Since the federal legislation was passed in April, three women have been murdered and dozens more are missing. That was inevitable when the shutdown of sex sites like Backpage forced sex workers back on the street and into the clutches of pimps, writes an advocate for decriminalization of prostitution.
What if I told you that scientists found something that decreases the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent, and our government just abolished it? That’s exactly what happened when the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, HR 1865 (commonly called FOSTA/SESTA), became law on April 11.
The bill would allow the government to prosecute websites which knowingly help or promote sex trafficking, and also allow users to sue those websites.
Although the Department of Justice went on record warning that FOSTA/SESTA would make it more difficult to prosecute sex trafficking cases, the bill was framed and sold as an anti-trafficking measure.
FOSTA/SESTA effectively modified section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, which exempted websites from criminal charges for the actions of their users.
For example, even though crimes such as murder and sex trafficking have undoubtedly been planned in Facebook groups, posts, or messages, Facebook could not be held criminally liable for the murders or sex trafficking. Now all that has changed: Any website that is used to facilitate prostitution can be prosecuted for sex trafficking.
Although advocates claim that FOSTA/SESTA was aimed at taking down the Backpage.com site, Backpage was actually seized by the Department of Justice and its owners arrested and criminally charged before FOSTA/SESTA passed.
Backpage was, allegedly, violating laws that already existed.
There has been a lot of social science research on how to reduce sex trafficking, how to reduce violence and exploitation in the sex industry, and the impacts of various policies with regards to sex work and sex trafficking. An example worth exploring is New Zealand, which has almost completely eradicated sex trafficking by decriminalizing prostitution. One case of trafficking was reported in 2015—the first since 2003—and another in 2017.
There are other examples. Amnesty International conducted research into the impacts of sex trafficking and prostitution policy in Papa New Guinea, Norway, Argentina, and Hong Kong, and found that the only way to protect the human rights of people in the sex industry is the complete decriminalization of every aspect of consensual adult sex work.
Similar policy positions are held by Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the United Nations Development Programme, UN Women (the United Nations body focused on gender equity), and UNAIDS.
All over the world, when prostitutes and sex trafficking victims are criminalized, they are denied access to the equal protections of criminal and labor law and become easy targets for violence, exploitation, and trafficking. In countries where sex trafficking victims and their clients, coworkers, and others they might come into contact with are able to report sex trafficking without being arrested themselves, there is virtually no sex trafficking.
When Craigslist, a simple, low-barrier internet advertising forum in the US facilitated many sex workers moving indoors from the street, according to the authors of the 2017 study noted above, the female homicide rate dropped by 17.4 percent.
FOSTA/SESTA was not based on research, or even consideration of its impacts. A report from the House Committee on the Judiciary explained the background and need for the legislation: websites “have become one of the primary channels of sex trafficking,” and advancements in technology “allow[s] traffickers to post advertisements of minors for a world of customers” and therefore we must stop websites which “facilitate prostitution.”
Throughout the report sex trafficking is treated as synonymous with the sex trafficking of children.
Let’s unpack that. How much online prostitution involves sex trafficking?
Let’s use a number that was widely circulated during FOSTA/SESTA lobbying efforts: Backpage is said to have hosted one million prostitution advertisements per day. How many of those million ads were for sex trafficking victims? A nationwide FBI initiative with agents in every state, Operation Innocence Lost, as well as hundreds of state and local task forces, a dozen or so sex trafficking hotlines, and numerous religious groups were able to identify 595 cases of sex trafficking in 2016, the last year for which the data is available.
Of those cases, 46 involved minors. Since we know sex trafficking is under reported by its criminalized victims and by witnesses who are most often criminalized, let’s just round those numbers up and, say, double them. That would give us 1,200 sex trafficking victims, 100 of them children, per year. In that case, by their own numbers, our government just put one million Americans out of work because one in 833 of them is a victim, and one in 10,000 is a child victim.
