Studying the fallout
In the two years since, sex work advocacy groups have reported a spike in the number of missing and dead sex workers across the country.
“People have reported that more folks are engaging in street sex work after Backpage got shut down,” Albert said. “Generally speaking, street sex work is more dangerous than the sort of sex work that was engaged over the internet.”
FOSTA-SESTA stirred grassroots organizing — including by Ariel Wolf and Danielle Blunt, who together with a group of other sex workers, researchers and techies, launched a collective called Hacking//Hustling focused in part on studying the impact of FOSTA-SESTA.
“I think the main thing we really wanted to find out was just exactly how this was affecting people’s financial security, how it was affecting their mental health, and just what experiences individuals were having being de-platformed, having their financial processors taken away and just being censored through this law,” Blunt said.
The mission was pretty simple, but the methodology was anything but. Blunt — who has a master’s degree in Public Health — said they wanted their study to be different from the kind of academic research they’d seen on sex work.
“I think the biggest problem in past research about sex work is that they haven’t employed sex workers to actually do the research or to create their research instruments for them,” Blunt said. “And they’re coming at it from an academic standpoint with no actual experience. And a lot of what they’re asking about is based in stereotypes or information that has no relevancy to current sex workers.”
Case in point: Blunt said she’s read some studies that define all sex work as nonconsensual. When you elide differences like that, you miss out on a ton of data, she said.
So Blunt and Wolf knew that to find the answer to their question — How had FOSTA-SESTA affected sex workers? — they needed to first define their terms carefully, and second to figure out who the sex workers in their sample were, their circumstances, needs and motivations. They did that with a survey that contained 80 questions — some multiple choice, some open-ended — to give respondents a chance to explain their answers.
Among other things, they asked about people’s financial security, barriers to other forms of labor, and mental health diagnoses.
“We really wanted to create a portrait of exactly who was doing this work, and why it was so important that they have access to these spaces, and how it was affecting them,” Blunt said.
They distributed the surveys online, and got 110 back. After analyzing them, they concluded several impacts, mostly expected: Yes, FOSTA-SESTA was decreasing financial stability by limiting the ability to advertise. Yes, it was pushing sex workers from online into the streets — and sometimes into the arms of pimps. And yes, all of the above was increasing sex workers’ exposure to violence.
But Blunt said there were also some unexpected findings.
“We found that 50% of our sample group had barriers to other forms of labor,” she said, “and that the most common barriers were mental health diagnoses, chronic illness, and disability.”
For years, studies have connected sex work with poor health. But researchers have always assumed that the health problems — especially issues with mental health or trauma — stemmed from the sex work itself. What the Hacking//Hustling survey revealed was that maybe it was the other way around.
“What we found was that a lot of people were doing sex work because they had this diagnosis previously,” Blunt said. “And their mental health problems were making it difficult for them to hold a 9-to-5 job and that they needed flexibility to work around these issues.”
More than 70% say FOSTA-SESTA has affected their financial situation negatively.
Though some websites offering adult services still exist, many require fees in order to place ads.
“We found that 45% of our group could not afford to place an ad for their services,” Wolf said. “So they were really reliant on free sites like Backpage, and now that they don’t have access to that, they’re struggling to find other ways of advertising or working.”
As a result, a number of sex workers have been forced to return to street prostitution, work with agencies or pimps, or try and make up the difference with other jobs.
“So a lot of them have had to return to work that doesn’t cater to their disability or it doesn’t allow them to take time off, which just causes more flare-ups and more health issues for them,” Wolf said, adding that 26% of their respondents reported an increase in the exacerbation of their symptoms.
One group that didn’t seem to be heavily affected, the study found, was sex workers who work exclusively on the streets.
“They have a lot less agency to defend themselves and to be heard by law enforcement,” Wolf said. “So the fact that FOSTA-SESTA doesn’t affect them at all sort of highlights the fact that it’s not trying to reach people who are in these situations. It’s really just trying to police people who are working online.”
Blunt and Wolf said that’s part of a bigger picture in which the most vulnerable workers are put in even greater danger. Transgender workers, for example, are at an especially elevated risk of violence because it’s harder to find safe clients.
An opportunity for justice
Still, FOSTA-SESTA has its supporters — including Melanie Thompson, the advocate who was trafficked as a child.
