These days, like all days, it feels like there is so much harm happening in the world. Craigslist recently closed down all of its Personals sections (across all sites and locations in the world), Instagram now censors its search tool—every time we go to edit this piece more websites have shut down, more hashtags have been censored, and more avenues of safety for sex workers around the world have disappeared.
This is all a result of two American bills passed on February 27, 2018: the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). From the bills’ names, it might sound like they aim to create safety and end violence, but in reality they are actually increasing and perpetuating it. As a quick context, these two pieces of legislation were proposed as a bills to end “sex trafficking.” In reality, these pieces of legislation are a direct attack on sex workers, the sex work industry, and the websites and other online spaces that help to make sex work safer. These bills contribute to rape culture and are an active form of gender-based violence.
One stark example of this impact is the closure of Backpage, a site that sex workers have used for decades to discuss bad dates, review clients, and share experiences to support their community. The closure of this site does not end sex trafficking, it actively makes consensual sex work more dangerous.
The closures also have ramifications for sex workers internationally—Backpage was used by sex workers around the world, and Craigslist and similar websites have versions in many other countries that are impacted. It isn’t clear, for example, why Craigslist Canada shut down their Personals section, as FOSTA and SESTA are American pieces of legislation.
Let’s be clear: These bills, which are only the latest in a long line of state actions that harm and erase sex workers, do not protect sex trafficking victims. They actually make sex trafficking easier to occur because they erase grassroot methods of safety from the sex work community, and force sex workers to rely on less safe methods and spaces to work in. In the few months since they were introduced, these bills have already contributed to the deaths of sex workers.
It’s also important for us to discuss that this violence disproportionately impacts people of colour, indigenous folks, women, queer folks, trans folks, disabled folks, neurodivergent folks, and all other marginalized intersections. For many folks existing on the margins, sex work can be survival strategy. Increased stigmatization, criminalization and removal of community supports disproportionately impacts these groups.
As always, where there is violence there is resistance. In the local community, PEERS provides support and resources to sex workers and the community. Sex workers will (and do) continue to exist and resist and fight for safety. Already, there are guides online to show sex workers how to use Craigslist now that it has closed its Personals sections. Sex workers with their own websites can switch to hosts outside of the United States like Red Umbrella Hosting and OrangeWebsite.
AVP also provides safer sex supplies, as well as peer support that anyone can access. Though our support is not accessed only by sex workers, we must acknowledge that there are students and faculty and staff and other UVic community members who are sex workers, and that we’re always working on improving our services to support sex workers better. We advocate that sex work should be supported and made safer, not erased and criminalized and stigmatized.
We’d love to talk more about this issue with you. There is a lot more to say about the impacts of these bills and their connections to gender-based violence. Many sex workers are already doing a great job talking about it. We recommend the following articles as a place to start for further reading.
- “Congress is Preparing to Harm Queer Sex Workers Like Me”, Alexander Cheves
- “The Anti Porn Laws That are Killing People”, Elle Stanger
- “The Impact of FOSTA/SESTA on Online Sex Work Communities”, Jessie Sage
- “On Backpage”, Caty Simon
- “New US Laws targeting sex workers will harm autistic people”, Reese Piper
- “How to Survive Being Rescued from Sex Trafficking”, Tara Burns (content note: contains descriptions of sexualized violence against minors, as well as state violence and violence by social workers and community supports)
- “Trump Just Signed Legislation That Could Be Deadly For Sex Workers Like Me”, Laura LeMoon (content note: personal experiences of sexual assault and trafficking, does not go into specific details)
- “This sex worker-run site is fighting back against SESTA”, Ana Valens