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Sex Work

SESTA Will Harm Sex Workers, Digital Sex Educators and the Freedom of the Internet

If you haven’t heard, the US Government just passed the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” – which in theory sounds like a very good thing. What kind of monster doesn’t want to stop sex trafficking, right? But for all the good intention that this bill apparently aimed for (we’re looking at you Amy Schumer), there’s a vast number of problems with it – it’s sloppily crafted, vague, and threatens the digital freedom of the internet.

But beyond the threat of theoretical digital censorship –  as a woman, and former sex worker, I have other major concerns. 

The bill specifically states to shut down websites that “unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and contribute to sex trafficking”. News flash ya’ll, there’s a difference between prostitution and sex trafficking, and conflating the two – which lawmakers do, over and over again – is done intentionally and results in an increase in crimes against women.  So often, prostitution and sex trafficking are coupled together in phrases like this which perpetuates a stigma that ultimately costs lives. 

Now let’s talk about the digital networks that this bill will affect- the big ones are Craigslist and Backpage – but the legislative language is so vaguely written that it could apply to private online forums and even direct messages and emails. That means that the digital networks used by sex workers to compare notes, share information on violent johns and screen clients will all be under attack, leaving sex workers even more vulnerable to danger.

Laws like this have proven to be failures in the past, both in the US and abroad. Websites that allow sex workers to advertise their services and screen their clients have provided a safer environment to operate. A 2017 study from Baylor and West Virginia Universities suggests that during the time that Craigslist provided an erotic services section on their front page, the rate of female homicide was reduced by 17.4%. This staggering discovery is not one of a kind; journalist and author Alison Bass writes in her book, Getting Screwed:

“…laws criminalizing prostitution are not only largely ineffective in curbing the sex trade, but are creating an atmosphere that encourages the exploitation of sex workers, and violence against all women. A growing body of research shows that anti-prostitution laws only make it more difficult for sex workers to protect themselves from physical harm, and from sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.”

Legal conflation of sex work and sex trafficking doesn’t only affect sex workers themselves; research  on whether these laws are effective on stopping sex trafficking is inconclusive, and conflation has rendered statistics about sex trafficking unreliable. Data is often sourced in a way that does not distinguish between consenting adults and forced laborers. 

In New Zealand, laws are a bit different; in 2003, sex work was decriminalized. Since then, the United NationsWorld Health Organization, and Amnesty International have praised New Zealand’s model for its efficacy. The United Nations has pushed for legalization of sex work globally in and effort to reduce violence and health issues. Similarly, in Germany, when sex work was decriminalized in 2001, a drop in trafficking was reported.

The consequences for those who in the sex space, like sex educators, sexual positive advocates and feminists? Rhett Jones at Gizmodo says that SESTA will lead some platforms to over-censor content with heavy-handed algorithms because it’s just too expensive to police it with humans, and algorithms are bad at nuance. An algorithm could easily confuse the language of sex educators and sexual assault survivors with those of a sex trafficker. (Here at Salty, we’ve already experienced this – being banned by Mailchimp within hours of our launch – not because our content is illegal in any way, but because the algorithms ping words like ‘sex’ and automatically put them into the spam basket, regardless of context.)

In order to move forward, language needs to change. Sex work needs to be decriminalized. Laws like SESTA/ FOSTA only enforce stigma, prohibit researchers from sourcing reliable data, and reduce the amount of safe work environments for sex workers. This law will cost lives, and only move us backwards in a fight against sex trafficking.

From the mouth of Babes: 

Rebecca Knox, a femme Dom from Pittsburg, says that “this bill eliminates the digital networks by which sex workers advertise and are able to safely screen their clients. We need better terminology for sex work and sex trafficking because they are vastly different and lumping in everyone who is operating adult businesses legally with actual criminals only furthers stigma around sex, porn, and other adult entertainment businesses.” 

Angie an NYC Dominatrix, states “It will put those who are already the most vulnerable in even more danger. It’s important that people like me and others on the more privileged spectrum of the whorearchy to speak up and time for people who consider themselves allies to demonstrate their support.”

Nessa from New Orleans says “I don’t need to be rescued. What I need, all survival sex workers need, all outdoor sex workers, call girls, escorts and rent boys need is decriminalization.” 


Molly Martin is a journalist living in Brooklyn, NY. A former exotic dancer, whe hopes to bring attention to the rights of under privileged sex workers and educate to fight the stigma associated with sex work. She also loves long walks on the beach.

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