“The majority, over 98% of individuals who engage in prostitution, are vulnerable people already,” she said. “I think it’s highly unfortunate if there’s somebody who is disabled. And I do recognize that that puts a strain on their workforce or their employment opportunities. However, there are so many other ways to work from home that don’t involve the constant reusing and repurchasing of your body. I think this is just another way for people to try to push the pro-prostitution agenda by saying that disabled people, their only option is prostitution. I think that’s false. And again, I recognize that they may have a harder time finding work, but this is not the only option.”
Thompson acknowledged that choice can be a tricky thing when it comes to the sex trade, which she calls “an oppressive system that thrives off of other oppressive systems, namely misogyny, patriarchy and capitalism.”
“When you recognize prostitution as a system that thrives on those other systems, you can see how prostitution can never be an individual choice,” she said. “Therefore, many of the people who self-identify as sex workers, although on the surface may not have a pimp or an exploiter, are actually engaging in prostitution because of the level of choice and resources that they had.”
What FOSTA-SESTA offers is a chance for retrospective accountability, which Thompson is hoping to gain through a lawsuit that she filed earlier this year against Backpage for its role in her years of abuse.
“I want people to know that this is something that I will never live down,” Thompson said. “I suffer every day in every part of my life — financially, mentally. I can’t tell you — I suffer with PTSD and depression diagnosed, I still have suicidal ideation, I have to look at myself in the mirror every day and remember all of the negative things my pimp, sex buyers, all of the things that they have told me about how I would never amount to anything or be anything.
“I have to live with those memories. I have to live with the beatings, being held at gunpoint, the constant rapes, the times that I — excuse my vulgarity — but the times that I’ve had to bend over while a sex buyer was having sex with me so that they didn’t see me crying while it was happening,” she said. “And I need people to understand that once this happens, you can take the person out of prostitution, but you can never take prostitution out of that person, that trauma that comes with all of those harms. That’s something that me and every other survivor I’ve ever met will never forget.”
There hasn’t been much evidence showing that FOSTA-SESTA has helped reduce sex trafficking.
The government claims the laws have decreased sex trafficking ads by 90%. But an analysis by the Washington Post found that just four months after FOSTA-SESTA’s passage, that number had rebounded to 75% of the original figure.
There hasn’t been much research, period, on the laws’ effects. (Though a new bill is under consideration that would require the National Institutes of Health to conduct a study on just that.)
“It’s really easy to pass the law when it’s guised as an act that’s just going to help prevent human trafficking,” Wolf said. “But what people weren’t paying attention to was the fact that it really doesn’t do much to actually prevent human trafficking. And what sex workers said was going to happen is that it’s actually going to make people more vulnerable to human trafficking by taking away harm reduction techniques.”
Despite that lack of research — and continued backlash from sex workers and free-speech advocates — a bipartisan group of senators is pushing forward a new bill that doubles down on the spirit of FOSTA-SESTA.
The EARN IT Act (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies), introduced in March, aims to scrub the web of child sexual exploitation using a model similar to FOSTA-SESTA.
EARN IT encourages web platforms to adopt a stricter moderation/censorship approach by weakening the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230, which shields websites from lawsuits over illegal content posted by users.
The bill originally proposed that websites be forced to “earn” back their Section 230 protections, by adhering to rules created (and judged) by a commission headed by law enforcement. Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a weakened version of the bill that hands the power of the commission over instead to state lawmakers.
Though the amended version eases some concerns over law enforcement heading up privacy rules, critics — which include free-speech advocates like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with sex worker groups like Hacking//Hustling — remain concerned that EARN IT will deal a serious blow to digital privacy.
“EARN IT is written using language to ostensibly stop child sexual abuse materials,” said Danielle Blunt, “but what it will likely be used to do is end end-to-end encryption, police language on online platforms, chill speech, de-platform sex workers, censor harm reduction materials, and make resources for survivors less accessible.”
Blunt worries that, like FOSTA-SESTA, EARN IT could be especially harmful to people in vulnerable positions, “making resources, community, and information less available and increasing sex workers’, survivors’ and sex working survivors’ exposure to violence.”
Kendra Albert, the cyberlaw clinic instructor at Harvard Law School, echoed Blunt’s concerns, adding that they’ll likely become everyone’s concerns soon.
“As [analyst and researcher] Bardot Smith has said, ‘Sex workers are often the canaries in the coal mine,’” Albert said. “The things that happen to them first are what’s going to happen to everyone else next.”