Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on the potentially negative impact of our country’s new “anti-trafficking” law—not on sex workers, mind you, but on the big business of online dating.
Yes, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) is endangering sex workers’ livelihoods and lives—but, oh, won’t someone think of the multi-million-dollar companies? As the article warns its conservative, money-minded readers, “The booming business of online dating faces new risks from a law designed to prevent sex trafficking and prostitution.”
FOSTA, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in April, broadly holds online platforms responsible for any content deemed to be related to sex trafficking. The bill’s opponents warned that it would lead to sweeping censorship and, in its few weeks of life, it already has. Activists also warned that the censorship brought about by this bill would put sex workers at great risk by shuttering online platforms used to screen clients and safely advertise from home. While many outlets are now reporting on the devastating impact on sex workers, the Wall Street Journal seems more concerned with how sex workers are endangering dating sites.
As Heidi Vogt and John D. McKinnon write, FOSTA has led to the shuttering of sites used by sex workers—and “some worry that could drive the pay-for-sex market to legitimate dating platforms.” They continue to explain, paraphrasing a legal expert, that “it could easily create liability for legitimate services if sex workers simply use their platforms.” The article is filled with moralizing language that poses “legitimate dating platforms” and “legitimate services” opposite “prostitutes.” It’s Match.com versus “bad behavior.” OKCupid versus “illicit behavior.” Tinder versus “those peddling sex.” Peddling sex! I get it, it can be hard to find synonyms for sex work—a phrase the Wall Street Journal article does not once use—but the word choices here are revealing, my dudes. (Note that the Wall Street Journal editorial board came out strong against FOSTA—but their argument had nothing to do with sex workers’ rights.)
All of that said, the article does highlight a valid concern—one that FOSTA’s opponents have long raised: What unintended consequences will arise from this sweeping law? And it’s perfectly reasonable to look toward dating sites. As Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, told the Journal, FOSTA’s language is vague enough that it is “going to hit the online dating sites hard.” The big fish—Match.com, OkCupid, Tinder, and their ilk—likely will be fine. They have the resources to handle legal challenges and filter out potentially problematic content (which is to say nothing of the disturbing free speech implications). As the Journal puts it, “Clearly, difficulties managing the risks will be faced by smaller firms or those offering matching services as part of a bigger platform.”
Of course, those at-risk companies are more likely to cater to marginalized sexualities. Already, we’ve seen the disappearance of Craigslist’s personals—a once thriving forum for every kink under the sun. FetLife, a social network for the fetish and BDSM community, reacted by banning consensual blackmail and financial domination, which it acknowledged were “valid and exciting kinks.” And, the Journal points out, “Pounced.org, a dating site for people who like to dress up in animal costumes, went offline in April, along with a number of other smaller, niche players.” (Cute, isn’t it, seeing the Wall Street Journal try to explain furries?) In the world of sex and dating, “niche” often means non-vanilla, non-monogamous, or non-heterosexual desires. As the Journal mentions, “In perhaps the most precarious position are ‘sugar-daddy’ services, in which a sex partner is promised expensive gifts or other financial help.”
But you won’t find the Wall Street Journal lamenting FOSTA’s impact on sexual freedom of expression, just like you won’t find it concerned with the law’s disastrous impact on sex workers. Not when there’s “booming business” to worry about.