Desire into Discourse: Sex Trafficking Bills

If you’re a human and you use the internet (especially if you use the internet for sexy and kinky things) then you have no doubt heard of the FOSTA/SESTA trafficking bills. There are a lot of sex workers calling for […]

If you’re a human and you use the internet (especially if you use the internet for sexy and kinky things) then you have no doubt heard of the FOSTA/SESTA trafficking bills. There are a lot of sex workers calling for it to be repealed, while some more conservative types are commending the bills.

So what exactly is FOSTA/SESTA? What does it mean for sex workers? And what does it mean for your average human on the internet?

First off, what is sex trafficking?

An estimated 800,000 women and girls are trafficked into sex slavery each year. Trafficking victims are generally taken from their home countries and upon arrival at their destination, their passports and papers are taken by their traffickers. They often physically and psychologically abuse them, keep them in captivity, and use debt bondage to manipulate the victims to pay back all the relocation costs to their traffickers. Women and girls are often sold from trafficker to trafficker and go from country to country, becoming more and more disoriented and in debt to their traffickers.


FOSTA = Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.

SESTA = Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.

Just from their names these bills sound great, right? Why would anyone want to repeal bills that aim to stop illegal sex trafficking? FOSTA/SESTA will be looking to amend Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act which currently reads:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In other words, websites that allow users to post content on them should not be held responsible for content posted by those users.

FOSTA/SESTA aims to amend Section 230 to say websites can be prosecuted if they engage in the “promotion or facilitation of prostitution” or “facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.”

What does this mean for sex workers?

This amendment conflates consensual sex work with sex trafficking and this is where the crux of the problem is – yes, we should be doing all we can to stop people being sold into prostitution against their will. However, stopping people who willingly engage in consensual sex work from making a living is not going to prevent sex trafficking and essentially, these bills will not be actively fighting sex trafficking but would simply offer to threaten legitimate speech on online forums.

Many sex workers believe this could lead to an increase sex trafficking and/or violence against legitimate sex workers. This is because  all the platforms sex workers were once able to use to advertise their services and screen their clients are being seized, so marginalised sex workers are pushed out to street corners and other unsafe practices in order to continue receiving an income.

Laira Roux, a sex worker, pornography director and producer has put together an incomplete list of companies that discriminate against sex workers and there are a lot! It’s a wonder that we sex workers have even been able to function online up until now, as many of these companies were already actively discriminating against sex workers before FOSTA and SESTA were even thought of. Despite this, things are looking like they’re going to get a heck of a lot worse.

trafficking protest
Image via Overland.

What does this mean for sex trafficking victims?

In seizing and restricting advertising platforms and holding websites accountable for content posted by its users, it will not make it any easier for law enforcement to track down traffickers to stop them or to track down trafficking victims and rescue them – if anything it will make it a great deal harder. Alexandra Levy, a trafficking expert says:

“While more visibility invites more business, it also increases the possibility that victims will be discovered by law enforcement, or anyone else looking for them. By extension, it also makes it more likely that the trafficker himself will be apprehended: exposure to customers necessarily means exposure to law enforcement.”

What does this mean for the average person?

Legitimate and consensual sex work is becoming more and more popular, especially with so much ability to work solely online (cam shows, video chat sessions, etc). Chances are very high that you either have a family member, neighbour, co-worker or friend (or more than one) that engages in (or has previously engaged in) sex work of some form. Basically, sex workers are your average person and deserve the same rights to work in the field they choose as anyone else does. Aside from that, this means a lot of the content you see on the internet on a regular basis could be gone before you know it. That soft porn Tumblr account you love? Gone. Those kinky babes in your Twitter feed? Gone. Your favourite cam girl? Gone. FOSTA/SESTA is an attack on free speech more than anything else.

While FOSTA and SESTA may only affect websites and companies owned from/run in the US, that are governed by US laws, the effects will be widespread as many of these companies have users from around the globe.

What can we do about it?

  • First and foremost, sign the petition to have FOSTA/SESTA repealed! There was a previous petition but it did not get enough signatures in time. Make sure you and all your friends, family, colleagues, neighbours etc. sign this one before the 27th of May!
  • If you have time, even make a call (US numbers only) or send an email to tell ‘em you want the internet to stay open!
  • In this tough time, support sex workers! If you enjoy the services sex workers provide, now is the time to book in with your favourite!
  • If you know someone who is a sex worker, check in with them. Ask if they’re doing okay and let them know you’re there to listen if they need to talk.
  • Start using sex worker friendly websites such as Switter (a sex worker friendly alternative to Twitter) and sex worker friendly technological resources such as these.
  • Speak out about the stigma against sex workers and the active discrimination they face.
  • If you suspect sex trafficking, you can call your national emergency services or put in a tip to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (US), the Australian Federal Police, Crime Stoppers International or another agency. If FOSTA and SESTA go through and push traffickers and their victims off the internet and out of sight from law enforcement, keeping an eye out for potential trafficking and putting in tips is going to be needed now more than ever.