How Misconceptions About Human Trafficking Harmed Sex Workers and What Democrats Should Do About It

by Holly VanWert // April 6, 2019
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Every 2020 Democratic frontrunner voted in favor of SESTA/FOSTA, showing how good intentions can lead to bad legislation. Can the Democrats rehab their image with sex workers ahead of the election?

Cut Throat v Cyntoia Brown v Johnny Allen

On January 7, 2019, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, commuting her life sentence for the killing of a man who picked her up for sex when she was 16 years old. She will have served 15 years in prison for what she claims was self-defense.

A clear victim of child sex trafficking, Brown was forced into prostitution by a pimp known as “Cut Throat” who threatened, beat, and raped her repeatedly. In August 2004, she was picked up at a fast food restaurant by 43-year-old Johnny Allen. During her trial, Brown testified that Allen had intimidated her throughout the night and after they got into bed, she claimed he reached for something and feared it was a gun. As they laid in bed, Brown shot Allen in the head and escaped.

Sex Trafficking: A Statistical Failure

Finding accurate statistics on victims of human trafficking is nearly impossible. Over the last two decades, anti-trafficking campaigns have redefined what we think of as human trafficking by conflating trafficking and consensual sex work. As a result, statistics usually include trafficking victims working in forced labor of all kinds—not just sexual exploitation—as well as voluntary sex workers.

But when we hear tragic stories like Cyntoia Brown’s, it’s difficult to not want to jump into action. So it would make sense that when a bill was introduced to fight sex trafficking in the United States, that it would gain bipartisan support.

A Legislative Solution?

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act are a pair of Senate and House bills known as SESTA and FOSTA. Touted as a way to fight sex trafficking, the measures passed without much opposition. Every one of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who served in Congress last year voted in favor of the hybrid law. Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar co-sponsored SESTA in the Senate.

SESTA/FOSTA undermines free speech online by making websites legally responsible for what their users post. If that content has to do with sex work or similar topics, those platforms are open to civil and criminal liability. In response, Craiglist’s “Personals” section was taken down. Backpage.com, a website for classified ads, was seized by U.S. law enforcement agencies. Popular social media platforms Facebook and Tumblr changed their terms of service. Facebook expanded upon a previous policy on sexual solicitation so that all speech regarding sex goes against their “community standards.” Tumblr removed all adult content from its platform.

Impact on Sex Workers

In the passing of SESTA/FOSTA, lawmakers told us that they removed “sex trafficking platforms” from the internet. What they actually did, however, was take away valuable resources that voluntary sex workers have relied on for work, education, and safety. Without the ability to share information online, sex workers are unable to vet clients, leaving them, once again, vulnerable and at risk of violence from pimps like Cut Throat.

Salem (not her real name), a sex worker from Denver, Colorado, shared her and other’s experiences in the industry following the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, saying, “That protection aspect is gone. The use of pimps was almost obsolete and now it’s having to come back. We don’t feel protected because our government doesn’t care about us.”

She went on to say, “A lot of [politicians] were uninformed, [but] a lot of people just didn’t listen, because we told them. Sex workers everywhere were screaming, “do not do this, it’s terrible,” but they were just focused on sex trafficking. As long as sex work and trafficking are tied together, we’re never going to get anywhere.”

Sex bloggers and website creators have always had to navigate sex-negative policies on social media. As the effects of SESTA/FOSTA continue to spread, they are finding their platforms even more destabilized.

Epiphora, a sex blogger at HeyEpiphora.com, has lost access to her social media accounts multiple times and was even shadowbanned on Twitter, despite being verified. When asked about the Democrat’s support of SESTA/FOSTA, she said, “As a person working in the adult industry, it’s disheartening to see “progressive” politicians failing to recognize the sweeping harm that SESTA and FOSTA cause, both to sex workers and free speech on the internet in general. Sex workers made a huge effort to educate their congresspeople in advance of the vote, but most of them chose to ignore that information. It is vital to our democracy that politicians really take the time to listen to people who will be directly affected by the legislation they approve.”

While a vibrant community of sex workers and all of their fans are left out in the cold, actual trafficking victims also disappeared from the internet. No longer able to be tracked by law enforcement, but left to continue in the underground sex trade. In San Francisco, where Kamala Harris once served as district attorney, there has been a reported 170% spike in human trafficking since SESTA/FOSTA’s passing.

If you have a favorite in the Democratic primary race, you may hope that they were simply ignorant of what passing SESTA/FOSTA would do. Unfortunately, the current frontrunners don’t have stellar reputations among sex workers.

Democratic Presidential Contender Response

Kamala Harris was heavily involved in the negotiations on SESTA. She worked with tech companies, including Google and Facebook, on the bill’s language. As California attorney general, Harris made sex trafficking one of her signature issues, leading the crusade against Backpage, as she laid out in her statement on the Senate passage of SESTA.

Elizabeth Warren’s vote on SESTA wasn’t the only one she cast to make sex worker’s lives more difficult. In 2017, she helped introduce the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act in the Senate. This bill aims to shut down the bank accounts of anyone suspected of engaging in trafficking. Much like SESTA/FOSTA, the existing law defines voluntary sex work and trafficking as the same thing, leaving sex workers fearful of losing their bank accounts. The bill passed in the House with almost unanimous support and has moved to the Senate, where it is still awaiting a vote.

