On March 22, 2018, a collective groan went up from countless Craigslist browsers in search of a “casual encounter” and maybe, just maybe, more. Preemptively, the site had shuttered their personal ads after the passage of SESTA-FOSTA (known in the Senate as the Stop Enabling Sexual Traffickers Act and the House as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), legislation that received public support from celebs like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers. Soon enough, similar sites began falling, most notably with the FBI seizure of controversial classified site Backpage, which was — quite literally — a lifeline for sex workers.
This was perhaps an inevitable turn of events, given that the bill breezily passed in both the House (388-25) and Senate (97-2), for no one really wants to go down in the books as a lawmaker who opposed a bill that, label-wise, aims to prevent sex trafficking, including that of children. Yet the larger effects of the law could be disastrous. Backpage provided a relatively safe place for independent sex workers to place ads and vet clients. This kept them “off the streets,” so to speak, and allowed workers and providers to avoid meeting in areas known and frequented by law enforcement, such as bars and street corners, which places them at risk for arrest in the 49 states where prostitution remains illegal.
There’s also a very real possibility that Backpage’s fate could be followed by the demise of Grindr and other hookup apps after Pounced, a dating site geared toward Furries, shut down in response to the bill. We spoke with multiple opponents of this law — current and former sex workers, along with an attorney who has both prosecuted sex traffickers and represented many sex workers — to zero in on exactly what FOSTA-SESTA aimed to do and how, inevitably, it will fail to meet these purported goals.
FOSTA-SESTA’s Devastating Effects On Sex Workers
Even before President Trump signed FOSTA-SESTA into law (on April 11), the legislation’s passage caused independent sex workers to lose access to their clientele streams (via Backpage and Craigslist) and, therefore, their income streams. Yet the so-called oldest profession in the world won’t fade away. The demand for sex workers will continue, but a vacuum has been created — one that could disastrously resurrect pimping.
The sex workers we spoke with felt shattered over the news. Chayse Rose, a professional fetish enthusiast, was “angry, sad, and scared,” and she warns that Backpage’s closure “hurts the most vulnerable sex workers more than anyone else.” And A., a member of the Black Sex Workers Collective who’s an advocate, burlesque performer, and former stripper, expressed “shock, dismay, disappointment, and frustration.” She sees this as a blow to freedom of speech.
Likewise, Anna Moone, a queer adult performer, felt “devastated,” but says that sex workers saw this coming for years. Anna tells UPROXX that Backpage’s shutdown won’t do much to meet the bill’s stated goals. “In addition to being devastating and unhelpful,” Anna says. “Backpage getting raided meant that SESTA wasn’t even relevant to the capturing the Boogeyman they used to rally behind it.”
Lydia Faithfull — a professional dominatrix, sex columnist, and a former Nevada brothel madam who recently spent time in New Zealand (where prostitution is legal) — assures UPROXX that she’s no conspiracy theorist, but she feels that Backpage’s closure is “dangerous government propaganda.” She points toward the current headlines featuring porn star Stormy Daniels and her alleged affair with Donald Trump, and although Backpage has clearly been a government target for years, the shutdown’s timing may be no mere coincidence.
“A quick way to discredit someone who profits from her sexuality is to stigmatize all paid sex,” Lydia tells us. “Especially by conflating consensual adult sex work with the ugliness of sex trafficking. This was confirmed days later when we learned Backpage’s indictment included zero trafficking charges.”
How Being A Sex Worker Has Grown More Perilous
Everyone we spoke with acknowledged the economic perils facing many sex workers, who will now be pushed into physically dangerous perils as well. Lydia Faithfull explains how the nefarious parties targeted by FOSTA-SESTA have actually been empowered by Backpage’s closure.
“Literally, the day Backpage went down, scumbag pimps began combing through our hashtags to hound us with ‘career opportunities,'” she says. In addition to the obvious safety concerns this presents, she tells us, “Migrant sex workers, who already live in fear of ICE raids and deportation, are particularly vulnerable to coercion.”
Lydia believes the bill’s passage says a lot about how U.S. lawmakers are beginning to cleanse the internet of subjects deemed undesirable, and those whose voices aren’t as likely to be heard. “There’s a police term dating back to the 1980s called NHI — No Human Involved — that’s how they document crimes committed against people that society has deemed undesirable, like sex workers,” Lydia continues. “If the last two weeks have taught me anything, it’s that the American government believes we’re subhuman.”
Safety is a real issue. Anna Moone, who works via webcam rather than in full-service sex work, has heard of providers who have gone missing after heading out into the streets, “opening them up to the very same violent Johns, pimps, and traffickers that SESTA claims to be ‘rescuing’ us from.” Anna worries, as well, that cam work might come to an end, for “there’s a serious risk that SESTA will force cam sites like Chaturbate and MyFreeCams to close.” Anna has continued networking through social media but has had to preemptively remove nude photos from Twitter to avoid being booted. That means a drop in marketing success, and Twitter, too, may soon ban sex workers.
Chayse Rose echoes Anna’s point and stresses how “marginalized and survival sex workers (LGBT+, homeless, disabled, trans, etc)” found safety in autonomously vetting clients through a computer screen, which kept them away from dangerous street work. Now that many of those sex workers have been forced into the street, Chayse — who’s compiling a list of those sex workers who have been assaulted, and worse — says she’s tracked “at least two dead sex workers, at least 13 have been reported missing (some have been found), [and] countless have been assaulted/robbed/raped.”
