From Emily Witt’s excellent New Yorker essay, “After the Closure of Backpage, Increasingly Vulnerable Sex Workers Are Demanding Their Rights”, published Friday.
On a recent Thursday at a bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Jacq the Stripper was warming up a small crowd of ten or fifteen people who had come to attend a fund-raiser for the Black Sex Workers Collective. Jacq, who wore a T-shirt that said “TIP HER” on it, is not a black sex worker. “So I’m a stripper, I’m a white stripper, a cisgendered, white stripper,” she said, by way of introduction. “I have, like, all the privilege in the world, so I’m going out to support a lot of people who do not have privilege right now.” She was talking about the effects of the government crackdown on the Web sites that sex workers have used to advertise and screen for clients.
On April 6th, the government seized Backpage, which the Justice Department described as “the Internet’s leading forum for prostitution ads, including ads depicting the prostitution of children.” Five days later, Donald Trump signed HR-1865, the bill known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). The new law amends Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, the “safe harbor” clause that until now gave Web sites full protection from liability for the content they host. Under the new terms, the owner of any Web sites that “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person”—wording that could concern not only traffickers but anyone who advertises sexual services online—can face up to ten years in prison.
Victims’ advocates and politicians celebrated the passage of FOSTA and the ninety-three-count indictment against Backpage, which was charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering, as a victory against human trafficking. For sex workers in the business by choice, however, the most ubiquitous and affordable advertising platform was now gone.
Emily Witt is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Future Sex.”