*A note about language: many words and phrases have been used to describe sex work and Sex workers throughout history, most of them derogatory. Some sex workers have opted to reclaim these slurs for themselves as a means of resistance. That's not my lane, so I will be using "sex worker" as an all-encompassing term.
In my corner of the internet, sex work is having a moment right now. That's not to imply that it hasn't always been a part of my life in some form or another (more on that another day, maybe), but the recent SESTA/FOSTA bills signed in to law by y'alls little president has radically altered the way we'll engage with sex and sex work as a society in the years to come.
"But Sexology Bae," you're undoubtedly asking yourself, "what are those acronyms and why are they throwing people into hysterics?"
Great question, reader! Let me help break it down. I'll to my best to give an overview of SESTA/FOSTA as well as explain the differences between sex trafficking and sex work.
These are actually 2 separate bills, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, and the Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act. The broad premise is to make websites liable for what people say and do on them, in an attempt to crack down on websites that supposedly enable sex trafficking. You might have noticed this impact, should you frequent websites like Backpage.com or the personals section of Craigslist. More recently, sites like Patreon are shutting down the accounts of sex workers or refusing to release payments to preemptively cover their butts.
There is an important distinction to be made between sex trafficking and sex work: CONSENT. People who are being trafficked are inherently forced against their will to participate, by violence, threats, or other means. Sex work, while nuanced, is the exchange of sexual acts or goods or services between consenting adults. Sex work is commonly called the world's oldest profession, and the shame and vitriol that sex workers face for providing in-demand services is ultimately rooted in outdated ideas of what people (namely women) should be allowed to do with their bodies.
People operate under this moral panic over saving trafficking victims with the understanding that consenting sex workers will likely be negatively impacted too. I'd go so far as to say that it's intentional, but it's hard to imply that there's malicious intent behind these efforts to stop trafficking because everyone agrees that exploitation is bad. I'll stop being frustrated about the shame that sex workers face when we acknowledge as a society that people sell sex because people are willing to buy it, and unless you're one of the people involved in the transaction you should leave well enough alone.
My biggest issue, as someone who knows a lot of sex workers and saw how this impacted them, is how uneducated the general public is about modern day sex work and by extension how little they care about sex workers. I feel like there are three common sex work archetypes: the street walker, the high-class escort/companion, and the abused trafficking victim (sometimes conflated with number one).
While sex trafficking is very real and something that thousands if not millions of people are experiencing at any given time in our country alone, it's important to remember that not every person who participates in sex work is trafficked. Implying that every sex worker is a trafficking victim is dangerous, because it allows for the passage of laws and policies that put sex workers in danger and makes their jobs harder, such as SESTA/FOSTA. Other all-sex-workers-are-trafficking-victims policies that negatively impact sex workers are those that attempt to "get them off the streets", via arrest or other misguided detaining efforts like group homes. For actual sex workers, all this does is keep them from making money, putting them at further risk of being exploited.
As SESTA/FOSTA takes hold and more websites shut down or otherwise block sex workers from accessing them to advertise, sex workers will lose their ability to thoroughly screen clients and eventually be forced back to the streets, which ironically increases their chances of being trafficked.
I need to break this down a little bit further for the sake of nuance. Even if they aren't being trafficked, all sex workers are not necessarily in the profession completely willingly. This is part of a phenomenon called "survival sex work", which is when people turn to sex work out of necessity because they can't participate in the so-called formal or mainstream economies due to things like family needs, (lack of) formal education, and the like. I had the opportunity to work with people who participated in survival sex work while in college during my work with a local New Orleans non-profit, Women with a Vision.
I naively approached this work with the idea that sex workers were either doing it because they loved the work, or they were trafficking victims participating against their will. I learned that there's a gray area, and it's not a bad thing to acknowledge it because the people participating in survival sex work are normally the workers who are on the streets and more likely to face violence and arrest, so they need the most advocacy and protection.
Now that Sex Work 101 is done, you're probably wondering wtf this has to do with you and why you should care that life may get a little bit harder for people who sell sex. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is the basis of the open internet as we know it today, and SESTA/FOSTA was able to pass by targeting this portion of the now 22 year old legislation. Section 230 was intended to prevent a platform from being held liable for content posted by its users. By amending this section, the doors are now potentially open for websites to start blocking any kind of speech they think could present a liability issue--negative news about the president, for example.
The passage of SESTA/FOSTA has poked a hole in this pillar of internet freedom, potentially signaling the beginning of a crackdown on all morally abhorrent content. Morally abhorrent, of course, if you're an old conservative white person who wants to preserve the status quo. Free speech as we know it will likely come under fire sooner rather than later, and the powers that be are counting on society to ignore the plight of sex workers while they continue to snatch the rug from under the rest of us. We ALL have something to lose here.