SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) are two bills that were recently passed by Congress and signed into legislation by President Trump. What they essentially do is make it easier for victims and prosecutors to sue websites that knowingly “assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking” by holding them legally accountable for any of the paid-for sexual exchanges that take place offline. As a result of these laws, many popular websites for finding paid or/and unpaid sexual services have shut down or been shut down by the authorities, including the Craigslist Personals section and Backpage.
While these laws may sound like a step in the right direction (who doesn’t want to end sex trafficking, right?!), they actively harm a lot of consenting adults who depend on these websites for a safe(r) workplace environment. Why? Because these laws have been written in a way that does not differentiate between sex work among consenting adults and forced sex work (otherwise known as sex trafficking).
As sex educators who also happen to know, love, and collaborate with many sex workers, Kenneth Play and I feel very strongly that this is NOT ok. Here’s why:
Sex work is NOT the same as sex trafficking. Many Americans have been led to believe that any and all sex work is inevitably sex trafficking. This is simply inaccurate. Of course, there are people being forced or coerced into sex work by evil traffickers or greedy pimps. However, there are many sex workers out there, by some estimates many more, who actively choose this line of work out of their own free will. There are countless women, men, and trans folks who do sex work because they like the work and feel it is the best decision for them, given their personalities, skills, and circumstances. Think about it: There are some great benefits of being a sex worker, especially on the higher end of the spectrum, including higher pay, flexible hours, autonomy over how and where you work, and a choice regarding who you work with. In this study of almost 200 Swiss female sex workers (where sex work is legal), the number 1 reason for engaging in sex work was “because I like the job.”
Much (most?) of consensual sex work today is brokered online. For most people, the iconic image of a sex worker is the street walker, who even if not sold into slavery or forced into it by an abusive boyfriend / pimp, is cornered into sex work by drug addiction or dire financial circumstances. Survival sex, sex work engaged in due to extreme poverty, homelessness, or drug addiction is certainly real, and some of it continues to happen on the street, the riskiest and most dangerous work environment for this profession. But with the rise of the Internet, much of survival sex work these days has moved online.
Furthermore, in the past 15 to 20 years, the Internet has transformed the face of sex work, turning it into a middle class profession, where the main providers of sexual services are undergrads, grad students, and young professionals of all kinds. Rather than feeding drug addictions or being able to buy basic necessities, they are paying for college, starting businesses, or affording travel and luxury item that would be beyond their reach otherwise. Platforms like Craigslist, Backpage, Eros, and Seeking Arrangement have enabled these young women, men, and trans folks to achieve these goals while staying safe.
During my four years of teaching at New York University, I’ve had several students come out to me as past or current sex workers. One story stands out. She started escorting soon after starting college. When she realized how much she can earn by working full time, she took a break from school, worked for four years, earned enough to buy an apartment in Manhattan and pay for her tuition at NYU. She is now back to her original plan – finishing college with the goal of becoming a social worker.
The Internet makes sex work SAFER for the people who engage in it. Whether it’s survival sex, high-end escorting, or something in between, negotiating it over the Internet makes things infinitely safer: It literally saves lives. The websites that SESTA/FOSTA are shutting down are not simply places where sex workers advertise their services and find clients. The sites provide an opportunity for providers to work indoors (as opposed to on the street), to screen their clients, to send and receive peer references, to warn against disrespectful and dangerous clients, to share tips with other members of the community on how to stay alive and thrive. Consensual adult sex workers need these websites to do their job while minimizing the risks inherent in it.
Sex work is work, just like any other. It’s time to decriminalize it. Most of us feel a level of discomfort about accepting sex work as a legitimate profession. That discomfort is a product of a sex-negative society that views sex as risky, dangerous, traumatic, especially for women. But take that irrational fear away, and sex work is ultimately a service job like many others. It’s the world’s “oldest profession” and it’s clearly never going to go away, no matter how hard we try. It exists even in the most conservative societies, where sex workers risk death. Whether it’s on the street, in brothels and massage parlors, or in 5-star hotels and private homes, sex work is here to stay. The only thing that criminalization does to sex work is drive it underground and make it more dangerous for the workers. And this actively harms the very people we’re claiming to be protecting.
I know some of you are thinking, “I can’t support sex work, what if my daughter / sister / girlfriend gets involved?” But the reality is, whether sex work is legal or not, your daughter / sister/ girlfriend might still choose to do it. And when she does, would you rather have her do it in a way that’s safe and healthy, or dangerous and risky? You know, we already have a type of sex work that is completely legal: It’s called pornography. Why is it acceptable for people to get paid to have sex on camera for the enjoyment of the whole world, but not acceptable for people to get paid to have sex in private??
Research shows that when sex workers have little control over their work conditions and face stigma, violence, and pressure at work, they have exceptionally high rates of mental health issues. But sex workers who have control over their job, receive social support from family and friends, and are shielded from violence or pressure at work, report mental health rates that are markedly better than those of the general population.
So by all means, let’s end forcing people into sex work they don’t want to be doing. But let’s please give consenting adults full right to their own bodies, and allow them to do whatever kind of work they chose to do, while creating safe work conditions for them to do that in.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to romanticize or idealize sex work. Like any other profession, sex work comes with its host of issues and challenges, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But it is for some people, and we cannot have a free and sex-positive society until we acknowledge that adults have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies, and enable them to do that as safely as possible.
Sex workers are all around us and they are people just like you and me. Their jobs do not make them worse than anybody else, and their profession is legitimate. #SexWorkIsWork is a popular hashtag used to fight this intense stigma. I encourage you to sign this petition and talk to your friends and loved ones about this potentially uncomfortable topic in order to destigmatize this line of work in the hopes of making sex work safer and healthier for all.
If you are looking for ways to help support sex workers and the repeal these laws, here are some options:
- Share content by sex workers. Retweet, repost and spread the words of the people asking for help and support.
- Call your representatives! If you don’t know how to contact them, you can text RESIST to 50904 or click here to locate your congressmen and senators, and they will tell you how to contact those people. When you do, please tell them that the passage of FOSTA and SESTA is having a devastating effect on people in your community and you would like for them to repeal it.
- Correct people when you hear misinformation. The only ways to diminish a stigma is through education and conversation. It might be uncomfortable in the moment, but in the long run you are helping a community in need.
- Attend events or donate to fundraisers that support sex workers and the repealing of SESTA/FOSTA. If you’re in New York, there will be a fundraiser on April 30th to pay tribute to the Craigslist Personals section and raise money to strike these laws down. Tickets are available here.