SESTA/FOSTA does more harm than good.

Earlier this year, the House and Senate nearly unanimously passed a deeply irresponsible and dangerous bill known as SESTA/FOSTA, which Donald Trump promptly signed into law. Proponents of the bill hoped SESTA/FOSTA would hold sex traffickers liable. In reality, SESTA/FOSTA has rolled back internet freedoms and inflicted deep damage on already-marginalized communities, putting lives at risk while setting the fight against trafficking back decades.

Freedom Network USA, the largest anti-trafficking network in the country, says that SESTA/FOSTA “will not provide a meaningful improvement in anti-trafficking efforts, and may cause severe consequences for sex workers and trafficking victims alike.” The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the law as “a risk to freedom of speech on the Internet as we have come to know it.” The Department of Justice says the law will have “unintended consequences” that actually make it more difficult to prosecute sex traffickers by “creating additional elements that prosecutors must prove at trial,” while parts of it are simply, “unconstitutional.”

Like in every industry, people trading sex have a range of experiences on the spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion. Some people in the sex trade, though not all, are trafficked. But instead of fighting the specific trafficking and exploitative situations that occur in the sex trade, elected officials have chosen to ignore the range of nuanced experiences and instead enforce punitive criminalization policies that seek to punish sex workers and wipe out the entire sex trade—an impossible task with dangerous consequences.

With SESTA/FOSTA, our government has attacked people in the sex trade, increased trauma and violence, disempowered the communities that are best positioned to fight exploitation, and made sex workers more vulnerable to trafficking. Moreover, because sex work in the US is largely an informal labor economy often used by marginalized populations to supplement their incomes and survive, over-criminalization has disproportionately harmed LGBTQ people, immigrants and migrants, women of color, the homeless, and the disabled.

It is critically important that advocates for these communities stand up and call to repeal SESTA/FOSTA, and work to undo the damage it has already inflicted. We must develop empathetic and community-oriented programs that address the root causes of sex trafficking; we must provide victims of sex trafficking meaningful support and sustainable services; and we must grant sex workers freedom from the violence associated with punitive criminalization, incarceration, and stigma.

We must repeal SESTA/FOSTA to protect the very people this act is meant to help.

Sex trafficking is an abhorrent violation of human rights, and we must do everything we can to fight it. SESTA/FOSTA was supposed to hold knowing facilitators of sex trafficking civilly liable. However, the true consequences of SESTA/FOSTA has been to drive sex workers back offline and outdoors into danger, including into trafficking situations, while human traffickers have moved to the dark web and forced their victims out on the streets, subjecting their victims to even more violence.

Since SESTA/FOSTA, communities and harm reduction organizations have reported increases in violent pimping because sex workers no longer have the tools to work indoors and independently free of exploiters. Other advocates report increases in homelessness, especially in trans populations, due to sex working communities that were already housing insecure. Trafficking lawyers and law enforcement have voiced opposition against SESTA, citing the important role sites play in tracking down trafficking victims and compiling evidence in cases against traffickers. Evidence suggests that SESTA/FOSTA will suppress avenues that correlate with a 17% reduction in murders of female sex workers, and the law has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities such as trans and disabled sex workers.

Like other bad criminal laws, SESTA/FOSTA is hurting the people it’s intended to protect, stopping too few bad actors, and creating new avenues for exploitation to fly under the radar of law enforcement. Instead of criminalizing harm reduction and safety information as well as communication platforms that allow victims to be found, our government should take real steps to identify sex trafficking online. We must work with all stakeholders to develop procedures for cooperation and data sharing between websites and law enforcement, while respecting and safeguarding the data of private users. Only by centering and respecting survivors and experts will we be able to identify likely and potential sex trafficking and integrate this information into trafficking investigations.

We must fight ALL human trafficking.