The effects of FOSTA/SESTA were immediate and extreme. The day that it passed the Senate, cityvibe.com deleted itself and all its escort ads. Reddit deleted sex work-related forums like r/hooker, and there were reports of Google drive deleting content of users who were sex workers.
The next day, TheEroticReview.com removed ad boards for the US (a few days later they blocked access from the US entirely). Craigslist deleted its personals section, and a popular screening website—used by escorts to warn each other about violent clients and to check whether those inquiring to be new clients have blacklist reports or not—took down a majority of its content.
Over the next three weeks, almost every escort advertising, screening, and website building site in the US went down. The remaining sites and new sites hosted outside of the country have yet to be found by most of those one million advertisers or the majority of clients.
Sex trafficking victims were sent back to work on the streets, where they face higher rates of violence and make less money. Sex workers also turned to the streets and to pimps to find customers. The St. James Infirmary in San Francisco reported a fourfold increase in street-based sex work in the first week after FOSTA/SESTA passed.
With no way to find customers, some trafficking survivors returned to pimps they had previously escaped. In the weeks following the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, three women were reported murdered after turning to street work, dozens are reported to be missing, and violence against sex workers skyrocketed.
NOTE: Because sex workers are often in the closet, and it is seen as counterproductive to tell police that a murder victim or missing person is a sex worker, it will take a little longer for the hard data to be sorted.
I asked one sex trafficking survivor, who is still dealing with the effects of criminalization, what she thought about FOSTA/SESTA. She responded:
I want to know, how are they supposed to rescue these girls if they don’t know where to find them? It’s real messed up that they think that every female is being sex trafficked and wants to be saved and so they take the only means of making money away.
Take me for instance: I have a full-time job with overtime, so I never get to see my kid. Because not only do I have the son that I’m paying child support on [back child support from when she was incarcerated] I also work to be able to pay the bills. (I’m) never able to save anything, and live in a studio apartment with my eight-year-old.
Now if I could go on a few calls and then be able to save and get a two-bedroom that would work but no, that is not allowed. I feel like we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of never going forward. Like one big giant hamster wheel.
In a blog post entitled, “After Fosta, It’s like Hunger Games on Sex Workers,” a Rhode Island sex worker rights group called COYOTE RI gives a snapshot of emerging data. Of 260 sex workers they surveyed, 77 percent used sex work for their sole income and 75 percent were supporting one to three dependents. Within two weeks of Backpage going down, a quarter said they were unable to support themselves or their dependents, six to 10 percent were facing eviction, 30 percent had stopped screening clients, and 60 percent had taken sessions with unsafe clients they would not have normally seen.
A million Americans have lost their livelihood and face increased violence while dozens are reported to be missing and probably murdered because politicians believe that all or most of them are that one in 10,000 that is a child victim of sex trafficking.
This incongruency has caused some to hypothesize that the government is not worried about children; rather, it is horrified by people having sex.
Meanwhile, the government has failed to address its own child trafficking problem. A 2016 Senate report found that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) placed unaccompanied minor immigrants in homes without doing background checks of the adults in the homes or even visiting the homes. In one case, DHHS placed “a number” of children with a group of sponsors who were neither background-checked nor prevented from “accumulating multiple unrelated children.”
Those children were trafficked to work 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, on an egg farm. Following the report, the DHSS and the Department of Health and Human Services agreed to establish joint procedures for placing unaccompanied migrant children within one year.
More than 17 months later, the agencies have not completed the procedures and DHHS reports that it has “lost track” of 1,475 children. That’s 32 times the number of children who were confirmed to have been sex trafficked in 2016.
Perhaps it is time for a law that would hold government actors responsible for the fates of the children they are responsible for—or the murders of sex workers and sex trafficking victims in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA.
Tara Burns lives in Alaska, where she’s a board member of the Community United for Safety and Protection. She is the author of the Whore Diaries series, and has written about sex worker issues for AlterNet, Vice, The New Inquiry and others.