FOSTA-SESTA and its impact on sex workers

The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act have transformed the lives of sex workers across the United States since they were signed in 2018.

Known as FOSTA-SESTA, these bills amend the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to significantly alter how Section 230 of the law applies to speech on the internet in a stated effort to reduce human trafficking. However, in actuality, these bills have been used to pressure platforms like Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Google and more to monitor (and censor) content related to sex — including sexual health information, particularly affecting resources for communities vulnerable to HIV — under the guise of avoiding facilitation of sex trafficking and sex work. 

While the bill attempts to hold online platforms liable for user-generated content that facilitates sex trafficking, it has created confusion and consequences for sex workers as online platforms grapple with the law’s increased penalties. Right now, owners of popular online platforms have responded to FOSTA-SESTA by censoring or completely banning parts of their platforms — which has effectively put sex workers’ lives at risk by undermining vital online infrastructures used to screen clients, receive payments and enact other security measures.

By expanding existing law to target online platforms where users discuss sex work and related topics, legitimate online speech is threatened while marginalized voices are silenced. The sex work industry has increasingly migrated online, which means it is critical to acknowledge the ways that the internet makes it easier for sex workers to do their work safely.

What are the tangible impacts of FOSTA-SESTA on sex workers? 

Ariel Wolf and Danielle Blunt, together with a group of other sex workers, researchers and people who work in technology, launched a collective called Hacking//Hustling focused in part on studying the impact of FOSTA-SESTA. In 2020, they released a participatory, action-based and sex worker-led research initiative to collect data from online communities of sex workers through a survey.

And the effects the survey found on sex workers were plentiful. FOSTA-SESTA decreased sex workers’ financial security and stability by limiting their ability to advertise — all while increasing sex workers’ exposure to violence. 

Additionally, some digital security practices, such as client e-verification tools and “bad date lists” of dangerous clients, were taken down after the bill passed. This created several health and safety concerns as these tools were essential for screening and networking with others. 

The internet provides a space for sex workers to share resources amongst one another, build community with each other, advertise their services, share online digital security methods, and engage in sex workers rights activism. 

But the vagueness of FOSTA-SESTA has created fear and paranoia surrounding the consequences of one’s online presence. Many sex workers have lost social media accounts, bank accounts, or access to online payment platforms unexpectedly. 

Furthermore, the inaccessibility of financial technologies furthers income precarity. Whether its being pushed off platforms due to violations of terms of service (which cuts people off from their community and their means of making an income) or issues regarding financial or technological literacy and/or accessibility, additional barriers and hurdles are created for sex workers.

Are the benefits of FOSTA-SESTA worth its implications? 

The short answer is no. 

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report reveals that FOSTA-SESTA has not helped prosecutors tackle trafficking cases and suggests it is not frequently applied — even as legislators push for laws that double down on the sentiments of FOSTA-SESTA, like the EARN IT Act. The law does not appear to do anything concrete to target illegal sex trafficking directly. Instead, it has caused platforms to preemptively censor sex workers’ presence and speech online, making their jobs more dangerous and difficult.

So, what can we do? 

While Hacking//Hustling has a list of some things we can do to curb the effects of FOSTA-SESTA, we also need to encourage Congress to reintroduce and pass the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, which would initiate a government study into harms done by FOSTA-SESTA. 

Further, we must oppose any legislation that stigmatizes or harms sex workers. AIDS United will continue to support the calls of sex workers to protect their rights and well-being as an essential aspect of ending the HIV epidemic.