Why Decriminalization of Sex Work Matters: an introduction to fosta-sesta, & How You Can Help Fight it


On April 11th, 2018, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or FOSTA-SESTA, into law. I've been seeing a lot of questions from well-meaning people, so I thought I’d write a basic breakdown to help people understand these laws more easily.

What is the Nordic Model?

The Nordic Model is a form of carceral feminism that believes that sex work is degrading work, and that everyone who is doing sex work was coerced into it, and therefore is being trafficked — a claim for which there is no statistical support. The Nordic model says that women doing sex work should be decriminalized, but the men buying sex should be criminalized. It is also known as the end demand model. The idea is that if you criminalize clients, they’ll stop coming and all the women will be "free."

Problem One: Cis women are not the only people who sell sex.

Cis men and trans and nonbinary people also sell sex. Also, cisgendered heterosexual men are not the only ones buying sex — so it brings into question this entire idea of "terrible clients" (the images of whom are deeply racialized) and the "helpless victim" (often painted as white and naïve).

Problem Two: When clients get criminalized, good clients are afraid to come.

This opens the door for predatory clients and violent cops and puts sex workers in even more danger. It drives down prices. It forces workers to participate in practices that they don’t necessarily want to do (for instance, uncovered or bareback full-service sex work). It also forces sex workers back into cycles of poverty and incarceration; many marginalized folks are unable to get jobs due to disability, debilitating illness, undocumented status, discrimination, or criminal records. and find themselves doing street-based sex work, where they are picked by police and violent clients, or terrible minimum-wage jobs. And lest you think minimum-wage jobs are the solution to poverty and sex work, may I remind you that literally nobody can live on the minimum wage.

Also: Prison has never helped anybody. Like ever. Ever ever. But that’s a whole other topic.

Proponents of the Nordic Model will tell you that it eliminates sex work. It doesn’t.

What it eliminates is the REPORTING of sex work, and in turn, the reporting of sex work-related violence. When we don’t know what is going on with an already marginalized population, trust me, [trigger warning: abuse/rape/murder for this link] it's terrible.

So is there a better model for sex work?

Sex work should be decriminalized.

Sex workers already by and large self-regulate. What decriminalizing would do is take the pressure off of sex workers and the services they access. Decriminalization opens the door for sex workers to advertise safely, to work together (in the same rooms) for safety, to exchange safety information such as client screening, to access care, and more. It allows service providers such as doctors to provide services without fear of being criminalized for aiding prostitution.

Decriminalization is what Amnesty International, World Health Organization, and United Nations recommend.

[trigger warning: rape/violence for this link] There was even a study about how when Craigslist launched its erotic services platform, female homicide rates dropped.

I’m AGAINST legalization. Legalization gives the state control over marginalized bodies such as disabled people, queer and trans people, Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour.

Legalization also creates hierarchies. Only certain people will have the access to go out and do the paperwork to do the work "legally." A lot of marginalized people who turn to sex work will not have access to that. Those people would end up incarcerated and will be forced to go through invasive health screenings. In the 1970s, street sex workers would be forced into weeklong "isolation" and treated with penicillin, regardless of if they had STIs or not. Currently, HIV is criminalized in many states, which is also how people get away with harming or killing sex workers.

It’s all around terrible. Legalization opens up the doors to MORE capitalism and MORE incarceration. Let’s not do that.

Rest assured that sex workers ALREADY take great care of their health and don’t need state-mandated health checks to do their jobs. HIV criminalization already exists, and it's a terrible law that disproportionately criminalizes and punishes Black and brown people.

But what about trafficking? I heard there was a whole thing about Backpage?

It turns out that when you empower sex workers (decriminalization in New Zealand, sex workers unionizing in India) they are able to weed out predators themselves (and have a much higher success rate than the police!) and get written about in Amnesty International! It is also MUCH easier to exit sex work in decriminalized states because the stigma doesn’t exist, and you can actually put transferable skills on your résumé without it being a problem. In criminalized states, it is much harder to transition to “straight" jobs.

Let’s be clear about something: There are people under the age of 18 who do sell sex, and are automatically considered trafficking victims, regardless of whether or not force, fraud, or coercion is an actual factor. They also may sell drugs and/or participate in other underground street economies. I am not condemning or condoning them for doing these things, but the fact of the matter is, it happens.

These people are often runaways, are already growing up in underserved neighborhoods and economies, and/or are LGBTQ+. They are often, with reason, afraid of the foster system and other social services. Shelters will often not take them, so they do what they have to do to survive. In fact, 17-year-olds themselves are often charged with "pimping" and trafficking their own peers just because they taught their peers how to survive on the streets!

Want to help trafficking? Lobby your politicians for stronger, more competent, and more generous social services.

Not only are sex trafficking numbers highly inflated, sex trafficking is a complex scenario. Trafficking is hyped up to be innocent, naïve, often white, girls snatched off the internet into the deep dark layers of the street, where they are used as sex dolls. That's extremely rare, if ever. When there is nonconsensual pimping, it is usually people from their own neighborhoods, or queer or abused runaway kids who have run away out of their own volition, not because they were promised "gold." These kids often don’t want to go back home or talk to police and social services. A lot of people under 18 that sell sex exercise a lot of agency. They are only considered "trafficked" because the law says so. People often caught up in "trafficking" are migrant folks selling sex who don’t speak English, a fact which is often used to take away their agency.

