A new congressional bill calls for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to investigate how a 2018 anti-trafficking law has affected sex workers, many of whom spoke out against the legislation before it was passed.
The measure was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, known as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
If passed, the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, introduced by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), would require the first national study on the health and safety of sex workers, especially how they’ve been affected by legislation known as FOSTA-SESTA. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) will introduce a parallel bill in the Senate.
The FOSTA-SESTA bill package, which consists of the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and its House counterpart, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), expanded prosecutorial power over companies with online platforms that can be used to facilitate sex trafficking and sex work. It amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so that platforms can be held responsible for user activity related to sex trafficking or prostitution. As a result, websites like Craigslist, Tumblr, Reddit, and others have removed content pertaining to sex and sex work, and screening platforms for sex workers like VerifyHim have limited their offerings.
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And while FOSTA-SESTA’s expressed purpose is to help trafficking victims, many say it targets consensual sex workers and harms vulnerable people.
Both bills passed Congress in 2018 with bipartisan support. But less than one year after it was signed into law, San Francisco police reported investigations into instances of sex trafficking were up 170 percent, even as most violent crime in the city had gone down in 2018. Law enforcement officials in the Bay Area have said the law has made it harder for them to investigate sex trafficking cases, as it pushes the behavior deeper underground. And evidence suggests that the restriction of online platforms for sex workers puts them in danger: A study conducted by economists found that the existence of Craigslist’s “erotic services” section reduced the female homicide rate by 10 to 17 percent across several cities in the United States.
Sex workers have been sharing their experiences of how the passage of FOSTA-SESTA put them at greater risk, but Khanna wants the National Institutes of Health to research these effects.
“Following the enactment of [FOSTA-SESTA], sex workers have faced greater threats of physical and sexual violence, as they are increasingly pushed off on-line platforms and onto the streets to seek clients,” Khanna said in a statement provided to Rewire.News. “My bill would mandate the first national study investigating how the shutdown of websites in connection with [FOSTA-SESTA] impact the health and safety of people who rely on consensual, transactional sex.”
“The bill is looking at sex workers’ health and safety, asking impacts on a range of issues of experiences of violence, changes in [negotiation], reliance on third parties,” Kate D’Adamo, a longtime sex worker rights advocate and partner at Reframe Health and Justice, told Rewire.News. “Everything asked was drawn from the impacts people are reporting.”
One sex worker, Maya Moreno, told Rewire.News she has experienced the negative consequences of FOSTA-SESTA and has been scared to advertise on websites. “I’ve lost most of my payment processors and social media accounts,” Moreno said. “Google Pay, Cash App, PayPal, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.” Moreno also fears government intervention with these websites because she is undocumented.
“I think the bill to study the impacts of SESTA-FOSTA would be great for those that are undecided,” Moreno said. “But it does make me sad that people refuse to listen to us and can’t take our word for it.”
Sex worker advocacy groups like Decrim-NY have pushed for the decriminalization of sex work at the state level, arguing that the criminalization of the sex trade most negatively affects marginalized people: undocumented, transgender, homeless, incarcerated, and sex workers of color.
“What we see is that when people are made more vulnerable, whether through reduced income or arrest or criminal records or homelessness, they are more likely to be exploited or trafficked in their attempt to survive,” said Nina Luo, an organizer with Decrim-NY.
But the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act falls short for some. Alexandra Yelderman, an adjunct professor at Notre Dame Law School whose research focuses on human trafficking, violence, and moral panics, wants the research to go further.
“Evaluating FOSTA as a policy has to begin with an inquiry into whether it has achieved its intended effect—which was to reduce sex trafficking,” Yelderman said. “I suspect that many of FOSTA’s advocates would be willing to stipulate to the fact that the law has harmed sex workers … A study that shows that FOSTA harms sex workers would not establish that FOSTA is bad policy. What we need is research into its effects on the problem it sought to solve, which in turn requires a reliable metric of trafficking’s prevalence. That has to be our starting point.”