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Sex Workers Are Canaries In The Free Speech Coal Mine

Marginalized groups often act as "patient zero" for regressive new laws, and a new bill that cuts away broad protections for online speech is no different.

Posted on April 7, 2018, at 11:18 a.m. ET

A worker at the Chicken Ranch brothel in Nevada.
Jae C. Hong / AP

A worker at the Chicken Ranch brothel in Nevada.

You may not have noticed, or you may be pretending you didn’t notice, but Congress last week voted to reverse decades of legal protection for free speech online, all in the name of targeting sex workers.

These type of things always start off targeting the voiceless — people whose warnings of what’s to come are rarely heard. But they never end there.

The new bill, misleadingly sold as the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (SESTA), is a disaster for our community — but not just our community. Sex workers are the canaries in the digital coal mine, and SESTA, if it isn’t fought and reversed, is a disaster for all kinds of online speech.

For sex workers, SESTA cuts to the heart of the core principle of consent. Advertising your services online means finding customers without the need to work out of “pick-up bars” — which police frequently target — or on the street, where the ability to screen clients is virtually nonexistent. If you’re a sex worker who wants to work indoors, in an environment that you control, you need the internet.

Within hours of the passage of the SESTA in late March, Reddit shut down its escort and sugar daddy communities; not long after, Craigslist deleted its personal ads. Popular industry sites also reacted: The Erotic Review closed its U.S. site, and CityVibe shuttered.

On Friday, as part of a crackdown that long predates SESTA, the country’s best known adult classifieds site, Backpage.com — a vital site for sex workers — was seized by the FBI. Without traffic from Backpage.com, the community has speculated that some will become hungry, homeless, or even dead. Professionals who serve actual trafficked victims believe the only way to track them now no longer exists.

It’s no surprise that a bill like this has manifested alongside the #MeToo movement — it challenges what it means to for sex workers to consent, and takes aim at the online speech that acts as evidence that we have.

This destruction of choices will likely widen the class division among sex workers and make it harder for those working on the street and in unsafe environments to move to more secure and better-paying models of work. And even those working in some of the sex industry’s safest and most lucrative jobs could be put at risk, given the bill’s ambiguity and the haste of its passage. Alice Little, an escort at Nevada’s Bunny Ranch, says even perfectly legal and exceptionally profitable businesses like hers — sex workers in Nevada operate legally as independent contractors — could be at risk.

SESTA “incentivizes web hosting companies, social media outlets, and any online business to simply consider that the business of legal sex workers is too risky to entertain,” Little said. “It could spell a slow death for the legal sex industry.”

Although I’m a sex worker who runs a business outside of Nevada, I still work voluntarily. And although I’ve done volunteer work with trafficked victims, I have never been one — and that puts me in a pretty good position to tell the difference.

While this radical move to limit online speech targets the sex industry for now, it’s unlikely to end there. The ambiguously written bill creates what is in effect a special loophole to target the speech of sex workers within the sweeping legal protections given to online speech. And because marginalized groups often act as Patient Zero for regressive new laws, it will be no surprise when this new approach to censorship eventually spreads across the internet.

In particular, as Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, points out, internet startups will be stifled, as the cost of potential litigation would only be manageable for giants like Facebook and Google. It’s not a coincidence that both those Silicon Valley monopolies came out in support of the bill.

Liara Roux, a sex worker and organizer focused on sex worker safety and queer issues, noted that social platforms like Twitter began silencing sex workers long before SESTA. Tech companies have always experimented with censorship, and sex workers have always been one of the first to feel the sting.

"Sex workers already have their voices minimized on social media due to shadow banning or ghettoizing entire profiles behind ‘adult content’ tags," she told me. "That means that we don't show up in tags like #MeToo, and tags we've created like #LetUsSurvive don't trend, even with widespread support in our community."

The ways this bill could wreak havoc on the internet are new, but its misleading sales pitch of protecting women is anything but. There are some vulnerable people coerced into sex work in the US, but there is also a long history of authorities using a crackdown on supposed sex trafficking as a tool used to control or “save” white women doing consensual sex work — a business that, before “sex trafficking” became the favored scare-tactic term, was once dubbed “white slavery.”

In Europe, anti-trafficking legislation in the 19th century was used to prevent European women from seeking jobs abroad; it also allowed law enforcement to beef up security at boat and train depots, and to inquire about a woman’s marital status. In the United States, the Mann Act was largely used during the Jim Crow era to discourage interracial couples, most notably between heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson and his white girlfriend.

Today, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 provides federal consequences for trafficking. Given that trafficking has been a federal crime in the United States for 18 years, it’s questionable where we need additional legislation reiterating that it is illegal. But politicians use these kinds of bills as an easy form of bipartisan work, and to sweep less popular political issues or choices under the rug. In 2015, Republicans pushed a domestic sex trafficking bill through the Senate — it gained popularity because it included a rider provision banning the use of federal funds to provide abortions. During the same year, Reuters revealed the US State Department had watered down its annual Trafficking in Persons Report — which is mandated by the TVPA — in order to pave the way for a free-trade deal with Malaysia and 11 other countries.

Legislators' puritanical obsession with sex work, at the expense of other victims, is clear in the fact that the 2000 TVPA bill explicitly excludes labor trafficking. If politicians were truly interested in saving trafficking victims, they would expand their focus beyond sex workers, to industries like construction and agriculture, where labor exploitation is rampant.

But instead, they stick with what they know. This February in New Orleans, for example, police raided strip clubs prior to Mardi Gras under the guise of busting sex trafficking rings. No such trafficking was discovered, and instead of hiring a trafficking expert to clean up Bourbon Street, the city hired Tennessee lawyer Scott Bergthold — a man who has helped officials across the country rewrite zoning laws to banish strip clubs to industrial areas, ban full nudity, and, in one case, close an adult bookstore before it even opened.

The difference between what sex workers and their advocates say — that trafficking is a relatively minor issue in their industry — and what anti-sex trafficking legislators believe reflects the country’s long held reluctance to believe women when they tell the truth, especially when it involves sex. One place where that truth is told daily is the internet communities where sex workers reside in safety and solidarity, and SESTA is designed to break up these communities.

In closing statements against this bill, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, one of two senators who opposed SESTA, acknowledged this fact. “We are in a fight for the Internet every day,” Sen. Wyden ominously tweeted. “Today, we take a real step backward, backward, and down a path we will regret.”


Emily Smith is a writer and activist based in Boston.

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