“For sex workers, the ongoing fight against stigmatization and criminalization is life or death,” writes Gaby Del Valle in a powerful essay. “If SESTA and FOSTA has had any positive effect whatsoever, though, is that it has encouraged a new wave of sex-worker led activism.”
Earlier this month, Lily Allen issued an unusual public statement via Instagram: Four years ago, during her ‘Sheezus’ tour, she slept with female escorts “’cause,” she wrote, “I was lost and lonely and looking for something.” Allen concluded, “I’m not proud, but I’m not ashamed. I don’t do it anymore.” . . .
If the media frenzy surrounding Allen’s announcement revealed anything, it’s that sex workers—and their clients—are still deeply stigmatized. More often than not, though, that stigma has more harmful consequences than a few invasive tabloid stories.
In 2014, the year of Allen’s Sheezus tour, local and federal authorities conducted more than 40,500 prostitution-related arrests in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Crime in the United States report. The report, which relies on information from local law enforcement for much of its data, uses a loose definition of prostitution that elides the fact that prostitution-related arrests aren’t really prostitution arrests in the first place. Some cities allow police to arrest people for “loitering for the purpose of prostitution,” meaning that police can arrest people for looking like sex workers. . . .
For a time, the difficulties of street-based sex work—from arrests to assault, robbery, and rape—encouraged many sex workers to begin advertising online, both for their own safety and because it provided a better opportunity to screen clients, negotiate rates, and find community with other sex workers. But in March, the Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, a bill that sex workers said would make their own work more dangerous and stigmatized while making it harder to find and help actual trafficking victims. The House passed its own version of the bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, in February.
The effects were immediate. VerifyHim, a screening site for online daters where some sex workers vetted clients, took down its communication tools in April, according to Rewire.News. Craigslist took down its personal ads section the previous month. And just days before President Donald Trump signed SESTA-FOSTA into law, federal authorities shut down backpage.com, a controversial personal ads website that was the focus of the SESTA-FOSTA debates and which The Cut described as “the most accessible online marketplace for sex workers.”