How Congress' attempt to rescue sex workers threatens their safety instead

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Emily Utne

I. The Defense of the Damsels

The day the gallantly named “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (SESTA) came before the U.S. Senate, a four-hour procession of lawmakers ascended the rostrum to congratulate each other on a rare act of bipartisanship.

The bill in question was never really up for debate. It was sold as way to rein back a modern surge in the sexual enslavement of women and girls, making use of the internet to enable prostitution punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

As fuel for the cause, the law’s chief authors projected a photograph of Desiree Robinson, a pretty, bespectacled 16-year-old runaway from Chicago who turned up beaten and stabbed to death in a garage after being sold on Backpage.com.

Cracking down on the parasites who made millions from the exploitation of children was a singular moral imperative, its proponents declared. Just one senator, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), begged to differ.

“I fear that it’s going to do more to take down ads than to take down traffickers,” he said. “I fear it will send these monsters, these evil people who traffic, beyond the grasp of law enforcement to the shadowy corners of the dark web, a place where everyday search engines don’t go, and it’s going to be even easier for criminals, these vicious traffickers, to find a safe haven.”

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Emily Utne

Wyden’s reasoning was met with indifference. In April, President Donald Trump signed SESTA — along with its sister bill “Fight Sex Trafficking Online Act” (FOSTA) — into law.

But if the measures were supposed to protect sex workers, no one bothered to consult them. The threat to their well-being was immediate.

The FBI raided Backpage’s offices and shut down the site. Dozens of other ad boards soon followed. The forums escorts used to verify johns’ identities vanished. The networks they used to communicate with each other, trading references and bad date lists of men known to rob and rape, went dark.

“It’s unambiguously evil,” Baylor University professor Scott Cunningham says of the laws.

His 2017 study on Craigslist’s personals section is the only empirical analysis of online sex ads’ effect on violence against women. Its conclusion: The internet reduced female homicides by 17.4 percent.

“If you care about violence against women — and you should — you absolutely need to care about how FOSTA is unambiguously harming these women,” Cunningham says.

“And if you believe that most of this market is just trafficked women, or if you define trafficking through the sleight of hand that basically says, philosophically, all prostitution is sex trafficking, you need to talk to some sex workers and ask them if they’re trafficked.”

II. A Different Sort of Sexual Revolution

Women in short skirts prowling the streets at the command of pimps leering hawkishly from the gloom. That’s the popular stereotype of the prostitute. It’s 20 years out of date. 

The internet transformed the sex industry in every way, paving the road for vast new enterprises such as video camming, pornographic clip sales, and online roleplay. It also made the business much safer.

Many sex workers were no longer obligated to patrol the streets, removing the need for pimps as protection. Initial encounters could be conducted through computers, allowing for the negotiation of rates and boundaries before meeting in person. Potential customers could be vetted through peers, letting women avoid johns with histories of violence or refusal to pay.

For the first time in centuries, prostitutes took control of their industry, their safety, and their earnings.

Betty Maybe is a sex worker and organizer with the Minneapolis Sex Workers Outreach Project, a group of sex workers turned activists. She spent her “punk rock” college years dancing for an upscale club in Portland, making $100 a night to start. It was good money for a working-class student.

She’s long leveraged her sex appeal for money and gifts, never buying her own drinks at the bar, and never gambling her own cash at the casino. No matter where she goes, Betty boasts, she can find a man willing to hand over a $20.

Some think it’s easy money. She calls it honed skill. Family and friends wrestle to understand, but she finds no shame in playing the cards life dealt.

“We will always exchange what we have for financial gain. What we have is the power of our sexuality. It will always be what we trade.”

The internet has only increased the power of women like Betty. She points to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, which she visits often. Amid rows of strip clubs and tourist traps teeming with escorts, the pimps are the ones struggling, she says. The internet has turned them from bullwhip to beggar.

“They’re really desperate. Lately when I’ve gone down there, they’re giving me weed. They’re like, ‘I can do this, that, for you ... I can buy clothes for you.’ Begging people to come work for them, like they’ve become irrelevant with these kinds of tools.”

She has no need for anything a pimp proffers. But the new laws threaten to reverse that dynamic.

By killing the sites sex workers used to advertise, Congress is pushing them from the safety of their own homes back to the street. Most practicing today have never known a time before the internet. Now they’re fumbling to adapt to a resurrected dark age.

Pearl dipped her toe into the escort business five years ago. She’d seen a Dr. Phil episode featuring sugar baby websites like Seeking Arrangement, which matched college students with rich benefactors. The women on the show appeared happy, healthy, and in charge of their own choices, albeit somewhat alienated by their families.

She chose to try it. Though she’d heard claims that escorts sold their souls, Pearl found nothing of the sort, she says sincerely.

