Listen to Sex Workers About SESTA, Not Celebrity PSAs #StopSESTA

From an op-ed by author Alana Massey on the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA), “a horrific bill” that inches closer to a U.S. Senate vote.

Put simply, SESTA will hurt sex workers and promote internet censorship.

SESTA picks up where the work of feminist fanatic (and Catharine MacKinnon protege) Professor Mary Anne Franks leaves off.  Franks has openly admitted that her goal is to undermine Communications Decency Act protections for websites (protecting them from liability of actions by third parties) to make them liable for others’ actions. While Franks’ strategy seeks to weaponize revenge porn laws to promote her agenda, the authors of SESTA weaponize anti-trafficking statutes.

Before I delve into my personal experiences navigating the misunderstood nuances of sexual exploitation in the sex industry, as well as misguided attempts to legislate it away, there’s something you should know about me: I am generally fond of star-studded public service announcements.

Sarah McLachlan guilting me into rescuing another shelter animal? Send me the adoption papers. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kendall Jenner, and Samuel L. Jackson acting vaguely threatening so I register to vote? Show me to my polling place. I honestly think that celebrity involvement in social and political campaigns can bring new audiences to important issues. Which is why I was momentarily gobsmacked and then incensed by a celeb-heavy PSA featuring Seth Meyers, Amy Schumer, and others calling for an update to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and for support of SESTA.

SESTA comes on the heels of the House’s passage last week of a similar bill, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA), which would make websites criminally liable for hosting content linked to trafficking sex. SESTA would make sites liable if they “knowingly assist, support, or facilitate sex trafficking.” The problem is that these bills target websites that are widely and inaccurately believed to be hubs of trafficking activity when it is precisely those websites that enable people in the sex trades to do their work safely and independently, at the same time as they make it easier for authorities to find and investigate possible trafficking cases.


To fully understand what damage this legislation could do, let’s take a look at the 1996 addition of Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act, which Schumer calls a “stupid loophole” in the aforementioned PSA. It mandates that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In practice, that means that when a belligerent troll defames me on Facebook, I can’t hold Mark Zuckerberg legally responsible. If an icy-veined psychopath posts a YouTube rant about how One Direction was better without Zayn, I can’t bill my anger management class fees to Susan Wojcicki. And if an incensed and increasingly organized coalition of current and former workers in the sex trade takes to Twitter to call Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers a pair of hypocrites who wouldn’t know a decent joke if it literally killed them as the punch line, Schumer and Meyers couldn’t force Jack Dorsey to kick us off. (Though hey, he still might try to.)

Visit the Free Speech Coalition #StopSESTA policy page

Both those in the sex trade and those with any understanding of free online expression consider this so-called “stupid loophole” a “core pillar of Internet freedom” and the “most important law in Internet history.” The bills that would alter it have been roundly condemned by advocates for trafficking victims and survivors of trafficking, as well as by those willingly in the industry who would be at greater risk for exploitation in the absence of online platforms that allow them to share information. The nation’s largest network of anti-trafficking organizations, The Freedom Network, is all but begging legislators not to tamper with Section 230 of the CDA.

This is because the new legislation would threaten to criminalize peer-to-peer resource sharing that makes people in sex work safer and more connected. The very websites that these bills enable law enforcement to criminalize are precisely where I found the generous communities and actionable advice I needed to get out of and avoid exploitative sex work situations going forward. Though the bill is meant to target sites hosting sex work advertisements, it covers online forums where sex workers can tip each other off about dangerous clients, find emergency housing, get recommendations for service providers who are sex worker-friendly, and even enjoy an occasional meme. These are often on the same websites where advertisements are hosted.

The new legislation would threaten to criminalize peer-to-peer resource sharing that makes people in sex work safer and more connected.


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