Congress Proposes to Fight Online Trafficking By Harming Sex Workers

The U.S. Senate is poised to pass legislation that is intended to stop the internet from being used for sex trafficking — a worthy goal aimed at addressing a serious problem. However, the legislation known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, could harm the very people that it is intended to protect. The legislation also threatens the vibrancy of the internet as the world’s most significant marketplace of ideas, and it will inhibit its growth as a place of creativity and innovation.

Proposals to address sex trafficking should not make workers in the sex trade more susceptible to violence and exploitation. FOSTA threatens the lives and safety of sex workers — people who are disproportionately LGBTQ and people of color. The legislation does this through a dangerously broad definition of “promotion of prostitution,” which is not limited to trafficking and could sweep in any trading of sex for money or other goods. The bill also creates a new, vaguely defined federal crime for the facilitation of prostitution which could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years. FOSTA’s definition of “facilitation” is so open to interpretation that it could include critical harm reduction and anti-violence tactics that sex workers depend on to survive.

These harm reduction tactics include being able to share information and techniques online, such as screening clients for violence; online advertising, which allows people to work in safer locations off the street and to be more discerning about clients; and “Bad Date Lists,” which host information online about individuals who have previously victimized those who trade sex.

Taking away the ability of sex workers to utilize online platforms to meet clients will force them back into street-based work where there is less time to negotiate safety needs and a higher risk of violence from both clients and law enforcement. An important 2017 study from West Virginia University and Baylor University found a 17 percent drop in rates of homicide against women correlated to Craigslist opening its Erotic section because it made sex work safer.

As our colleagues at the National Center for Transgender Equality and dozens of other organizations that advocate for the rights of sex workers correctly noted in a recent letter to Congress:

After the closure of RedBook and Rentboy.com, sex workers were instantly thrown from the online spaces and communities which provided the ability to screen clients, find out safety and health information and form community. The ability to access online platforms to advertise means that sex workers are able to screen clients for safety, negotiate boundaries such as condom use, and work in physically safer spaces.

FOSTA threatens to take these essential survival tools away from sex workers. Doing so will not help victims of trafficking, but it will endanger some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. As my colleague Chase Strangio wrote:

Whether because LGBT people – particularly those of color, transgender women, and youth – face job discrimination, family rejection, homelessness, and criminalization or because our bodies and desires are at once demonized and exoticized, our community has long-turned to the sex industry for critical means of support and survival.

Eliminating sex trafficking and protecting those who are the victims of it is an important effort and one that Congress should address, but doing so in a way that makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence and exploitation is unacceptable. Rather than advance FOSTA, members of Congress should – as our partners urged in their letter – sit down with key stakeholders, including sex workers and survivors of trafficking, to develop legislation that would establish standards, while avoiding serious, unintended consequences for sex workers and victims of trafficking.

Reflexive support for this overly broad and dangerous bill will fuel mass incarceration, harm sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking, and further compromise the ability of so many LGBTQ people to navigate and survive criminalized economies.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

"Sex, sex, sex that's all you Americans think about": Johnny Rotten circa 1978.

Anonymous

Sex workers are disproportionately women, too. I guess the ACLU no longer thinks women are worth a mention. We lost our blog a while back.

Anonymous

Lol pulling that gender victim card every chance you get, huh? You people just see gender (or lack thereof) everywhere! I think it's fine the way it is.
Great article ACLU, keep up the good work!

Albert Bayen

Prostitution will never go away, and while making it more dangerous will likely persuade some or more people to avoid that field of work, we should not create laws that make it more dangerous for those who do that work, those who see little other, better choices. Those who are the weakest, the most vulnerable, will be much worse off than they already are. They need support, not to be further squeezed.

Anonymous

That's why prostitution should be legalized and regulated. Give them proper police protection and medical support.

Anonymous

Your sentiment is goood big imo legalizing these things tends to just give the government and rich folk more power and money, and leave the most vulnerable people with less money and even more vulnerability.

Legalization usually comes with expensive licensing and will likely require a lot of self employed workers to go to brothels, where they now have another avenue of exploitation to deal with.

Brothels would probably become a target for hate crimes and terrorism too from the same crowd who targets abortion clinics.

People with, say, criminal records will be less likely to find a good paying job. Legalization can sadly hurt the most vulnerable people. Sex workers unable to find ‘legitimate work’ in their field, which will include a lot of current sex workers, will likely continue their trade unlicensed which is still illegal.

Decriminalize, decriminalize, decriminalize.

Annie M

ACLU's opposition to the current bill to stop online sex trafficking is the reason I will stop my 40+ year support of ACLU. I've seen too many child trafficking cases fall apart due to lack of legal protections. I don't care what consenting adults do with each other. But we have to protect children and punish those who perpetuate sex trafficking with children. To ACLU: how would YOU propose to stop the problem?

Anonymous

Then give them PROTECTIONS, not punishment. So you know other countries have prostitution as a legal activity and there sex workers don't need to rely on traffickers to operate. Also making them an unnecessary man-in-the-middle, the "clients" can ask themselves: "why should I deal with a criminal on a dark alley when I can go to that clean, legal establishment across the street?"

Anonymous

This law is draconian and fueled by emotion instead of reason. A lot of authoritarian laws are passed because of this. It does nothing to help actual victims just like the failed "war on drugs".

Anonymous

No offense but youre very naive if you think banning websites like craigslist and backpage will reduce sex trafficking. These bills will force prostitution into the dark corners of society, putting the victims you say you care so much for in more danger and further away from protective services. Say good bye to online blacklists and sting operations. But hey out of sight out of mind, right?

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