“I never cried. I never felt bad about myself. If anything, I felt empowered.”

Still, the stigma prevented her from telling friends and family. The sex workers on Twitter became her tribe. They showed her how to charge appropriately and background-check johns. They relied on each other in emergencies. And when Pearl eventually tired of sugar daddy dating, they helped her transition to selling porn and Skype sessions.

But in the months leading up to Congress’ action, Twitter preemptively rendered sex workers’ accounts unsearchable, forcing them into isolation. In its attempt to save the damsels, legislators inadvertently left them in greater peril.

It’s easy to trace how it all came about. Over the years, anti-prostitution activists realized their cause had lost its luster, says Jayne, a Sex Workers Outreach Project researcher. So they changed the vernacular, lumping the entire industry under the umbrella of “sex trafficking,” whether it involved a teenage runaway or a mother of three earning a comfortable middle-class income.

Politicians from Sen. Amy Klobuchar to Rep. Erik Paulsen were quick to leap aboard. It was the perfect issue to champion. They got to play the role of crusading savior, and there was no pro-sex trafficking lobby waiting to fire back. Lost was any nuance.

The resulting laws became a rescue of the few that endangered the many. (Neither Klobuchar nor Paulsen responded to interview requests.)

“All sex workers can agree that sex trafficking and underage sex work is a serious problem,” Pearl says. “None of us want that.... It’s just really hard for me to see that [FOSTA-SESTA] are actually targeting sex trafficking when they’re shutting down these sites that are by and large all used by consensual sex workers.”

III. The Puritan Backlash

In a house near Powderhorn Park, Mistress Salem wakes every morning to a raft of emails from prospective clients.

Perched on her bed in an old T-shirt and Chinese silk trousers, she lights a cigarette and scrolls nervously through her Twitter analytics. This time last year, she averaged more than 100,000 profile visits a month. Now it’s down to 1,000. It worries her.

A submissive would usually find Salem’s dominatrix site through Twitter or ad boards, where he’s greeted with a catalog of ironclad prerequisites. From there, they cultivate a dominant-submissive dynamic through encrypted email, while Salem gauges the legitimacy of his interest and experience with BDSM. If he seems like a “good boy,” she arranges a coffee meet in public. The submissive brings a cash tribute. They go shopping for a collar. Ultimately, she may invite him to her dungeon.

Her favorite client comes to her home and pays thousands of dollars to worship her feet.

“This is the first time that I’ve ever felt like the world is actually, literally at my fingertips,” Salem says. “I feel valued. And also just as a person who really enjoys fetish and BDSM, my job isn’t a job. All of it is exciting and explorative. I’m evolving and learning. I feel extremely blessed.”

Salem works closely with another dominatrix, Miss Bat, a sunny, tattooed Vampira with harajuku bangs. In search of alternatives to a grueling restaurant career, Bat found herself starting off in cam rooms, performing strip teases for subscribers.

Customers’ heckling and haggling soon wore her patience, so she moved to shooting her own videos.

Salem eventually helped Bat find her niche—bossing apron-robed submissives as they clean her floor on their hands and knees.

The rest of the time, their work grind is the same as any freelance gig. They promote themselves on social media, create content for seven porn sites each, and learn new methods of safe bondage play. Minneapolis’ fetish scene is nothing to brag about, so they also tour conventions and dungeons across the country to meet subs who find them through their internet personas.

“I work a lot, but I’m happy and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bat says. “Seriously, every single sex worker that I’ve talked to in this line of work has been enthusiastic about sex work.”

There’s no intercourse involved, so Salem and Bat’s work is legal. Still, they rely on verification sites for meeting new clients, and online payment processers to collect money. Under FOSTA-SESTA, many of those tools are disappearing because they could be used to facilitate sex trafficking.

If the blackout spreads, it would cost them thousands of dollars a month, which leaves the new laws feeling like a puritanical attack on an entire culture of adults with unorthodox tastes. 

Take the popular U.K. ad board AdultWork, which abruptly pulled its American listings in April.

“No doubt you will be up to speed with the news regarding SESTA and FOSTA,” read the email blast. “The legal advice we have received is that until such time as the position is clearer, we are to suspend all advertisements on AdultWork.com, regardless of what services are actually being advertised.”

AdultWork was Salem’s main revenue stream. European clients tend to behave better and pay more because they’re accustomed to legal and regulated prostitution, she says.

Its closure was crushing enough to make her consider exploring legally gray territory: strap-ons. If a pushy prospective client absolutely begged to meet up for a pegging session before she had sufficient time to screen him, could she afford to lose his business?

Bat helps harden her resolve against indulging that risk, Salem says. But still, the offers tempt.

