Making Sex Work Safer: What FOSTA-SESTA Overlooks

In April of 2018, President Trump signed into law what is commonly known as the FOSTA-SESTA bill package. Intended to be anti-sex trafficking legislation, the bills have drawn massive criticism from women’s rights groups, which claim that the new rules push sex workers towards more dangerous working conditions. In order to understand these dangers, it is important to consider how this bill fits into a broader conversation about sex work and its contemporary meanings.

In short, the FOSTA-SESTA legislation amends Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which allows providers of interactive computer services to be held accountable for the content that is posted on their websites if the content is seen as advertising prostitution. In other words, if an advertisement for sex work is found on Craigslist, the website’s operators will face the consequences.

To be sure, FOSTA-SESTA was intended to curb sex trafficking, which many claim has become easier and more efficient in the age of the internet thanks to websites like Backpage. However, what’s drawn criticism to FOSTA-SESTA is its failure to distinguish between sex trafficking and consensual sex work. Many sex workers’ rights advocates argue that by taking away an online system for finding work, the legislation has endangered people who are currently consensually engaged in sex work and depend on it for their livelihood.

This legislation puts sex workers at risk in multiple ways. For one, taking away online platforms pushes people who depend on sex work onto the streets. Online, sex workers are able to properly vet potential clients before taking them on. This often looks like sharing information with other sex workers in their networks, as well as properly perusing the person’s profile before making appointments. By removing these online platforms, FOSTA-SESTA takes away the protection that comes from being able to pre-screen clients. Sex workers also lose the ability to ensure that they work in environments that are clean and safe, something more easily done when given the chance to determine one’s working environments.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the law contributes to a broader political and cultural environment that is increasingly hostile towards sex workers. By heavily penalizing one aspect of sex work, lawmakers are pushing away only those clients who are concerned enough about the law to take extra steps to avoid breaking it. Unsurprisingly, these are the clients that are most likely to be respectful of the sex worker’s wishes and boundaries. What this leaves behind is a market filled with sex workers who are compelled to engage in dangerous activities with clients who are not as concerned with the legality of their actions.

A much better solution would be to decriminalize sex work and regulate it just like any other industry. For one, this would allow the government to keep track of who is engaged in consensual sex work, making it easier to determine when someone has been forced into sex work against their will. Moreover, decriminalization gives sex workers the privileges that other employees enjoy–opportunities to unionize, negotiate for a fair wage, and demand a safer working environment.

FOSTA-SESTA might have been passed and made law with the best of intentions; however, what sex workers need is neither coddling nor harassment by the law, but a simple recognition of their labor and the power to control their working conditions just like the rest of us.

Devyani Goel