Despite all the gloom at hand, Lydia Faithfull says sex workers have come together online to support each other. “There’s so much love in our community,” she tells us while describing how sex workers are “advising one another on VPN and Tor,” working to arrange overseas servers, and even creating “Switter,” a sex-worker friendly version of Twitter. Still, she worries that the webcamming, stripping, and porn industries may soon see “the hammer” come down as well. She believes that “independent escorts were merely the low hanging fruit,” and a new campaign to close Nevada brothels shows that the stigmatization of sex workers may have been the true goal of FOSTA-SESTA.
How The Bill Has Handicapped Law Enforcement
We aren’t done talking with this group of advocates yet, but digging into the legal aspects of what SESTA has wrought (so far) will prove useful. The biggest irony is how Backpage provided investigators with a place to scope out sex trafficking cases, and while seven of its founders have been indicted for an assortment of offenses, including facilitating prostitution, trafficking did not appear within those charges.
Further, it’s worth noting that while Backpage VP Carl Ferrer was arrested on felony pimping charges in October 2016, Backpage itself has aided law enforcement. In fact, in 2013, Backpage was recognized for partnering with law enforcement in gathering evidence for a 70-city raid, which ended in over 150 pimp arrests and 105 teenage rescues.
To help us further understand Backpage’s usefulness to law enforcement, we spoke to Matt C. Pinsker, an attorney and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who formerly worked as a prosecutor and currently represents sex workers, including those who engage in the trade voluntary and those who are victims of sex trafficking. Pinkser is concerned that FOSTA-SESTA’s stated goal — the cessation of involuntary sex trafficking — will be thwarted by Backpage’s closure, which has taken away “an important tool for law enforcement.” That is to say, “Backpage was a place where if you needed to go through and trace things, you could get a subpoena on them. You can get the records from Backpage, all the pertinent information through there.” So, those who have used Backpage for trafficking purposes will now head into “the dark web that can’t be traced, or to servers in other countries, where they can’t get a subpoena.” In this way, the bill’s effects have already shown themselves to be self-defeating ones.
In addition, local law enforcement and the FBI have lost access to known online pedophile gathering spots. That is to say, not infrequently on Craigslist, there were codewords used by pedophiles known by law enforcement, who could place ads with these words and snuff out would-be perpetrators.
“Within any community, people have their own lingo/their own jargon … the same thing is true when it comes to pedophilia, they have their own terminology. An example would be ‘CP,’ or child pornography, they’d like to mention a ‘cheese pizza,'” Pinkser tells us. “So if you were to go on there and look for certain words like that known within the pedophile community … they might put out an ad for a prostitute that isn’t really 22 but is really a child.”
With the closing of Backpage and Craigslist, special victims squads have indeed lost invaluable tools to help those being involuntarily sex trafficked.
Pushing Back Against Lawmakers
On the question of lawmakers’ true intentions regarding FOSTA-SESTA, sex providers aren’t fooled. Anna Moone believes this is all about the desire to “legislate ‘deviant’ sexuality off of the internet” after prodding from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (the operating name of the conservative Morality in Media group), which is currently lobbying Twitter to ban sexually explicit images. Chayse Rose thinks the same group pushed for the bill’s creation specifically to take down Backpage, and she fears that this is only the first step “to start censoring the internet.”
After even Sen. Bernie Sanders (Democratic Socialist that he is) voted for this bill, the disgust is prevalent. Chayse Rose remarks, “You can’t call yourself a socialist in one breath and then condemn sex workers to dangerous work conditions in the next.”
Lydia Faithfull goes even further and believes that SESTA is “a class war, and a bipartisan one at that.” She sees Sanders’ vote as evidence that “liberals and conservatives have colluded to persecute women deemed less valuable.” And she’s had enough while calling “for marginalized communities to protect one another and push the fuck back. These politicians are our employees. They should fear of us, not vice versa.”
All of the sex workers we spoke to also lament that SESTA will probably only increase the level of involuntary sex trafficking that already exists. Yet as Chayse points out, politicians knew that any bill aimed against sex trafficking is “an easy headline, it’s splashy, it’s sensational.” And sadly, “It easily overshadows more common types of human trafficking such as domestic and agricultural, which disproportionately affects people of color.”
Reconciling the #MeToo Movement With FOSTA-SESTA And The Fight Ahead
A real question exists surrounding whether the #MeToo movement can comfortably coexist with the arrival of this bill — which places a marginalized community into greater danger and probably won’t reduce sex trafficking at all — after scores of women finally exposed abusers in Hollywood and corporate America. Feelings are mixed from the providers we spoke to.
Chayse Rose confesses that she “never felt welcome to share my story as a sex worker who has experienced assault and rape on the job” for fear that her story would be spun as “anti-sex-work fodder.” Likewise, A. believes that #MeToo worked plenty of progress for all women except sex workers, which she says is the case with many progressive movements because “society at large doesn’t care about sex workers.”
Lydia Faithful feels differently. She embraces the #MeToo movement along with many of her colleagues, and she says that while sex workers are currently still fighting patriarchal backlash, they can still support the #MeToo cause while battling FOSTA-SESTA’s effects.
“Strippers, cam models, porn actresses, street workers, sugar babies, pro-dommes etc — all of those women are my family,” Lydia declares. “And I’m prepared to be as gangster as I need to be to protect my sisters in the resistance.”