The Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) on Wednesday, which would allow websites, social media apps, and any other online platform to be held criminally liable for facilitating sex trafficking. If signed into law, it would make it easier for law enforcement to go after sites like Backpage.com—known for classified ads selling sex—as they can no longer hide behind old safe harbor provisions which protected them from being held responsible for illegal content posted on their sites.
Lawmakers worked across party lines to pass this legislation; it passed 97-2 and received glowing praise from Democrats like Diane Feinstein and Republicans like John Thune. In a press conference on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The president and his entire administration are firmly committed to holding those who participate in these horrific crimes accountable, and look forward to continued work with these stakeholders in order to put an end to this scourge.”
But the bill is leaving civil-liberties advocates, Silicon Valley, and sex workers—who rely on online platforms to drum up business—reeling. Sex workers are particularly vulnerable, especially given the news that Reddit banned escort and sugar daddy communities just hours after the bill passed the Senate. In an Allure article critiquing the bill, Alana Massey explained just how important it is for sex workers to have online spaces, not just for business, but for safety as well:
Though the bill is meant to target sites hosting sex work advertisements, it covers online forums where sex workers can tip each other off about dangerous clients, find emergency housing, get recommendations for service providers who are sex worker-friendly, and even enjoy an occasional meme. These are often on the same websites where advertisements are hosted.
Jezebel’s own Tracy Clark-Flory described the bill as a disaster:
The conflation between trafficking and sex work is not unique to this legislation; it’s the same thing you see happening in a lot of mainstream media coverage and, often, in feminist debate. Because so much of mainstream discourse refuses to see distinctions between consensual sex work and trafficking, the flaws of this bill are also present in a seemingly endless stream of sex trafficking bills. Anti-trafficking organizations themselves often rely on definitions that fail to recognize the existence of consensual sex work, so it’s no surprise many of these organizations support the bill.
President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law, probably as soon as he’s done beefing with Joe Biden.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the Senate passing the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA); FOSTA is the House version of the bill. The Senate version of the bill is called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).