In the wake of the Senate’s passage of a highly controversial anti sex-trafficking bill, Stop Enabling Sex-Traffickers Act (SESTA), Craigslist announced on Thursday that they would be dissolving the personal ads section of their website. Despite the fact that SESTA has not yet been passed into law, Craigslist’s decision marks an early blow from this legislation that is likely to completely shake the foundations of the internet. And, both the bill itself and Craigslist’s actions are going to have an especially devastating impact on transgender people and sex workers.
SESTA’s passage follows on the heels of a similar bill, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Sex Trafficking Online Act (FOSTA), which was approved by the House earlier this month and linked with SESTA for the Senate vote. While the bills may seem like a good idea at surfacewe all want to stop sex traffickingmany critics have noted that these bills may actually do more harm for sex trafficking victims and consensual sex workers alike and censor our right to free speech online in the process.
The essential function of these bills is to hamper Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which, since the ’90s, had protected websites from liability in the event that users engaged in illegal activity on their platforms. This legislation allows states and sex trafficking victims to sue a website for illegal user-generated content, even if that website is completely unaware that such activity is taking place.
As the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), a non-profit advocating for digital rights, notes, this is going to place a heavy burden on every single US-hosted website online to ensure that their users aren’t engaging in illegal activity. They argue that it’s likely that websites will choose to over-censor user’s speech in order to protect themselves from liability (now evidenced by the Craigslist bombshell), and they’re likely to do so by using automated filters to ban a broad range of sex-related content. However, sex-trafficking victims need to be able to discuss sex in order to speak up about their experiences and an automated filter isn’t likely to be capable of having that level of nuance. In attempting to protect sex-trafficking victims, the bill actually shuts down the possibility of sex-trafficking victims sharing their stories and seeking out help online.
The bill doesn’t do much to help prevent sex trafficking. Indeed, states have always had the power to prosecute sex traffickers and websites that knowingly engage in illegal activity. Instead, it makes facilitating sex work, which could mean a range of things including advertising services as a consensual sex worker or sharing resources with sex workers, a federal crime punishable by 10 or more years in prison. Given that trans folks, particularly trans women of color, are far more likely than cisgender people to engage in sex workone in five of us has done sex work in our lifetimethis is going to have an especially troubling impact on the trans community. And, given that sex-trafficking victims are so often confused for consensual sex workers and vice versa, this is going to put both of these groups at risk for police violence, criminalization, and incarceration.
But, the danger this legislation presents extends much further. When speech around sex is censored, it makes it much more difficult for sex workers to share harm reduction resources with one another that literally save lives. As sex work advocate Kate D’Adamo articulated, “#FOSTA would undermine almost every single thing I would tell people for how to stay alive. ALL screening, ALL peer references, ALL bad date lists I could send.” Reddit has already begun shutting down one of those resources, censoring or banning several sex work subreddits and notifying admins of these groups of more changes to come. It also makes it much more likely that queer and transgender content will be policed since our genders, our bodies, and our lives are always already considered to be sexually deviant.
The loss of Craigslist’s personal ads is an especially damaging blow for trans people and for sex workers and a canary in the coal mine for things to come. Although Craigslist came with its own drawbacks and safety concerns, trans people, and especially those in rural and conservative areas, have long used Craigslist as a means to find dates and to connect with one another. As Twitter user TerrigenMisty tweeted, “Thanks Congress, now trans women in rural areas have no where to meet a sexual partner in a potentially safer way.”
Being able to list ourselves under the category of “transgender” on Craigslist has long been unique among online dating sites and apps which often require that we choose either male or female, subjecting ourselves to cis folks who may not understand us or might even harass us. Craisglist allowed trans folks and people who are interested in us to easily seek out and find one another.
When meeting folks offline hasn’t been a safe or viable option, when our only choice has been to seek out love in spaces that were only made for cis people, we’ve turned to platforms like Craigslist as a safer way to find the sex and love that we deserve. Indeed, my early sexual exploration as a trans person in 2012 was deeply attached to Craigslist, one of the only places I could find sex partners interested in people like me. When we haven’t known another trans person, when we needed support from people like us, we’ve searched “t4t” and found the love and friendship we need. And, for us trans folks who like to date other trans folks, that “t4t” became an important flagpost, an affirmation of our love for one another.
The decision confirms our worst fears that, as suspected, one of the main roots of this sex-trafficking panic is a desire to police queer and transgender sexuality under the guise of protecting women and children.
For consensual sex workers, Craigslist has been a useful platform for finding clients that has offered a safer alternative to street-based sex work. In fact, a study released in September 2017 found there was a 17 percent decrease in the overall female homicide rate in the US that correlates with the introduction of Craigslist’s erotic services forum. When sex workers are forced to work on the street, it is much more difficult for them to vet potential clients. When sex workers are criminalized simply for trying to find work, they are forced to do it in ways that are much more risky and much more dangerous. Consensual sex work will certainly survive SESTA. But, without platforms like Craigslist, it’s going to be much more dangerous. Lives are literally at stake.
If you weren’t infuriated by this before, I hope that you are now. We all deserve the right to engage in harmless consensual behaviors as we see fit without the state intervening in our business. It’s been a decade and a half since Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark Supreme Court case that finally made it so queer people in the privacy of their own homes couldn’t be criminalized simply for engaging in consensual sex. It is a painful truth we must now reckon with: that far from the linear progress we’ve dreamed of since that case, we’ve spiraled back to a government-sanctioned sex panic that will damage LGBTQIA+ and sex worker communities.
And, with the end of Craigslist’s personal ads, we have to wonder what’s next. Who can survive the SESTA/FOSTA era? Will dating apps like Grindr tough it out or shutter their doors? Will we still be able to access pornography, webcams, and chat sites? Or, will the internet be scrubbed clean and sterilized, devoid of any sexual content whatsoever?
If you’re angry and you want to do something, the time is now. Listen to sex workers and trans people and see how you can help. Get involved with your local sex worker advocacy organization, such as the Sex Worker Outreach Project, your local Sex Worker Advocacy Network chapter, and the Red Umbrella Project, and talk to your friends about the need to decriminalize sex work. Connect with the EFF to find ways you can take action and fight back. And, put pressure on your state and local representatives to reverse the effects of this bill.
If you’re trans, a sex worker, or both, stay up to date on the latest developments by following the #SurvivorsAgainstFOSTA, #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA, and #LetUsSurvive tags on Twitter. Check out the Sex Workers subreddit while you still can. Read this article by Liara Roux on how to censor yourself in the FOSTA/SESTA era. Connect with other sex workers offline if you can, check in with your local sex work and LGBTQIA+ advocacy organizations to see if they have resources available for you, and call the Anti-Violence Project’s free 24-hour hotline if you need help.
And, know that you deserve to find work, to find sex, and to find love without fear of criminalization and violence.
Image via Getty