We must also recognize that the majority of human trafficking is labor trafficking, and enact uniform national anti-trafficking procedures that screen for trafficking in situations outside of prostitution-related arrests, while closing loopholes in labor laws that exempt the agricultural sector, family businesses, and children, all of which stymie anti-trafficking efforts.

Sex trafficking and labor trafficking often occur in tandem, so we must address the latter to address the former as well. Critically, the government must target traffickers who manipulate and threaten the immigration status of their victims, and who frequently use the threat of government immigration enforcement as a coercive mechanism against trafficking victims. And because traffickers frequently utilize the threat of law enforcement action to manipulate their victims, we must invest in programs like the Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) to rebuild trust and coordination between trafficking-affected communities and law enforcement, so that vulnerable communities and individuals have the resources and confidence to fight back against trafficking in its early stages.  

We must immediately address the root causes to help prevent sex trafficking.

The United States has ample regulatory infrastructure targeting sex trafficking, but fails to consistently enforce it, such as when courts fail to mandate restitution to sex trafficking victims. Even the resources set aside to fight trafficking are often misused. For example, “anti-trafficking” funding is often used to stage expensive sting operations to arrest consensual sex workers rather than investigate actual traffickers. Most importantly, we struggle to prevent sex trafficking in the first place.

Prevention starts from an understanding of the root causes of exploitation in the sex trade. Root causes include poverty, lack of educational or economic opportunity, poor access to stable and affordable housing, undocumented status, incarceration experience, and LGBTQ discrimination including parental rejection of LGBTQ youth leading to youth homelessness. The stigma of sex work and having an arrest record also make it nearly impossible for people to exit the sex trade. The fewer viable economic choices people have, the more likely they are to be exploited in their attempt to survive. By failing to target these root causes through economic opportunity, criminal justice, immigration reform, and the provision of housing and social services, we fail to actually fight trafficking. We fail the victims we claim to help.

We must stop targeting marginalized populations.

Criminalization of sex work disproportionately impacts marginalized populations. This is clearly apparent in New York City, where 70% of defendants facing prostitution charges in Brooklyn are black women, while 58% in Queens are Asian women. The Legal Aid Society of New York has even challenged the constitutionality of practices that wrongfully arrest transgender women who are black and Hispanic under anti-loitering laws purportedly designed to combat sex work. Such a crime is colloquially known as “walking while trans.” Undocumented immigrants are stalked by ICE at prostitution diversion courts in New York.

Criminalization subjects these populations to disproportionate incarceration, and also increases their exposure to police harassment and violence. People with experiences in the sex trade have reported police rape or solicitation as part of prostitution raids. In the recent case of Yang Song, a sex worker in Queens fell to her death during a botched vice raid.

We must listen to people in the sex trade.

People with experience in the sex trade know best how to reduce exploitation, how to prevent trafficking before it happens, how to make their work safe, what support they need to exit, and what sustainable services and justice looks like if they were trafficked. We must listen to sex workers and treat them with the dignity and respect every human deserves. Centering their voices is critical to creating policy that reduces violence and exploitation in the sex trade. We need to move the public conversation towards reducing criminalization of sex workers and humanizing their experiences.

Additionally, sex workers are often the first to identify and fight trafficking. We must bring sex workers in as allies in finding and combatting such abuse rather than making their work less safe or discouraging reporting of trafficking by criminalizing sex workers.  

To reduce exploitation and violence, we must lead with more empathy.

We must completely overhaul how we identify, investigate, and prevent trafficking so that we can actually reduce the amount of trafficking that’s happening, not just move it out of sight the way that SESTA/FOSTA has. We must train service providers and law enforcement at every level of interaction with sex trafficking victims and sex workers, change the stigma around sex work, stop arresting sex workers, and properly fund integrated victim services programs. Most importantly, we must implement policies that fight the socioeconomic degradation and discrimination that lead to trafficking in the first place.

Elected officials have an obligation to listen to people with lived experiences in the sex trade, value their human rights, and meet their needs with real, empathetic services and protections.

I am listening.