A new government report on the impacts of the anti-sex trafficking bill SESTA/FOSTA reveals what sex workers already know: It is not only ineffective but devastatingly harmful. This isn’t just obvious from the felt impacts of the last few years since the bill’s passage; it’s exactly what activists warned would happen ahead of its passage. This week’s Government Accountability Office (OAG) report finds that SESTA/FOSTA has been used one single time in a sex trafficking prosecution, contrary to the bill’s purported aim of holding websites criminally liable for facilitating sex trafficking. Meanwhile, the OAG findings show that SESTA/FOSTA’s 2018 passage, along with the takedown of the classified ad site Backpage, have resulted in a fracturing of the online sex industry, which actually restricts trafficking investigations.
“It was everything we anticipated,” says Kate D’Adamo, a partner at the collective Reframe Health and Justice, of reading the report. “It was everything that we tried to convey to Congress.” Allie Eve Knox puts the findings another way: “No, duh.” She has long stood against SESTA/FOSTA, which “hurts sex workers and honestly helps traffickers.”
Among the obvious harms that activists anticipated was that “there would be massive destabilization in the sex industry,” and “that people were going to move to other sites, that it was going to be harder to communicate,” says D’Adamo. “That it was going to be harder to identify people who needed help.” Now, here comes the GAO report to confirm just that: In the wake of those developments in 2018, “buyers and sellers moved to other online platforms, and the market became fragmented.” Website operators “shut down or suspended operations in the United States,” sometimes moving overseas. “The current landscape of the online commercial sex market heightens already-existing challenges law enforcement face in gathering tips and evidence,” says the report.
Here’s a passage from the report especially worthy of a highlight: The ability to “identify and locate sex trafficking victims and perpetrators was significantly decreased.”
The report looks not only at the post-SESTA/FOSTA period but also the four years prior and lists some 11 criminal cases brought against platform owners. “Of the charges, they said that the most common ones were racketeering and money laundering,” says D’Adamo. One of the arguments originally given for SESTA/FOSTA was that it was an essential tool for directly targeting platforms for facilitating sex trafficking, and yet the GAO report notes that prosecutors have had plenty of “success” with other tools at their disposal.
What the OAG report fails to highlight is the devastating impact on sex workers amid SESTA/FOSTA’s patent failures. A report from the collective Hacking//Hustling on SESTA/FOSTA’s impact on sex workers found that 72 percent of respondents felt it contributed to their “increased economic instability” and 34 percent reported an increase in violence from clients.” We’ve seen how it’s led to the shuttering of crucial platforms where sex workers can advertise and safely vet clients, and led to reports of an increase in riskier in-person work. That’s not to mention censorship on social media and banking discrimination. “The only payment app that I had left shut down almost two weeks ago,” says Knox. “I’m purely crypto now.”
Of the SESTA/FOSTA aftermath, she says, “It’s a fucking nightmare.” D’Adamo hopes that this nightmare will be laid bare with the re-introduction of the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, legislation for a national study on the bill’s impact.
As much as this report shows that SESTA/FOSTA failed to address its purporting aims around sex trafficking, there are some for whom this is a victory. Melissa Gira Grant notes today in the New Republic, “If SESTA/FOSTA was meant to associate sex workers with allegations of sex trafficking, leading platforms to refuse them service out of fear of increased legal risks, and in turn further marginalizing and stigmatizing sex workers, it was a tremendous success.” D’Adamo, pointing to several abolitionist organizations, says, “There are absolutely people where destabilization of the sex trade, pushing it further underground, invisibilizing sex workers was a goal.”
However, she also notes that many SESTA/FOSTA supporters were simply misled into believing that it would address sex trafficking while doing little harm. “Most staffers, most congresspeople were sold a false bill of goods,” says D’Adamo. Of course, the warnings were there all along. As she puts it, “What I hope people take from this report is that they should probably listen to impacted people who are doing this work.”