Amy Klobuchar refers to herself as “a national leader in the fight to combat human trafficking.” In 2016, she sponsored legislation to take grants from trafficking victims services to instead fund the National Human Trafficking Hotline — a federally-backed hotline for trafficking tips that does not provide actual victims assistance or initiate any investigative action. Klobuchar also introduced two separate bipartisan bills that involved the Department of Transportation in combating human trafficking on the road.

Sex workers and activists have also reached out to Bernie Sanders. In 2018, adult film actress, cam girl, and supporter of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign, Ginger Banks, recorded a video asking the Senator to stand with sex workers in the face of SESTA/FOSTA. More recently, Alice Skary, a sex worker and educator, called on fellow sex workers to form a committee on decriminalization and the reversal of SESTA/FOSTA in hopes of getting Sanders’ attention.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAIECJ9fBXI

Sanders has never released a statement on why he supported SESTA/FOSTA, nor has he responded to those who have reached out to him. Right after his presidential kickoff rallies in Brooklyn and Chicago, he avoided answering a question about sex work decriminalization in an interview with the radio show The Breakfast Club, saying, “That’s a good question and I don’t have an answer for that.”

We know that Sanders believes in sexual freedom and autonomy. Like most issues he has spoken out on, there is a record of his activism going back more than 50 years. In 1963, as a junior at the University of Chicago, a young Bernie Sanders made national news after writing a sexual manifesto in the student newspaper.

In “Sex and the Single Girl—Part Two,” Sanders pushed back on the university’s housing guidelines that prohibited women from living off-campus and restricted men and women from visiting with each other in their dorms in an effort to deter them from having sex. In his proclamation, he stated, “In my opinion, the administrators of this university are as qualified to legislate on sex as they are to mend broken bones. One can best use an old saying to describe their actions; that their ignorance of the matter is only matched by their presumptuousness. If they dislike sex, or if they think that it is ‘dirty,’ or ‘evil,’ or ‘sinful’ that is their misfortune. It is incredible, however, that they should be allowed to pass their attitudes, or neuroses, on to the student body.”

Just as the University of Chicago failed in legislating sex on their campus in the ’60s, the United States government has failed in legislating sex for the consenting adults working in the sex trade. It’s important to point out that, unlike the other candidates running for president who voted for SESTA/FOSTA, Bernie Sanders is the only one sex workers are reaching out to. This is a testament both to his appreciation in sex work communities and the knowledge that providing Sanders new information often results in updated understanding and changes in belief, as it should.

Sex Worker Activism

In the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers have only become more motivated in demanding the rights and protections that they deserve. In February 2019, more than 20 sex workers, allies, and organizational partners launched Decrim NY, a “coalition to decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize the sex trade in New York City and state.”

Decrim NY has called on all presidential candidates to support the full decriminalization of sex work.

Kamala Harris made headlines after an exclusive interview with the Root, in which she was described as “the first mainstream U.S. presidential candidate to publicly state she supports the decriminalization of sex work.” This is despite the fact that during that interview, Harris described her support for arresting “the johns” rather than “the prostitutes” in what is known as the Nordic Model.

Decrim NY released a statement shortly after Harris’ interview, explaining that the Nordic Model “targets, arrests, and incarcerates clients of sex workers, as well as drivers, landlords, family members, partners, who provide services and care to sex workers, and sex workers collaborating to keep each other safe.”

“[It] is not “decriminalization.” It is criminalization, and it puts people who trade sex at increased risk of violence, economic instability, and labor exploitation,” they added.

Tulsi Gabbard voiced her support of decriminalization to BuzzFeed News, saying, “If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime. All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.”

Supporting Sex Workers

Now is the time for Democrats to atone for their support of SESTA/FOSTA. In the year since its passing, it has harmed sex worker’s communities, their livelihood, and has even put their lives at risk, all while increasing numbers of human trafficking. In 2020, sex workers are looking for a candidate who is going to stand up for their right to live and work.

Phoenix Calida, a sex worker’s rights advocate from Chicago, explained how SESTA/FOSTA is a key voting issue for a lot of sex workers, saying, “It’s something that’s constantly being talked about. For the most part, no one is supporting authentic decriminalization and that is going to impact how people vote.”

Democratic presidential hopefuls must work to remove the shame and stigma of sex work that they have helped to create. Calida explained, “[What] creates the stigma is false narratives about who sex workers are and what sex workers do. We can’t have honest discussions and allow sex workers to be at the forefront of this conversation if they’re being criminalized.”

Salem was also clear in the need for removing the stigma from sex work. “We need to completely destigmatize sex work,” she said. “When people hear ‘sex work,’ they think, “oh, you don’t have to do this,” but I know I don’t. I have other options. I have a degree. I don’t have to do this, but I choose to. You can want to do sex work.”

“[SESTA/FOSTA] brought out a debate on, basically, if sex workers deserve rights, and we do. We don’t need to debate our lives anymore. We don’t need to prove that we’re valid. We are valid.”

Holly VanWert is a freelance writer with Birdie Media Team. See this article and other content on www.birdiemediateam.com. Contact birdiemediateam@gmail.com with questions, comments, or corrections.

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Post Author: Holly VanWert

Holly VanWert is a freelance writer from Northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @hollyvanwert.
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