The national disaster that is the Trump presidency has rolled back a lot of protections for LGBT people. But the latest atrocity to spew from the maw of the beast is something called SESTA/FOSTA.
It’s a mash up of “The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” of 2017 (SESTA) from the Senate and the House equivalent, the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (FOSTA).
Now at first glance, some might think, “Well, stopping trafficking is a good thing, especially if it’s underage individuals.”
This unholy acronym is a direct attack on freedom of speech as well as on the millions of people who make their living doing consensual sex work. But it actually does little to protect anyone being “trafficked.”
It is also having a direct and devastating effect on marginalized populations, like economically challenged transgender folk.
Let me break it down for you.
The biggest hit from these laws is that they are rolling back parts of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). That law protects publishers from things their members might say — in other words, a site with an online forum is not responsible for what people posting in that online forum might say. Specifically, sites like Craigslist could now be held liable is someone posted an ad that promoted sex work, even if it was in veiled language.
Already, Backpage has been taken down. And Craigslist is shutting down its popular ”Personals” section. Many more sites will follow suit to avoid prosecution for content their users post.
To avoid any chance of implication of promotion of prostitution, many sites that featured personal services like Massage Therapists and Personal Trainers are dropping those categories. Just to be safe.
Now comes the even worse part.
Because of the vague wording of these bills, many sites may start censoring any speech that could be construed as remotely associated with “trafficking.” That means automatic filtering of keywords like “massage,” “sugar daddy,” “escort” and “companionship.”
It won’t take long before words like “gay”, “lesbian”, and “transgender” are added to the list.
This is a threat the Electronic Frontiers Foundation has been warning about. But big corporate players like Amazon backed the bill, and money talks in Congress.
So how is this affecting transgender people? Well, in the past many low-income transgender people made money doing sex work on the side. Using the internet to screen clients was much safer than being out on the street, and it offered a certain level of protection from predators who could be blacklisted and blocked.
Now, according to a report in The Daily Beast, transgender sex workers in New York are soliciting on the street again. I expect that the same thing is happening in Dallas.
Additionally, the law has resurrected the infamous character, the Pimp, figures notorious for abusing and exploiting transgender sex workers.
Beyond the immediate effects on sex workers, these bills are already stifling free speech with organizations that promote sexual freedom and advocate for sex workers rights. The vague legislation could make any organization responsible for language on their website that could be somehow interpreted as promoting “trafficking.”
The idea that mere discussion of sex work could be seen as a violation should send chills down your spine.
SESTA-FOSTA is a lazy piece of legislation. While it’s hard not to agree with it’s intended mission of stopping “trafficking” (ostensibly under-age trafficking), the bill is so vague that it does little to actually change anything except Americans’ right to free speech.
It addresses none of the nuances surrounding sex, sex work and personal bodily autonomy. Instead, it creates more danger than it prevents. Forcing sex workers back onto the streets and back underground will result in injuries, exploitation and even deaths.
That is far too high a price to pay so lawmakers can boast that they are “doing something” about trafficking. Much like the ill-fated “war on drugs,” this poorly written law will do nothing good and so much bad.
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a board member of the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.