Act meant to stop sex traffickers may actually do more harm than good

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Staff writer Madeline Miller shares her thoughts on the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.

Madeline Miller

The Trump administration has put forth a valiant effort to enforce outdated puritanical sexual values on the wild and free landscape of the internet and endangered lives and livings in the process.

The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, also known as FOSTA-SESTA seems on the surface to be a helpful bill that will take concrete steps toward ending sex trafficking on the internet. In reality, it is a dark new attempt at censorship that strips away protections and safe havens afforded to trafficking victims and consensual sex workers alike.

Before the bill was even signed into law, online communities began closing off avenues of discussion for sex workers. Craigslist pulled their personals section down. Reddit banned subreddits r/sugarbaby, r/hookers and r/escorts, among others. Online outlets that allowed sex workers to screen clients are shutting down, and people will die for it, mostly women and minorities.

Google Play has restricted its terms of service to ban any and all sexual content, and Microsoft has banned nudity and “inappropriate content” from Skype, Xbox and Microsoft Office.

Online services for sex workers save lives. They allow both consensual sex workers and sex trafficking victims a way to protect themselves and a way to remove themselves from the streets. A 2017 study by Scott Cunningham, Gregory DeAngelo and John Tripp from Baylor University and West Virginia University found that the “erotic services” section on Craigslist, when available, reduced the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent. The study asserts that prostitution is the most dangerous occupation for women. Prostitution on the streets has a homicide rate “over 13 times higher than the general population.”

So why, when the internet makes things so much safer for sex workers, is the FOSTA-SESTA legislation aiming to strip away the protections sex workers have found for themselves?

The legislation has targeted not only the services themselves, but also the mere discussion of such services. Thus, it will make it more difficult for actual sex trafficking victims to reach out for help and for anti-trafficking organizations to reach victims.

Instead of creating a safer world for victims of human trafficking, FOSTA-SESTA will conflate sex work with trafficking and lead a brigade against the very people it claims to protect. It makes it easier for clients of sex workers to abuse, rape and murder them because it forces sex workers out onto street corners again. It opens them up to worlds of violence that the internet could protect them from.

If Congress truly wanted to curb sex trafficking and protect women and minorities from the abuse they face at the hands of violent johns, the correct way to do so would not be to target sex workers. It would be to target their clients.

Sex workers and sex trafficking victims are disproportionately affected by abuse, rape and murder, especially when they are forced to work on the streets and not allowed to screen their clients on the internet. They should not be punished by FOSTA-SESTA for the crimes committed against them. It should not be controversial to want to protect their lives.