NONE of the “anti-trafficking" people talk about these things. They would just rather you believe that everybody who is arrested is someone who is utterly helpless and a victim, when there are many layers to these issues.

And depending on the police county, people above the age of 18 who sell sex are either slapped with misdemeanor “prostitution" charges, or are labelled trafficked — whichever brings them more money.

In fact, cops themselves are often found to be at the heart of many of these trafficking rings themselves. Surprise! (not)

Even Kamala Harris herself, at the forefront of charging Backpage, could not keep her police department from exploiting underage girls.

They keep saying that they are going to arrest the founders of Backpage.com for sex trafficking. They haven’t. They have only arrested them for aiding "prostitution." They so desperately want a big bad trafficking lobby that the Texas Attorney General’s office keeps lying about the case.

So what does FOSTA-SESTA have to do with all of this?

FOSTA-SESTA stands for Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. It's a bill that President of the United States Donald Trump signed into law while saying he doesn’t know why people are against it — i.e. he never took the time to be thoughtful about this law. By the way, Hillary Clinton would have signed it, too. It is a law that has had an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

Laws against trafficking already exist (and people are already prosecuted under it). FOSTA-SESTA does nothing but places liability on online platforms by asking them to tackle an enormous “real world"/not online problem.

How? By censoring speech.

Sex trafficking victims have written over and over how they don’t want FOSTA to go into effect.

Freedom Network USA, one of the largest, most respected coalitions that aids trafficking victims, has come out against this bill.

Sex worker advocates have been warning over and over how this bill is going to hurt everyone: trafficked victims and sex workers alike. Advocates have spoken on how they have used sites such as Backpage to track down victims of trafficking and help them get resources. Similarly, sex workers often use many of these same sites to exchange safety information such as bad date lists or how to work in better, safer environments. Now these same forums and sites can no longer function without fear of criminal liability, which hurts everyone.

FOSTA-SESTA spooks online platforms into pre-emptively censoring free speech for fear of criminal liability, which has all sorts of horrible consequences for free speech. Both Reddit and Microsoft have changed their terms of service. Any subreddits that talked about safety with regards to sex work have been taken down because it may incriminate Reddit as "aiding prostitution." You can no longer share “explicit and vulgar content" on any Microsoft product, which means that no longer allowed to do anything sexual with anyone on their platforms, regardless of if the context is paid or unpaid.

Fetish sites have shuttered because they’re afraid that their content may be construed as “prostitution," as put forth by the new law. Hell, there are substantiated reports of Google Drive deleting PowerPoint presentations and other contents of sex worker advocates.

Here is an incomplete list of products and institutions that discriminate or ban sex work or adult products.

See #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA for more info.

How come I never knew about any of this?

You know how the Internet is supposed to be this wonderful free space where we all exchange knowledge and uplift each other and build empathy and whatnot? Well, they’ve been ACTIVELY censoring sex worker and advocate voices. Twitter shadowbans them, or puts them in a “Twitter time-out", so that you can’t find them in searches. Facebook “hides" their words and articles so you can’t find them. Case in point. [Image Description: Two screenshots of the Twitter search page for “Backpage." On the left (with author of tweet logged in), there are sex worker and pro-sex worker tweets shown in the search results. On the right (what most of Twitter sees), there are only anti-sex worker tweets shown.]

And finally, frankly, the anti-trafficking lobby has a lot of money. They have co-opted the narrative around sex work, turned it into sex trafficking, and built an entire industry around it. The lobby has been building for years. They hate any sex that is not cisgendered-heterosexual and sanctified by marriage.

I’m not kidding. The NCOSE, or National Center on Sexual Exploitation, literally tweeted that the only way to get rid of trafficking is to get rid of all porn, regardless of context.

This is all terrible! How can I help?

Please talk to your friends and family about decriminalizing sex work.

Stacey Swimme, one of the founders of SWOP-USA (Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA), has written about how different allies can help in the fight to support sex work.

It is also extremely important that sex work issues are not seen as “niche" issues and that they are understood in the context of other injustices:

  • It is Black and Brown folks, particularly Black and Brown trans women, that experience most prostitution-related arrests, especially if they are pushed out into the street.
  • Sex work is a migrant justice issue, as undocumented migrants engage in sex work to have access to money.
  • Sex work is a disability justice issue, since so many disabled people are unable to work “regular" jobs and turn to sex work.
  • This is a reproductive justice issue, as sex workers are often seen as unfit to be parents, and their children are often taken away from them.
  • It is a labor justice issue, as all workers should have the safety to engage in their work as they choose to.
  • It is a feminist issue, as all people should have consent over their own bodies and how they decide to engage in labor with it.

Sex work issues affect so many marginalised groups and people, including people you know personally whom you may not realise that it affects.

Tits and Sass has an article about fundraisers for and by sex workers.

My personal favorite organizations to donate to are as follows:

You should also donate to your favorite LGBTQ+ focused orgs that help with medical and community resources.

In 2018, we have a lot of information on both sex work and trafficking.

It is high time we decriminalized sex work, so that sex workers can have better working conditions, and trafficking victims can get the justice and services they need.

Raani Begum (she/they/he) is a queer South Asian sex worker. She can be found musing on twitter at @raanibegum.

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