What you need to know about FOSTA-SESTA and how it affects all of us

Ask A Trans WomanLorelei Erisis answers readers' questions for 2018
Photo: David Meehan

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By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—

There are times when I feel compelled to write about a topic, but just don’t really know where, or how, to begin. This is one of those times. In this case, it’s because the topic I want to write about is just so big and yet hits so close to home that I’m having trouble finding an eloquent expression of what I need to say. But sometimes when something is too big and scary, I find the best thing to do is to just start talking (or, in this case, writing) and see where I go.

The thing that has me so scared right now is a pair of recently passed laws known as, “FOSTA-SESTA”. Let me be clear, I believe that the stated aim of these two bills, now signed into law by President Donald Trump, is pretty inarguably good. These two laws, the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” and the “Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act,” had the support of a lot of good and decent folks. Sex trafficking is one of those very rare things that pretty much everyone I know, anywhere on the political or social spectrum thinks is really bad.

Whereas before FOSTA-SESTA, internet providers were not held directly, legally responsible for content they host, essentially allowing for all the user-generated content and free exchange of ideas and services that make up the backbone of the internet we know and use daily. Now, providers can be held legally responsible and criminally charged for any laws their users might break.

Fighting sex trafficking is an easy issue for everyone to support. And if that was really what these laws were going to do, then I might be writing a column about how awesome they are and how, for once, Trump has done the right thing.

Sadly, it’s not. That’s why I’m scared. Because the practical effect of these laws seems to have been to directly harm sex workers and at the same time strip away some of our most important internet freedom protections.

Why am I so scared personally? Because I have done sex work myself. Because I have been supported, fed, clothed, and housed by sex work done by a partner. Because there are a lot of folks close to me who are sex workers, who are now in very real danger.

And, because as a student of politics and history, I can easily see how this law can be used against all of us, even those who have never, and will never, participate in or support sex work in any way. It’s just the sort of draconian, wide-ranging set of laws that allows totalitarian governments to strip away basic freedoms, all while claiming to protect us.

If you search for FOSTA-SESTA right now you’ll find a ton of articles that go into much more detail about the history and details of these two laws. In fact, I would recommend that you do. But I don’t have the space for that here, or the personal distance. My intention right now is just to bring your attention to the practical ramifications of these new laws and perhaps what you might do to help.

What this does is drive sex workers—those who do it by choice, as well as those who might have no, or less choice—off the internet back onto the streets. It removes the ability of sex workers to screen clients and to communicate and trade important information that helps make the work safer for everyone. It also removes the ability of sex workers to organize, to effectively advocate for their rights and their own safety and to fight for better conditions and less harassment in the ways that marginalized workers around the world have done for decades.

It makes sex workers radically more vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and abuse. For that matter, it actually makes it more difficult to locate and protect those victims of sex trafficking that these laws are meant to help.

To be absolutely clear, FOSTA-SESTA is terrible for sex workers. It makes an already difficult and often dangerous job exponentially more difficult and dangerous, even deadly. It unilaterally attacks the lives and livelihoods of those who choose to do sex work while failing to protect—and frankly further endangering—those who do not choose sex work, but who do it because they are either forced into it, trafficked, or who simply have no other realistic options.

In case it wasn’t clear to you, dear reader, there are rather a lot of trans people, including myself who have either chosen to do sex work or who have found ourselves in situations where we had no other way to support ourselves. For many of us, that line can become quite blurry.

But fine, maybe you really don’t care about the lives of sex workers. I can’t imagine we’d get along very well, if that’s the case. But I know there are people like that out there.

This is bad for you too. It may not be deadly perhaps, but it’s still very bad because these laws effectively poke holes in some of the protections that have kept the internet such a free and open place.

Now, it’s admittedly easy to see how, in the case of an activity so heinous as sex trafficking, this might make for a pretty good argument. However, when you start to consider the full ramifications of giving over to the government and law enforcement authorities such wide-ranging power this becomes, very bad. Think about the impossibility of policing popular sites like Reddit so there is never, ever any illegal or illicit activity being promoted or discussed in those forums.

Sites like Craigslist have already seen the writing on the wall. Before these laws have even gone into effect, they entirely removed their popular personals sections and it wasn’t because there was necessarily anything illegal going on. Many folks I know have used those personals to meet current partners and even future spouses. Or have just been able to use them to quietly hook up without the social aspect of a Tinder or Grindr. They removed these personals because the expectation that any website could effectively monitor and police themselves in such a way as to keep any illegal activity from ever going on is completely ridiculous and practically quite difficult to actually implement. Even such behemoths of the internet as Google have begun deleting any porn-oriented files from people’s personal e-mail and Google Drive accounts.

Oh, what’s that? You never realized that porn counts as sex work? That by surfing a little porn occasionally you, yourself, are actively participating in the economy of sex work? It does. You are.

This affects you too.

I told you, I am scared. And it’s because we can fully expect that these laws will negatively affect all of our lives in ways that we can barely even predict right now. FOSTA-SESTA is a wedge to separate us from some of our most basic rights. The thing about rights that I have learned from my many years of activism is that once they have been taken away, it’s very, very difficult to get them back.

So, what can you do? Well, that’s one of the reasons I had so much trouble getting started on this column. I’m an advice columnist after all. When I write about a problem I see or that someone asks me about, I like to be able to offer a solution, a concrete plan of action or even a best path to follow.

But FOSTA-SESTA is already signed into law.

This is so fresh, I honestly have nothing beyond ideas. Perhaps we can fight back. Maybe somehow, if enough of us speak up and contact our representatives, we can get this law repealed, or at least amended.

We can certainly organize to help protect those most directly affected by these laws. I do believe that one very important step would be to decriminalize sex work.

That would not only protect those who choose sex work, allowing them to organize and advocate for themselves, but it would make going after actual victims of sex trafficking easier, because it would bring more of these sorts of activities into the light. t would make it less dangerous, as it is now, for sex workers and victims of trafficking and violence to seek help from law enforcement.

That’s one thing you can do. Another is to support the more visible work that sex workers do. Many are also artists and performers or students and there are totally above-board ways you can help them out by supporting their work in these other pursuits.

And as we go into Pride season, perhaps you can find sex workers and internet advocates who will be marching for their, and our, rights. Ask them how you can help. I’m sure they will have some answers.

I hope there is a solution to this problem, a shield from this danger. But, I frankly do not know what that is.

Slàinte!

*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer, and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender, and sexuality to her at: askatranswoman@gmail.com.

 

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