IV. A Disorderly House

In conjunction with the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, the Justice Department arrested half a dozen principals of Backpage.com on 93 counts of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. Those indicted include James Larkin and Michael Lacey, former owners of Village Voice Media, which sold City Pages in 2015.

The federal indictment was a public flogging. The Justice Department accused Backpage of scrubbing ads alluding to child sex with less incriminating revisions. Though its owners claimed to have done everything they could to alert authorities of potential exploitation, internal emails revealed managers buried cases for fear of agitating anti-trafficking advocates. (Backpage attorney Liz McDougall did not respond for comment.)

When survivors of sex trafficking wrote to Congress, they implored lawmakers to correct the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which gave websites immunity from crimes committed by their users.

Yet what Congress chose to hear and repeat with righteous abandon was that ad sites increased sex trafficking by 840 percent—a claim without evidence.

There are no reliable statistics on trafficking. What the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found was an increase in reports of missing people who had only resurfaced because they could be linked to an internet ad.

It’s impossible to tell if the spike was due to increased trafficking, increased police efforts, or the ease of finding victims now advertised above ground.

Backpage was law enforcement’s primary tool for conducting rescue missions and stings on buyers of underage sex. Over the last three years, every Hennepin County news release announcing sex trafficking charges described officers using the internet as a door. In 2017, Minnesota reported 173 sex trafficking offenses, which include cases involving true victims as well those in which officers fabricated ads to trap johns.

It’s clear that internet advertising led to a corresponding spike in police interest. The Washington County Attorney’s Office didn’t prosecute trafficking cases prior to 2015. Prosecutor Imran Ali says it was the internet that made the problem apparent.

Washington hired an analyst to trawl through hundreds of ads, flagging pictures of women who looked eerily young, or who bore bruises or track marks—an indication of drugs used as a method of control. Sometimes a reverse image search for the source of a photo could turn up a Facebook profile, and in turn unmask a pimp.

Investigators would try to separate the voluntary from the involuntary in a sea of transactions, a task complicated when victims form bonds with traffickers and refuse rescue.

“Backpage is shut down, but the demand is never going to go away,” predicts Woodbury Police Detective Paul Kroshus. “There’s going to be a state of discombobulation where the buyers are trying to find the sellers and the sellers are trying to find the buyers, but something’s going to replace it. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to be somewhere out of the country, and it’s not going to comply with our subpoenas.”

Backpage’s demise will force investigators—as well as the families of the missing—to work harder and smarter.

Ahead of the SESTA vote, the U.S. Department of Justice warned Congress that the bill was broader than necessary, since it extended to cases of “minimal federal interest”—sexual transactions between consenting adults. There was also the constitutional concern that SESTA’s retroactive reach could penalize websites for a wide range of activities that were legal prior to the bill’s passage.

Just as the Justice Department predicted, internet censorship in the aftermath has reached into the lives of people who have nothing to do with the online sex trade.

Craigslist recently discontinued its entire personals section, which had helped millions of Americans find partners. Reddit shut down several sex-related subreddits. Google deleted Drive content of sex workers’ rights advocacy groups. Microsoft products such Xbox and Skype have banned nudity, and may now moderate the virtual bedrooms of long-distance couples.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s experts warn that small internet startups, dating apps, and model listings will proactively cease operations to avoid the potential avalanche of lawsuits. After all, it’s no secret that sex sellers and buyers find each other through largely vanilla tools like Tinder and Instagram.

“Online platforms are the modern town square,” says EFF’s Cindy Cohn. “Shifting more liability to internet platforms for their users’ speech will inevitably lead to those platforms more tightly monitoring and restricting users’ activities.”

V. Broken and Brainwashed

There’s a philosophical evolution underway in law enforcement that reimagines prostitutes not as public nuisances, but victims. Police still arrest sex workers, but they now view them as vulnerable people who have fallen prey to poverty and all the ugly choices that come with it.

It’s a cosmology insisted upon by the crackdown’s most fervent supporters: politicians, the religious right, and conservative feminists who equate all pornography with exploitation, all prostitution with human trafficking. There’s no place in this worldview for women who willingly choose this life.

The cheerleaders dismiss the so-called “happy hooker” narrative as a fantasy, a concoction from mentally broken and chemically dependent victims.

Breaking Free is a Twin Cities outreach group that provides food, shelter, and other resources for women seeking alternatives. It’s funded by a host of religious groups, and its organizers are blunt in their belief that consent means nothing in the context of trading sex.

“We’re elated that Backpage has been shut down,” says Breaking Free’s Lori Paul. “What we see is this is the first step in many to reduce the facilitators of sex trafficking, also known as prostitution.”

The nonprofit’s clientele are women who may have been charged with crimes or suffered violence. They come recommended by police, hospital staff, and outreach workers who find them in the streets, reluctantly selling sex to survive.

