Senator Rob Portman, the bill’s sponsor
Image: AP

The Senate is expected to vote as early as this week on Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), a bill ostensibly meant to protect sex trafficking victims, but that could imperil the very people it claims to protect while also endangering the lives of sex workers and threatening free speech.

Late last month, the House passed the related bill Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Both bills, which have strong bipartisan support, amend federal law to hold websites criminally responsible if they assist or facilitate sex trafficking. This sounds like a worthy aim, but will only result in broad censorship, according to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). That’s because it amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which protects online platforms from liability for their users’ speech. Without that protection, EFF argues, “social media would not exist in its current form.” Which is to say that the internet as we know it—from Twitter to the comments section at the bottom of this article—relies on online platforms having immunity for third-party content. If Section 230 is weakened, Twitter or Jezebel’s parent company could be potentially held liable for something posted in the comments.

SESTA has gotten support from major tech companies, including Google and Facebook, but a coalition of lesser-known organizations and companies has voiced dissent. Some critics have pointed out that the bill is likelier to hurt small start-ups that don’t have the resources to meet its demands and could trigger extensive content filtering: “Compliance is going to be difficult, especially for smaller platforms,” Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the Verge in 2017 after SESTA cleared the Senate Commerce Committee. “When intermediaries aren’t sure what will get them into legal trouble, we often get broader content filtering that sweeps in a lot of legitimate content.”

Tech experts say it will pressure online platforms—like, say Facebook—to remove all user content even possibly related to sex trafficking. That’s a massive undertaking and EFF warns that platforms will have to resort to automated filters that would flatten critical distinctions—for example, between advertisements for sex trafficking and resources for trafficking victims. In a blog post, EFF’s Elliot Harmon and Jeremy Gillula explain, “From a technical perspective, creating such a tool that doesn’t also flag a victim of trafficking telling her story or trying to find help would be extremely difficult.”

The same kind of flattening applies to consensual sex work. 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.

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The kind of aggressive censorship that could follow from the bill could also mean, crucially, that sex workers lose access to websites that allow them to advertise online from the privacy—and safety—of their own homes. Survivors Against SESTA, a coalition of current and former sex workers formed in response to the legislation, argues that it will drive “sex workers, including those who are trafficked, to find clients on the street where they face higher rates of violence, HIV, Hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections, and exploitation.” And as Alana Massey, an author who has written about her history in sex work, recently pointed out in Allure, these ads “make it possible to screen clients, arrange safe indoor working conditions, and establish a communication record with clients that street-based work doesn’t provide.”

The law could also target any online venue used by sex workers, including those that allow for the sharing of resources around health and safety, as well as tips about dangerous clients. All of which is to say, the bill won’t stop the sale of sex or trafficking—but it will put sex workers and trafficking victims at risk.

This is something many sex workers have already seen in practice. Siouxsie Q, a sex worker and journalist, says that the 2014 FBI shutdown of MyRedbook.com, a then-popular sex worker ad site, permanently changed the nature of her business. “I don’t have the same access to blacklists, to community support, and to screening,” she told Jezebel. SESTA, she argues, will take away “a resource we have to put valuable time, space, and scrutiny between us and our clientele.” She adds that the ability to advertise and screen online “saves our lives on a daily basis.” That isn’t hyperbole—sex workers are 50 times more likely to be murdered on the job than a police officer, and 400 times as likely as your average worker, according to research.

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Sex worker advocates argue that SESTA will, ironically, also hamper trafficking investigations by shutting down online ad venues that act as useful resources for law enforcement to identify victims. For that reason, several advocates who work with trafficking victims have spoken out against SESTA.

In anticipation of the Senate vote, sex worker activists are taking to social media, using the hashtag #LetUsSurvive, to urge each other, allies, and clients to call their senators to help stop the bill. The question now is whether lawmakers will listen.