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WHAT DOES THE SAFE SEX WORKERS STUDY ACT DO?

The SAFE SEX Workers Study asks the Department of Health and Human Services to research what happens when sex workers lose access to digital platforms such as websites.

In 2018, Congress passed FOSTA/SESTA, a law that expanded criminal and civil liabilities for websites containing information related to commercial sex and specifically targeting websites where workers advertised and connected to clients. Just one week before FOSTA/SESTA passed Backpage.com was seized by law enforcement, displacing even more sex workers. Since the bill’s passage, numerous sites have shut down, changed their operations, and began kicking users suspected of being sex workers from their platforms.

These site closures sent people who trade sex scrambling. Sex workers lost the ability to employ harm reduction techniques such as client screening and negotiation and share community knowledge. Online platforms have been an important way that sex workers access life-saving safety resources, screen potential clients, and maintain autonomy to work independently. The SAFE SEX Workers Study Act asks the federal government to better understand these impacts.

The study will assess the impact on violence, financial stability, health and exploitation for people who trade sex when they lose access to platforms. The study will also highlight the unique effects on LGBTQI+ individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, rural populations, Tribal communities, undocumented and documented foreign nationals, and people experiencing exploitation and trafficking.

“I lost all my income, lost my clients and was forced to go back to working a 9 to 5 job that is ableist and doesn’t accommodate my disabilities/health issues. Sex work gave me freedom and flexibility before I lost it all.”

from Erased: The Impact of FOSTA-SESTA

What makes the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act unique?

Despite being the focus of most anti-trafficking legislation, there has never been a government study which looks at the unintended consequences of these policies on people who trade sex broadly. This legislation would be the first to consider the broad impact of anti-trafficking legislation on a population who is often excluded from conversations on the sex trade. This would be a landmark in understanding that the impact of legislation should be considered as important as the intention of legislation, and unintended consequences of criminalization must be a part of our discussions on how we address harm and victimization.

The Impact of FOSTA/SESTA on Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is one of the ways that people in commercial sex experience harm and violence. Trafficking is the exploitation of a person through force, fraud or coercion by a third party and is not unique to the sex trade. A key objective of the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act is to understand how the loss of online platforms impacts the occurrence and experience of trafficking and exploitation. Researchers will examine any changes in reliance on third parties, and experiences of exploitation, two essential elements of trafficking, as well as looking at people experiencing exploitation as a key subgroup. This bill takes the bold step of including multiple perspectives and experiences to better understand the widespread impact of anti-trafficking laws.

Despite being directly impacted by trafficking and anti-trafficking efforts alike, sex workers are regularly excluded from discussions about trafficking. It is time to include a seat at the table for those with direct knowledge and experience in order to build sustainable and nuanced anti-trafficking solutions.

News and Research on the Impact of FOSTA/SESTA

Reports

Erased: The Impact of FOSTA-SESTA. A Community Report by Hacking/Hustling and Whose Corner is it Anyway?. Released 2020.

Online Platforms and Federal Prosecutions. United States Government Accountability Office’s Report to Congressional Committees. Released 2021.

Articles

This Bill is Killing Us: 9 Sex Workers on Their Lives in the Wake of FOSTA, Emily McCombs, HuffPost, 11 May 2018

FOSTA Backers to Sex Workers: Your Work Can Never Be Safe, Melissa Gira Grant, In Justice Today, 

Criminalizing My Job as a Sex Worker Threatens My Livelihood and Safety, Gala Vanting, The Guardian, 10 May 2018

Why This Bill Won’t Stop Trafficking, Sylvia Johnson and Camille White-Avian, Socialist Worker, 10 May 2018

The Internet made sex work safer. Now Congress has forced it back into the shadows, Lux Alptraum, The Verge, 1 May 2018

Are Lawmakers Trying to Kick the Sex Trade Offline, Amy Martyn, Consumer Affairs, 30 April 2018

Pimps Are Preying On Sex Workers Pushed Off the Web Because of SESTA-FOSTA, Samantha Cole, Motherboard, 30 April 2018


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