“Those who are saying this is consensual, something has happened to them where they have lost the truth of their real identity, where all they see themselves as is an object,” Paul asserts. “That is not what this child was born for. That’s not what this child was meant to grow up to do.”

Last year Breaking Free claims to have served 350 “sex trafficking victims,” which includes everyone who stopped in for financial aid.

But few of these activists communicate with their foils in the voluntary sex trade. The latter faction is championed by the Minneapolis Sex Workers Outreach Project, which seeks to debunk the myth that enthusiastic escorts and trafficked slaves are one and the same.

“The idea that everyone working on the street is exploited, and we can help them by supporting something that reduces their income, is not thinking big-picture about the drivers that lead a person to entering the sex trade,” says Sabrina, a sex worker rights activist.

Sex work can be spurred by a host of motives: flexible and lucrative employment. A chance to leave behind the poverty of minimum wage. A way to circumvent disabilities that preclude working 9-5. A shot at building a nest egg for college. 

Some of the most vulnerable sex workers aren’t trafficked, but they may not have true choice either, Sabrina says. What they need are the same things that everyone needs: health care, daycare, and living wages.

Since Congress’ actions, these panicked workers have been coming to the Outreach Project for groceries, diapers, rent money, and help in looking after each other’s safety.

“The best thing allies can do is put money into that support fund,” says Sabrina. “The first thing is taking care of our people and making sure everyone can at least keep their expenses covered, because a lot of workers are not going to have the privilege to stop doing sex work.”

Feminists on both ends share the same goals of fighting slavery and helping those who want to exit the life do so. Yet they clash as to whether trading sex is inherently immoral or degrading.

And in the end, everyone acknowledges that there’s no end in sight for the world’s oldest profession.

VI. Working Women

On the first sunbaked Sunday in April, Jessica and Amber are dressed in spring florals and sipping cold brews at the Spyhouse Coffee in Uptown. They’re fit women in their early 20s, chatting over the whir of bean grinders about giving a go at freestyling—picking up johns in restaurants and bars.

Neither has done it before. They’re unfamiliar with the protocol. And they worry that veterans with these pre-internet skills will withhold advice for fear of getting pinched for facilitation or promotion. Still, the women feel pressure to learn.

“It would be the only way, aside from working in a strip club environment,” Amber explains.

Both formerly worked as strippers. Industry standards demanded they tithe so much of their nightly income to DJs, bouncers, and managers that they typically walked away with just 60 percent of what they generated. There were no benefits.

Since they moved to escorting, they work whenever they like, serve clients of their own choosing, and pocket every dollar they earn. The way they see it, they’d rather rent their conversation and companionship than wear their bodies down building someone else’s fortune.

“In terms of selling yourself, everyone is selling themselves,” Amber says. “It’s just the difference between $8 an hour and $500 an hour. You’re taking time away from your dreams working for somebody else’s dreams. Eight hours a day, five days a week—think about everything you could be doing for yourself in that time. I consider that selling yourself.”

They’ve never been arrested or assaulted. They say trading in sex has afforded them freedom and comfort.

What they want the public to understand is that independence doesn’t necessarily come with power. American prostitution is illegal everywhere but a few counties in Nevada, and even the wealthiest of sex workers are reluctant to turn to police in instances of theft or violence. With no political capital, their very existence is all the easier to deny. Policies like FOSTA-SESTA are passed entirely without their input.

Sex workers aren’t the only ones who have noticed an industry in turmoil. The new laws have emboldened some clients to haggle more aggressively, thinking a desperate escort will now accept anything dangled before her, Amber says.

Pimps, attuned to the heightened anxiety, are hounding Jessica over Instagram with unwanted business offers.

“There’s always something in the message alluding to these bills that have just passed. ‘Now you need me,’” she says. “It’s really creepy, because that exact thing is what the people who passed the bill thought they were fighting, and they’ve brought it into my life. It was like a non-factor before.”

In 2016, Amnesty International called for global decriminalization of sex work to protect sex workers from human- and labor-rights abuses. Jessica and Amber agree it’s the only way to humanize working women and clients alike.

Their johns are usually married men with withered sex lives, or widowers with no one else to turn to. Sometimes awkward, somewhat weird, and almost compulsorily lonely, they’re not monsters, Jessica says. She considers holding space for them not only a victimless crime, but purposeful work.

She knows it’s not easy for the public to see the world through her eyes. What bothers her is that no one in a true position of power seems willing to listen to the legions of sex workers who feel the way she does.

“That’s what alarms me about anti-sex work policy. It’s like people are reaching across the aisle at our detriment. It disturbs me that wherever people lie on the political spectrum, they can unite against sex workers.”


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