From this week, sex-trafficking victims, prosecutors and state attorneys will be able to sue websites that host ads and content linked to the sex trade under the bill the US House of Representatives has just approved. The bill called “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017” or FOSTA seeks to amend Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from lawsuits over user-generated posts.
This bill was passed to specifically shut down advertising platforms such as Backpage, which the government have been trying to close down for some time under the guise of helping to cease child trafficking.
Sounds like a good plan, right? Take away the place in which you suspect people are being exploited and suddenly the exploitation stops?
WHAT THIS ACTUALLY MEANS FOR TRAFFICKING VICTIMS
One of the many problems with the conversation around trafficking, especially where it concerns the sex industry, is the fact that most people have a sensationalised idea of what it looks like (thanks to movies like Taken) and so they have this image in their head of a naive, perhaps underage white girl who is forcibly made to have sex with strangers against her will by some seedy, older drug-dealer type dude with a mustache in a highway motel.
Or, you might imagine that it looks like a house full of young Asian ‘illegal’ migrant workers, held captive by some syndicate who takes all of their money and uses their lack of English skills against them to force them to perform sexual services.
Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Let’s ignore the fact that a lot of trafficking stereotypes are based on racist ideas about Asian women and their imagined passivity and helplessness. Let’s ignore the fact that in reality, most trafficking victims probably don’t even know that their situation is called ‘trafficking’ because of stereotypes like this. Let’s ignore the fact that less than 10% of trafficking victims end up working in the sex industry (agriculture is to blame for about 40% by comparison, followed by textiles), and just ask yourself what happens when you lose your way of earning money? You go somewhere else, right? All this will do is shift workers offline and into street-based work and into brothels. Simple ‘out of sight, out of mind’ reasoning, while rich white people who have never engaged with sex work in their life, pat themselves on the back for looking like they’re doing something about a problem that they dreamed up.
WHO IS MOST AFFECTED BY THIS
So if this is worse for victims of trafficking, what does this mean for people who willingly engage in sex work?
It isn’t just this one platform that is being affected (although the implications of Backpage being shut down are actually huge for lower-end workers, survival workers, POC and trans workers), it also means that any worker who has a Wix or WordPress based website will be shut down, all sex-worker related social media profiles will be shut down, and anyone that publishes any critique of criminalisation of sex work on US websites (like TEDx for example) will likely be taken down.
The way that workers share safety information, sexual education and peer support is about to be affected in a big way. People that are marginalised and most at risk of harm are about to have their access to community taken away.
I’M NOT AMERICAN, WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Even if you have no horse in this race, so to speak (which I highly doubt, I guarantee someone you know is a present or past sex worker even if you don’t know it), you should care simply because one viewpoint should not be allowed to dictate the conversation. Our voices, the ones who are actually being affected by these changes, are being silenced and replaced by conservative, misguided and ill-informed politicians.
This also opens for more changes to the Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from lawsuits over user-generated posts. With the current political climate, it is a very real possibility that there will come a day where any criticism of the government at all will be censored.