By Javi Mason Featured image via Getty/Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media
You are an entrepreneur who launched your own business after working under the pressures of an abusive supervisor and co-workers. You finally have the opportunity to create a business structure lucrative enough to live and work on your own terms. As the CEO, you handpick your associates, clients, and check their resources to determine whether they are worth the mental/emotional/physical/financial investment. In addition, you have the liberty to maintain your independence/personal safety while providing for yourself and your loved ones. Then one day, all of that changes when a law against online businesses is passed. The day after the law is announced, the resources that were vital to your business are suddenly unavailable and you realize that you are now unable to connect with new clientele. As a result, the ones that were blacklisted soon reach out to you demanding you provide services at decreased rates. And now your former supervisor is calling you, saying that your old position in their company is still available.
This is not just a hypothetical scenario, but the reality of numerous online sex workers after President Donald Trump signed SESTA-FOSTA on April 11, 2018. With the stroke of his infamous pen, he set into motion the most dangerous law to further criminalize sex workers and place queer and trans service providers at risk. When “The Frankenstein bill” was initially created, however, the intentions behind it were entirely different. SESTA-FOSTA were two separate bills introduced to target Backpage.com, a popular classified advertisement website used by sex workers. Though queer and trans service providers legitimately employed the site to connect with potential clients, Backpage was unfortunately used by sex traffickers prostituting underage girls.
When CEO Carl Ferrer and two shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin were arrested and charged for the trafficking activity occurring through the site’s “adult entertainment” section, prosecutors argued that the site “developed to facilitate sex work.” However, the judge overseeing the case cited Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which stated that web developers were exempt from the legal consequences regarding what users posted on their platforms. To prevent similar outcomes as the one involving Backpage, Congress used the unification of SESTA-FOSTA to modify Section 230 so that websites can now be prosecuted if there are any ads promoting or facilitating prostitution or “traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.”
To avoid legal consequences, websites such as Craigslist deleted their entire personal ads section, explaining the reason behind their action. Reddit removed all forums service providers used to find clients while other sites followed suit. Microsoft even prohibited providers from utilizing Skype to record videos. This government sanctioned lockdown soon instigated what is considered the Great Depression for queer and trans sex workers, who depended solely on internet platforms to receive the income necessary to survive.
Tonie*, a queer trans masculine identified sex worker, used The Erotic Review and other platforms to screen and connect with clients. “I was doing really well,” they declared via a Zoom interview. “I was doing ok when I first started. I started taking my business seriously. And I really started working on branding, and customer service and being reliable and working on my own skill set, increasing my rates and having more of a social media presence. And I was doing pretty well until this bill.”
Phoenix Calida is also experiencing the financial ramifications of SESTA-FOSTA. The Chicago based queer activist/sex worker employed Craigslist and Backpage.com because they were user-friendly and made screening clients easier. “I was a single mom and really needed the money,” Calida explained, who was eighteen when she entered the sex industry. “Waitressing wasn’t paying off my child’s medical bills. Sex work was about half of my income and being able to advertise on websites really helped me maintain a steady client base.”
But SESTA-FOSTA not only compromised the income of these two individuals; it dismantled online consensual sex work communities. Trans and queer sex workers benefited from forums that shared resources and blacklists naming abusive clients while also acting as an emotional support system. Additionally, internet platforms help these individuals maintain a level of safety they would not have if working the streets. Workers like Tonie often communicated with other providers to get references about potential clients to ensure their own security. With these online communities no longer available, queer and trans sex workers are now left without the preventative measures that served as a barrier between them and street work.
According the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 12% of trans adults have done sex work for income and lifetime experience with sex work is higher among trans women of color—42% of them engaging in sex work for income. The high percentages are the result of fewer resources being available for the trans community.
“Being queer also makes it more difficult to receive social services help,” Calida pointed out. “Many orgs that are meant to help the poor, POC, sex workers etc. are very religious in nature and turn away anyone who is LGTBQIA. This bill will also be devastating for the trans community—especially folks who have to go back to street work. It will be lethal.”
Her statement regarding this marginalized demographic is accurate: trans service providers are more susceptible to violent victimization and abuse by law enforcement. Those who are now forced into doing street work are also vulnerable to citing SESTA and manipulative clients wanting services for lower rates.
“Other people I know are taken advantage of—knowing that escorts are—some folks are desperate,” said Tonie, “So men are trying to ask for lower prices or whatever. I think that people know they can get away with more now. Plus, I raised my rates a month before this passed, not knowing that it was going to come and now I might have shot myself in the foot. But I’m not willing to lower them again. That’s just going to give people the wrong impression.”
Despite the dire consequences SESTA-FOSTA caused (there are already reports of casualties since the passing of the bill), sex workers and advocates continue to protest. While some created alternatives to financially support themselves, others turned to their social media platforms to post updates, spoke against the bill on panels to which they were invited, and participated in anti-SESTA/FOSTA street demonstrations. Calida stressed through her own activist work the significance of education on sex worker politics—especially since sex work and sex trafficking are erroneously conflated.
“[I am] trying to educate folks about the realities of sex work, trafficking, and how this law hurts more than helps and trying to give sex workers a face in all this,” she stated. “Too often sex workers are stripped of humanity and forgotten.”
When SESTA-FOSTA was introduced by Congress, proponents reasoned that the bill would eliminate internet sex trafficking and hold perpetrators accountable. Yet based on the accounts reported after it was signed into law, SESTA-FOSTA caused more harm than good for the underage sex trafficking victims it intended to protect. It instead jeopardized marginalized sex workers who heavily relied on the internet to sustain independence and assure their survival. And commentaries regarding the Department of Health and Human Services releasing deported children to sex traffickers reflects the irony (if not the hypocrisy) of the initial objectives of SESTA-FOSTA itself. On that note, the reasonable solution the government to remedy this catastrophic bill is to repeal it. But until that moment arrives, queer and trans providers continue to their creativity to advocate for their rights.
“Sex workers are the most creative and resilient people I know,” Calida said. “We already have tools, communities, and willpower. We need to really come together and push for safety. No more whorearchy. No more in fighting. If we come together, we can make it through this.”
*Tonie’s real identity is withheld to protect them and their business
Here are some resources available to support sex workers:
Lola Davina (a list for trans sex workers)