The FBI's seizure of Backpage and the passage of FOSTA caused panic and outrage among sex workers, leading to desperation, defiance, and a new push for decriminalization
The Federal Government Has Been Waging a Trojan-Horse Assault on Sex Workers
U.S. officials couched the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) in March 2018, coupled with the FBI’s takedown of the online listings giant Backpage.com weeks later, as a double-barreled offensive in the nation’s battle against the hidden menace of “sex trafficking.” But in reality, the actions were part of a different war: a puritanical attack on prostitution.
But if the strategy succeeded in creating panic among sex workers, it also spawned outrage and defiance, leading to widespread calls for the decriminalization of sex work.
FOSTA made it illegal to advertise sex work online in the U.S., in that it holds the owners and operators of interactive computer services criminally liable for user content that facilitates prostitution or sex trafficking. (Though FOSTA’s supporters regularly conflate the two, prostitution involves consensual commercial sex between or among adults. Federal law defines sex trafficking as involving minors in the sex trade, or using force, fraud, or coercion to induce adults to participate in commercial sex.)
Even before President Trump signed FOSTA into law on April 11, 2018, fear of the statute caused several websites and forums to shut down, censor, or curtail operations, leaving sex workers with fewer avenues to find and vet potential clients.
- Reddit deleted whole categories, including the subreddits r/Hookers, r/Escorts, and r/SugarDaddy. The site announced a new policy forbidding users from soliciting or facilitating “any transaction or gift involving certain goods and services,” such as those “involving physical sexual contact.”
- Craigslist closed down its entire personals section, noting in a statement posted to the site that FOSTA would “subject websites to criminal and civil liability” for user-generated content.
- Less-well-known sites that played host to adult-themed listings went dark, including Cityvibe.com and the U.S. iteration of TheEroticReview.com.
- Some other sites reportedly deleted escort sections or discussion forums, including Yellow Pages, HungAngels.com, and VerifyHim.com (a site that allows women to blacklist stalkers).
The Backpage seizure was the feds’ coup de grace. Founded in 2004 as a competitor to the online-classified trailblazer Craigslist, Backpage (like Craigslist at one time) offered listings for everything from yard sales and apartment rentals to escort services and massage providers.
But in January 2017, on the eve of a U.S. Senate hearing into its business practices, Backpage shuttered its adult section — a move Craigslist had made in 2010. Sex-worker ads migrated to the dating or personals sections of both sites, a situation that ended this year, as FOSTA passed and Backpage fell to the feds.
The FBI’s Seizure of Backpage: An Attack on Sex Workers
When Craigslist eliminated its adult-services section, Backpage assumed the mantle of industry leader in online adult ads, with hundreds of sites dedicated to cities in scores of countries around the globe.
Though Cragislist did away with its personals in response to FOSTA, Backpage’s dating section continued to host adult ads posted by the site’s users, often with just a photo and a phone number linking to a social-media account.
Advocates for sex-workers’ rights had contended that the combination of FOSTA and a shutdown of Backpage would force sex workers onto the streets, where they would be vulnerable to pimps and less able to protect themselves against unsavory clients. They were right.
Among those who bore witness:
- Kate D’Adamo, an activist for sex-workers’ rights and a consultant for the progressive collective Reframe Health and Justice, told Front Page Confidential that FOSTA had dire consequences for the community she serves. She said the situation “really forced people to scramble,” owing to the “loss of income” that resulted.
- Kristen DiAngelo, sex worker, sex-trafficking survivor, and cofounder of the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), said FOSTA led sex workers in Sacramento to move outside. “Tons of girls [are] now on the streets,” she told Front Page Confidential. The new legislation, she said, had created “a heyday for the pimps.”
- Celestine Pearl, outreach director for St. James Infirmary, a clinic that serves the sex-worker community in San Francisco, told Front Page Confidential that in the city’s Mission District, home to a perennial sex market, she witnessed an initial uptick in street prostitution after FOSTA/Backpage. She went on to explain that sex work more dangerous, because sex workers were no longer able to go online to “blacklist” abusive customers and “whitelist” trustworthy ones.
- Juliana Piccillo, director of SWOP’s Tucson, Arizona, chapter, said the situation that resulted was “catastrophic” for sex workers and that those from marginalized communities — trans people, people of color, and those struggling economically — were hit harder than most. “Their entire way of business has been pulled out from under them,” she explained.
