have bills to pay, rent to make, children to feed. Because they were originally doing sex work for economic reasons and those economic reasons weren’t addressed, they’re still doing sex work. It’s just in a lot less safe conditions.”
Studies have shown that “outdoor” sex work is much more dangerous than “indoor” sex work. With the increased popularity and availability of the internet, many sex workers moved from soliciting clients on the street to contacting and screening clients online. One 2017 study, "Craigslist’s Effect on Violence Against Women", from researchers at West Virginia University and Baylor University found that when Craigslist started their “erotic services” section in New York, the female homicide rate dropped 17 percent. The researchers drew a clear correlation between that statistic and the fact that outdoor sex work has a “death by homicide rate over 13 times higher than the general population.”
“People are moving back outside,” Balcon says. “They no longer have access to client screening tools. Blacklists have moved. And since this law passed, we’ve not only seen increases in street-based work, we’ve also seen increases in homelessness because people are losing their housing.”
And rather than fight sex trafficking, people on the ground — as well as national organizations — are saying that SESTA/FOSTA may actually increase trafficking.
“We’ve also seen increases in trafficking in our communities,” Balcon says. “When FOSTA passed, a lot of third party managers started texting sex workers, saying, ‘The game’s changed. You need me to get clients.’ And it’s true. People literally just don’t have places to post, so a lot of people have gotten back into trafficking situations because of FOSTA.”
Sex workers are a part of so many communities: women, trans people, feminists, non-binary people, gay people, straight people, lesbians, immigrants, people of color, white people. The list goes on and on.
So what can allies do? There are a few concrete actions you can take if you’re pissed off about this law. First, Saturday, June 2, is International Whore’s Day (IWD). Sex workers and their allies will be marching in cities across the world to show support. Marches will include speakers, celebrations, and a lot of red — participants are asked wear the color to show their support. Marches will be held in Los Angeles, New York, DC, Chicago, the Bay Area, Austin, and Las Vegas and for more information about the march in each specific city, check out the breakdown on Survivors Against SESTA. So if there’s a march in your area, put on your best red outfit and hit the streets this weekend.
But what about those of us who don’t live in those areas, but who want to help? Or maybe you’re planning on going to a march, but want to do even more? Below, professionals in the sex work industry share what allies can do right now to support the sex work community.
Balcon says this fight is just getting started — and advocacy organizations are going to need a lot of money to see it through. She recommends connecting with local organizations that are advocating for sex workers’ rights or are doing harm reduction work. If nothing like that exists in your area, try reaching out and donating to anti-poverty, immigration, or LGBTQ groups, as they often have good perspectives on sex work.
However, be critical before you hand over your money. Mia Little, president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, sex worker advocate, and sex worker — points out that some organizations that looks like they’re pro-sex worker are actually anti-trafficking groups or anti-sex worker groups. They recommend seeking out groups that are run by sex workers and being aware that calling themselves “rescue organizations” is a red flag.
Antonia Crane — writer, writing instructor, stripper and performer in Los Angeles — also recommends donating to these organizations:
Those same organizations that need money almost always need volunteers. If you have more time than cash — or you’re just down with the cause and want to physically show up — ask about volunteer opportunities. Chances are that you’ll not only find yourself doing good work, but you’ll also join a community of other badasses like you.
SESTA/FOSTA was passed 97 to 2. If it's going to get repealed, it’s up to us to elect officials who won’t throw sex workers under the bus. Balcon says that now is the time to hold politicians accountable. So do your research and find out where your representatives stand on this issue. And if they don’t have a public stance, ask.
“If you’re able to vote, have this inform how you vote,” Little says. “Participate in that way.”
4. Use Your Privilege
Many sex workers aren’t able to be publicly out about their work. But if you’re an ally who doesn’t do sex work, you are able to be out about your support. “Allies occupy spaces that are not safe for sex workers,” Balcon says. “A huge part of advocacy is speaking up. Talk to your friends. That kind of work is not sexy but it makes a really big difference.”
You can also use your privilege to hold space — literal space — for voices within the community.
“If you’re connected to institutions — like universities — and are able to hold space for voices of marginalized people, I really encourage you to reach out to sex workers to speak from their perspective,” Little says. “Too often, when people are talking about sex trafficking and sex work, they have only academics and researchers. Have people with lived experiences also share.”
5. Help Squash Stigma
“Be nice to sex workers,” Crane says. “Help squash stigma and help decriminalize legit sex work.”
And, finally, don’t forget that being a good ally doesn’t just happen in a microcosm.
“To be a good ally doesn’t just happen in one-to-one interactions with you and a sex worker,” Little says. “Allyship informs how you move through the world and interact with everyone. It’s about seeing the different systems of oppression and how they intersect. And it’s about seeing how you benefit from them — and how you are affected by it.”
So this weekend, get out there. And next weekend? Volunteer. And the next? Give some money. This is going to be a long fight — and we’re all in it together.