With all the news about changing online policies and the quasi-puritanical streak hitting the internet, it's important to differentiate between sex trafficking (the forced transportation and exploitation of human beings for sexual means and a crime that obviously needs to be addressed) and sex work (the consensual exchange of money, goods or services for sexual labor, including escorts, porn performers, webcam models, strippers and professional BDSM practitioners). In many cases, it's sex workers' rights activists who are on the front lines fighting to help prevent sex trafficking, and the two are absolutely not the same thing.
In April of 2018, however, Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, better known as SESTA/FOSTA. The nutshell version is that websites are now responsible for third-party content. (Think Craigslist's now-defunct Casual Encounters section for the simplest idea of what that entails; Craigslist would be held responsible for selling posters' sex acts, essentially.) Craigslist and other media giants such as Tumblr and Facebook responded to these bills by altering their polices regarding sexual content to protect themselves, thus dealing a major blow to sex workers who operate in a consensual manner through the internet.
But it's time to recognize that sex work is a valid and necessary industry that's not going away, and such censorship laws only increase the risk for those involved. Sex workers across the globe agree that SESTA/FOSTA make it more likely that people in the profession might wind up being trafficked.
The recent sexual content bans we've seen on social media are a symptom of what sex worker activist and author
Suprihmbé called "the rescue industry" in a December 2018 piece for Afropunk titled "Sexual Content Bans Are Dog Whistles for Conservatism."
"Anti-porn and anti-trafficking 'abolitionists' have joined forces against sex worker activists/advocates and sex-positive feminists," she wrote. "In America our children are protected from 'female-presenting nipples' (Tumblr's policy), comprehensive sex education, adequate information on STI/HIV testing and safer sex (which refers to both contraception and performing risky sexual acts safely), but not from racists or incels. Shutting down websites or instituting content bans like Tumblr's will not protect our children. That idea is a virtue signal evoked by the rescue industry, specifically to stoke people's conservatism."
Albuquerque escort Orli Doll, who has been involved in sex work for roughly two years, shares similar sentiments and says she's has felt the impacts of SESTA/
"It's much harder to find places to advertise," Doll tells SFR. "My income has been, at best, cut in half. Along with that, clients are more scared."
Doll also identifies SESTA/FOSTA's impact on the safety of those in similar fields, noting that such steps limit sex workers' ability to maintain safety by pre-screening potential clients.
"Clients being more scared means they are less likely to give me the info I need for screening," Doll explains. "Also, they know business is down, they know we don't have options, they know we're desperate—so at this point, it's a buyer's market. It used to be that if clients acted up, we'd just replace them. It's harder to replace them [now], and we can't afford to lose that income. Clients know that, so they are more pushy."
Meanwhile, Canadian sex educator Luna Matatas tells SFR that content on her personal Facebook page has been removed, specifically an article she shared about porn censorship in the United Kingdom.
"Censorship makes it difficult for people to find quality, reliable and accessible sex education information," Matatas says. "Without that access, it's difficult for people to create conditions for sexual health and wellness, especially difficult to make informed choices for their physical and emotional well being."
We're also seeing new federal legislation to punish clients of sex workers. The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act was authorized in late 2018, thus making it legal for law enforcement to use secret wiretaps on sex workers and their customers.
With so much attention being paid to fight sex trafficking—which is undoubtedly a good thing—we must also hold our representatives accountable in identifying what victims of sex trafficking need, especially since every one of New Mexico's representatives voted in favor of SESTA/FOSTA. Fortunately, New Mexico is home to wonderful organizations such as the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, which fights hard in advocating for and enacting change within Native communities; the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women indicates a grave problem that is being ignored by those who say they want to protect victims of sex trafficking.
In this way and countless others, SESTA/FOSTA's reach extends further than we can begin to understand yet. And though victims of sex trafficking and sex workers are often the most vulnerable, their voices are not being included in the search for solutions.
"It's important to have sex workers included in conversations on trafficking. Always," Seattle-based sex worker activist Laura LeMoon tells SFR. "Work in the sex industry does not exist in a dichotomy; it's not [that] you're either a helpless victim or a completely liberated erotic professional loving every minute of your job. Many trafficking survivors have also been sex workers at one time in order to survive, often after escaping their trafficker, but, most importantly, stigma is the biggest public health factor that marginalizes and oppresses people in the sex industry."
Hunter Riley wears many hats in the sex industry. She's the director of education at Self Serve, New Mexico's only health- and education-focused sex shop. You can see more of her work at outaboutsex.com.