Sex workers have reason to feel vulnerable even under the best of circumstances. A 2017 study coauthored by professors at Baylor University and the University of West Virginia cites statistics showing that prostitution is the most dangerous job for a woman in the U.S., with a murder rate of more than 200 per 100,000.
When they examined Craigslist’s erotic-services section, the researchers found advertising online may have made sex workers’ lives safer.
From 2002 to 2010, Craigslist offered an erotic-services section in different cities. The researchers compiled data from each city’s erotic-services section from its inception until the time Craigslist closed them down in 2010. Their conclusion: On average, Craigslist’s erotic-services section reduced the overall female homicide rate by 17.4 percent in the cities it served.
In April 2018, P.J. Vogt, cohost of Gimlet Media’s Reply All podcast, interviewed one of the study’s coauthors, Baylor economics professor Scott Cunningham, for an episode titled “No More Safe Harbor.” Cunningham told Vogt that the internet had allowed female sex workers to choose “to not work with coercive people.”
But with the passage of FOSTA and the closure of Backpage, the “safety mechanism” disappeared.
Vogt asked Cunningham whether he believed FOSTA would lead to sex workers’ deaths. The professor replied in the affirmative.
“Yeah, I do, actually,” Cunningham said. “If [sex workers] end up having to go back to the streets — if they end up having to work with clients that they were not able to check out before or screen in any way — they are going to die. …There’s going to be violence committed against them.”
The Call for Decriminalization: Sex Workers Fight Back
Well before FOSTA came up for a vote, sex workers and their allies mobilized against it.
Anti-FOSTA outrage erupted on social media, inspiring hashtags such as #LetUsSurvive, #Decrim, and #RightsNotRescue. Sex workers’ first-person accounts of the FOSTA fallout appeared in Rolling Stone, inVice‘s women-centric section Broadly, on the sex-worker-run site Tits and Sass, and in Condé Nast’s mainstream women’s magazine Allure, among others.
Sex workers earned a crucial ally in their fight, when, 24 hours after the government took control of Backpage, the Women’s March, a mainstream feminist group that emerged after Trump’s inauguration, tweeted its support for sex workers.
“The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients,” the April 7 tweet reads. “Sex workers rights are women’s rights.”
. The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women’s rights. Follow @SafeSpacesDC @melissagira @swopusa @KateDAdamo @supporthosechi @anaorsomething for more info. https://t.co/S3Orx3aM8Z
— Women's March (@womensmarch) April 7, 2018
In one local example of muscle-flexing, SWOP Sacramento went all out against a proposed California statute that would have expanded the definition of “pandering.” The group deluged state representatives with faxes, protested on the steps of the state capitol, and spoke at committee hearings. The bill died on April 24.
On June 2, 2018, sex workers took to the streets for International Whores’ Day. Thousands marched in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere. The day before, sex workers and their advocates lobbied Capitol Hill as part of National Sex Worker Lobby Day, dispatching teams to the offices of nearly 30 House representatives, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
And when the national sex-workers- rights group Desiree Alliance decided out of an abundance of caution to cancel their biannual 2019 conference, sex workers maneuvered to steal victory from the jaws of FOSTA. The group’s director, Cris Sardina, called an emergency sex worker summit for the weekend ofJune 23-24, with around two dozen activists from around the country assembling in ACLU’s Los Angeles offices.
From this crucible came a manifesto demanding dignity and decriminalization, the “National Sex-Worker Anti-Criminalization Principles,” a sort of declaration of independence for the sex trade, which was published online and now serves as a battle cry for sex workers everywhere.
On June 27, a promising development for sex workers occurred on the legal front when the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit focused on civil liberties in the digital world, challenged FOSTA’s constitutionality in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of five plaintiffs, including a licensed massage therapist, the Internet Archive (aka, the “Wayback Machine”), and Human Rights Watch, a group that, among other things, advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution.
The other two plaintiffs are the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, which defends sexual liberty as a fundamental human right, and Alex Andrews, treasurer of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP USA). Andrews worries that RateThatRescue.org, a website she operates that encourages sex workers to post information about various organizations dedicated to helping them, might fall under FOSTA’s over-broad mandate.
Along with EFF, the plaintiffs are represented by two heavy-hitting First Amendment law firms — Davis, Wright Tremaine and Walters Law Group — and by cyberlaw expert Daphne Keller, former general counsel at Google who’s now with Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society.
Plaintiffs attorneys have filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the law, and the U.S. Department of Justice has replied with a motion to dismiss the complaint. Both motions are currently pending before federal Judge Richard J. Leon.
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