There is a common misconception that “sex work” is merely a euphemism for “prostitute.” In truth, sex work refers to a broad category of services catering to the desires of their audience and clients, including phone sex operators, webcam performers, erotic dancers, adult film actors, pornography models, and more. People have relied on sex work when other work was unavailable to LGBTQ+ and people of color, or impossible due to crisis, disability, or even caretaking duties. The legality and morality of such work has been the subject of often heated debate for centuries, and workers through time have been subject to abuse, exploitation, and violence by clients, employers, and the legal system in equal measure.
The late 20th century brought the movement for sex workers’ rights and with it an emerging public awareness of the harmful conditions many worked under as well as a gradual shift in public attitude towards acceptance of the validity of these workers’ services and labor. The birth of the internet gave rise to a new platform that would enable workers’ to take their livelihoods, and often lives, back into their own hands. Workers could now advertise independently, establish local safety networks, screen clients, choose when and how to interact with audiences, and control their own income. Public opinion has been slowly shifting, making space for advocacy of sex workers’ rights in public discourse.
Due in large part to this shift in public opinion, groups previously aligned with anti-prostitution initiatives and family values campaigns turned their attention to human trafficking within the sex industry. Campaigns were undertaken to alert the public to the threat of trafficking children and women into prostitution, pornography, and even the black market. Over time, the public dialogue echoed these messages and outcry for a stronger response to these threats ensued. Films like Taken (2008) and I Am Jane Doe (2017) helped to underscore these fears. The official website for I Am Jane Doe boasts that, “[t]he voices of these mothers and their children, amplified by I AM JANE DOE, has helped to catalyze legislation which recently passed overwhelming in the House and Senate (97-2) and was signed by the President on April 11, 2018.”
The bill in question is H.R. 1865: Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA), a package comprised of bills put forth in the Senate (SESTA, or Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and House of Representatives. In summary, the bill provides new penalties for websites that promote and facilitate prostitution and/or sex trafficking and removes protections previously granted to website owners against content posted by third party users. The bill does not, however, distinguish between consensual sex industry work and trafficking, nor does it consider the jurisdictions in which prostitution is legal; a defendant is compelled by this law to assert an affirmative defense in court. Digital platforms across the web have responded by banning personal ads and revising their terms of service to prohibit even nudity and offensive language. Some sex workers have even found their social media accounts shut down, cutting off communication with their safety networks.
Even before FOSTA-SESTA was passed, sex workers often faced challenges based on existing prejudices to their line of work. Sex workers are often denied housing and medical care, and parents who rely on sex work are frequently deemed unfit on the basis of their job and lose custody of their children.
Bank of America has been accused by several sex industry workers of closing accounts and withholding funds with little explanation, citing “suspicious activity”, threatening workers’ economic autonomy. Restricting workers’ ability to network, organize, vet clients, and advertise has led to an increase in workers turning back to the street and an uptick in cases of workers going missing. Because direct client connections are harder to establish and maintain, workers are under more pressure to work for a pimp or accept un-screened clients, and ironically left more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Sex workers have long advocated for decriminalization and laws based in evidence that will protect them and their right to work. Police and emergency services when sex workers experience violence, rape, burglary, and coercion must be available to them without fear of consequence. Many of these workers are in unique positions to recognize true cases of trafficking, and would be able to aid police intervention if the certainty of self-incrimination were removed. Advocates cite the decriminalization laws of Australia and New Zealand as models of success, and statistics of violence against sex workers in parts of the U.K. that have declared assault against sex workers a hate crime have decreased over the past decade while the solve rate of sex worker homicides has increased significantly.
Access to STI testing, treatments, PREP, and reproductive counseling will improve the health of the sex workers communities and reduce the spread of disease.
Sex trafficking remains a grave concern in our world, but in our attempts to deter these activities, society must take care to ensure that existing resources supporting the health and safety of sex workers remain intact.
Cheryl Bauer is a member of The New People editorial collective.