Laws like SESTA-FOSTA are not only making sex work more dangerous, but criminalizing the very organizing and advocacy that would help sex workers stay safe.
On June 2, 1975, in the French city of Lyon, over 100 prostitutes occupied a church to protest police persecution. Their protest inaugurated the date as the first International Whores’ Day, also known as International Sex Workers’ Day, which passes most years with little attention. But this year on June 2, over 15 American cities saw protests in support of sex workers. Over 500 gathered in the San Francisco Bay Area, over 400 in New York, and over 100 in Chicago — sex worker rights advocates described it as the biggest wave of protest in their movement’s history.
After President Donald Trump signed the packaged Fight Online Sex Trafficking and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers acts — known collectively as SESTA-FOSTA — into law in April, organizing around sex workers has been reinvigorated with a new urgency. The legislation, which purports to combat trafficking, instead cripples sex workers’ ability to work safely online. It’s merely the latest example in an unbroken history of harmful anti-sex work laws. But at a time when activism around, with, and for sex workers is all the more crucial, laws like SESTA-FOSTA are not only making sex work harder and more dangerous, but they’re also silencing and criminalizing the very organizing and advocacy that would help sex workers stay safe and fight persecution, even chilling journalists’ efforts to cover these issues.
“There is increased fear around what we as activists and advocates can post or share on social media.”
“There is increased fear around what we as activists and advocates can post or share on social media because of the self-censoring of websites and increased (whether real or perceived) law enforcement activity around the sex industry,” said Melissa Broudo, the co-director of the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights Institute, a sex worker advocacy organization. “We as an advocacy project want to ensure that everyone feels safe engaging with us and others in the activist community, attending events, and speaking their mind to further the benefit and well-being of all in the sex industry. Unfortunately, given the climate because of SESTA-FOSTA, that is very difficult to do currently.”
In one poignant example of how these laws harm advocacy, the Desiree Alliance Conference — the largest U.S. gathering addressing human, labor, and civil rights for workers in the sex industry — announced that it will not take place this year due to fears surrounding SESTA-FOSTA. An announcement on their website said, “Due to FOSTA/SESTA enactments, our leadership made the decision that we cannot put our organization and our attendees at risk. We hope you understand our grave concerns and continue to resist every law that exists to harm sex workers!”
Much of the issue with the new legislation is that the language of the bills is imprecise and perniciously broad. Under SESTA-FOSTA, every site or online platform can be held liable for hosting what the law describes as “prostitution.” But the term “prostitution” is undefined and makes no distinction between human trafficking and consensual sex work. The framing is vague, but the implication is clear: Sex work is not seen as legitimate work, and as such, sex workers can’t organize as workers. With little clarity on how the law might be implemented, online platforms as well as activist groups themselves are moving with pre-emptive vigor to remove content with any relation to sex work — including anti-SESTA-FOSTA political speech.
On Facebook, an adult filmmaker shared a request from journalist Sofia Barrett-Ibarria seeking sex workers to speak to for a Vice article on the impact of SESTA. The user was banned from the social network for 30 days. “There was no nudity, no nipples, just literally THE WORDS ‘sex worker’ and ‘escort,’” Barrett-Ibarria tweeted. When sweeping algorithms are applied to comply with overly broad legislation, speech is chilled and so, too, is the activism it drives.
In another example, on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, progressive New York congressional candidate Suraj Patel began the hashtag #SurajAgainstSesta — a rare case of solidarity with sex workers from a politician. The hashtag was temporarily blocked for failing to meet community guidelines. Instagram also temporarily blocked the hashtag #Stripper, which refers to a legal profession.
From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, activists use hashtags to amplify messages, share news, and organize around protest days. For sex workers, organizing around social media hashtags can take on a different valence. “They’re really important as part of an infrastructure to build communication networks. These take time to build,” adult film performer and activist Lorelei Lee told me. “For many of us, social media is the only way to find each other.” Lee, a 37-year-old who has been a sex worker since the age of 19, noted that her working conditions changed dramatically once she had contact with others in her field. She told me that she has heard of a new example of sex workers banned or content blocked from Twitter or Facebook nearly every day in recent months, even while SESTA and FOSTA wound their way through Congress.
As online platforms remove content with pre-emptive zeal, meanwhile, sex worker organizers and advocates are themselves shutting down services and going silent in fear of potential repercussions. The Sacramento, California, chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, an organization that provides resources and information to sex workers and trafficking victims (without conflating the two), is suspending its direct outreach services programs. The move is a reaction to the growing political threat to sex workers reflected in SESTA and FOSTA and a direct response to a proposed California bill, SB124, that would criminalize a swathe of interactions with prostitutes, including assisting their well-being.
If under SESTA-FOSTA even advocacy is threatened, organizing on the ground is in worse peril still. Lola Balcon, a community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, noted that sex worker organizing around support services is uniquely criminalized. “In sex work only, there is a false division between community building, peer support and political advocacy, and only the latter is allowed (barely),” she wrote via email. “Compare this to any other labor movement, where unions do peer support (for example, members sharing info with each other about managers) and political advocacy.”
“When you take away our jobs, which laws like SESTA do, you take away our ability to organize and be activists.”
The Sacramento Sex Workers Outreach Project’s executive director Kristen DiAngelo is a current sex worker, educator, and also a former trafficking victim — living proof of the difference between coerced and consensual sex work. She told me that it was heartbreaking to shutter her group’s direct services, which included a safe house that could house up to six people, as well street outreach, providing hygiene kits, information on safety and rights to street-based workers. “We can’t put our volunteers and the people who use our services at greater legal risk,” DiAngelo said. “When you take away our jobs, which laws like SESTA do, you take away our ability to organize and be activists. How can anyone be a volunteer to help others if they can’t even support themselves?”
DiAngelo has seen wave after wave of legislation aimed at abolishing sex work under the guise of morality crusades. “This goes all the way back to 1912 and California’s Red Light Abatement — which I call prohibition — Act,” she said. The law caused all the state’s brothels to close within three years, forcing workers onto the streets. Then law enforcement targeted street work, too, leaving workers more and more vulnerable to exploitation. Despite her fears, however, DiAngelo is confident in sex workers as a community fighting back. “When we come back, we come back stronger,” she said, noting that she is seeing an unprecedented number of people standing in solidarity with sex workers against the new discriminatory legislation.
Many sex workers are afraid of being outed, stigmatized, and criminalized and are thus dissuaded from taking part in direct actions and protests. That’s why it’s so striking that thousands rallied for International Whores’ Day, making a bold claim to visibility, especially considering that many people are deserving of continued support at a moment when political forces aim to make sex workers invisible.