Today is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, an annual observation supported by and dedicated to those that participate in the sex trade. It’s also nearly the end of 2019—the first full calendar year since Congress passed the Internet censorship law SESTA/FOSTA. EFF fought the bill in Congress, concerned that its vague, ambiguous language and stiff criminal and civil penalties would drive constitutionally protected content off the Internet. And we represent organizations and individuals that are challenging the law in federal court. Activists and organizers from within the sex working community made it clear from the beginning as well: though this bill was intended to curb violence that occurs in the sex trade, its result would be just the opposite because it deprived a community of many of the online tools they used to stay safe and to organize. 2019 has brought us the unfortunate statistics to prove that they were right.
In a recent study of sex workers completed by the grassroots sex worker advocacy organization Hacking//Hustling, in collaboration with Whose Corner Is It Anyway, 40% of participants reported experiencing increased violence after FOSTA became law. Additionally, an overwhelming 99% of participants said they do not feel safer because of FOSTA. The details of this study were recently reviewed at a conference hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Law Center, and the full results will soon be available. But these grim statistics aren’t an outlier: last year the San Francisco Police Department reported that human trafficking and street-based sex work offenses had spiked 170% since FOSTA’s passage.
These numbers affirm what those who participate in the sex industry warned would happen. FOSTA has ensnared a wide array of platforms and online marketplaces whose operators, fearing that comments, posts, or ads that are sexual in nature will result in new liability, have censored users’ speech or shut down entirely. The absence of these sites have prevented sex workers from organizing and utilizing tools that have kept them safe. Taking away client-screening capabilities, bad date lists, and other intra-community safety tips leads to putting more workers on the street, which leads to increased violence and trafficking. The consequences of this censorship are most devastating for trans women of color, who are disproportionately affected by this violence. In NYC, the unfair targeting of trans women by local ordinances are so prevalent, loitering laws are colloquially known as "Walking While Trans" laws.
After SESTA/FOSTA’s passage, plaintiffs Woodhull Freedom Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Alex Andrews, the Internet Archive, and Eric Koszyk filed suit to invalidate the law. EFF is part of the legal team representing the plaintiffs, who are asking a court to declare the law unconstitutional and prevent it from being enforced. On this International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, it's clear that the first step to actually ending such violence is to repeal SESTA/FOSTA, and to listen more closely to the communities affected by such laws. Destigmatization and full decriminalization is the battle cry of many sex work advocacy groups; but under FOSTA, this advocacy may be illegal. It’s time for us to start taking these risks, and the real-world implications of FOSTA's censorship, seriously.