Sex Workers Speak Out on Sex Trafficking Bill

At an event for sex workers at MoMA PS1 on Sunday, sex workers from all corners of the industry spoke out against pending sex trafficking legislation they say is overly broad and threatens to endanger and further marginalize people in the sex industry.

Sparked by reports last year that listings website Backpage was being used by sex traffickers, the proposed legislation is aimed at making it easier for prosecutors and others to take legal action against the operators of websites that allegedly host illegal content.

Photo Credit: Willie Davis

The push, often referred to as FOSTA-SESTA, the acronyms for corresponding bills in the House and Senate, has had broad support from both Republicans and Democrats despite objections from civil liberties and technology groups.

Those groups argue that a version of the bill that was passed by a wide margin in the House last week uses language that would make it harder, not easier, to crack down on a relatively small number of traffickers, while creating legal incentive for websites to censor posts—including those by and about victims of sex trafficking.

Sex workers, including escorts and dancers, said at MoMA PS1 that the bills conflate sex work with sex trafficking, and will further marginalize their profession. “Please, everyone here can contact a senator, many senators,” said RJ Thompson, speaking as both a human rights attorney and sex worker who has worked as a go-go dancer and adult film actor. “Do not let this bill pass the Senate.”

Thompson and other workers shared experiences of run-ins with law enforcement, isolation due to social stigma, intra-industry prejudice and racism, and attempts to shut adult businesses down and cut off their livelihoods. They said they are under disproportionate scrutiny because of biases about sex and the tendency to stereotype sex work in its most violent and sensational forms, without the same legal protections as workers in other industries.

These are the most commonly reported forms of exploitation of sex workers, said Heidi Hoefinger, the lead researcher on ethnographic research into sex work, migration and anti-trafficking efforts in New York City at John Jay College, who also spoke at the MoMA PS1 event. The vast majority of sex workers enter their professions voluntarily, while trafficking impacts a small minority, she said, adding to the chorus of voices at the event calling on a better distinction between sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

Supporters of FOSTA-SESTA have responded to criticisms, saying the safety of children and other sex trafficking victims cannot be sacrificed for freedom of speech on the Internet. But critics maintain that the bills would drive traffickers further underground, or force websites to move their servers overseas, making illegal activity more difficult to investigate.

Ronaldo Lemos, visiting professor of Technology Policy at Columbia University and director of the Institute for Technology & Society of Rio de Janeiro, says the proposed legislation could set a bad precedent, despite its stated intentions to protect victims of sex trafficking, because it weakens safe harbor provisions in the Communication Decency Act, which protects Internet Service Providers from being legally responsible for content posted by others on websites.

“Once it passes, government and legislators may ask, ‘We did it for ‘sex trafficking’ why can’t we do it for something else?'” he said, adding that the bill is one of a number of government pushes globally to gain more control of Internet content, and that other governments may follow suit. “We will be piece by piece undermining free speech online.”

Sex workers have long waged battles against advocacy groups on both ends of the political spectrum. From religious groups to feminist groups, many have pushed to regulate what sex workers do with their bodies, often without their input. And while much of the world consumes their services or products, many of those consumers either look down on sex workers or do not feel they have a stake in the industry, several of the workers said at the event.

During one panel, professional Dominatrix Mistress Leigh asked the audience how many people had seen pornography before. Almost everyone raised their hands. “You have been a part of the sex industry. Congratulations!” she said, adding that most people often forget that their lives are touched by the sex industry.

“If we can just nail that home right there, then we can start hitting a lot of bigger issues of hypocrisy and policy being enacted, without us, by people who consume our product,” she said.

Shirley McLaren, Secretary of the Association of Sex Professionals (Aprosex) Barcelona and Co-Convenor of International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), urged more people to push for change by recognizing the value of sex work. She urged consumers to stop using streaming sites that lead to lower compensation for performers, which she considers to be a major form of exploitation. “Let’s help the industry change as consumers,” she said. “You have the power to change that.”

The Sunday event, titled “Sex Workers’ Festival of Resistance,” was organized with a number of advocacy organizations from around the world as part of MoMA PS1’s ongoing “Sunday Sessions” series, and featured an afternoon of panels, performances and films related to sex work.

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