Coverage of the SESTA-FOSTA legislation must include sex workers’ voices

The new law is meant to combat sex trafficking, but it harms trafficking victims and sex workers alike, particularly marginalized people. Media should include sex workers' perspectives in the coverage.

Sex workers use online platforms to stay safe, find clients, and maintain independence. With access to the internet, they can work from the safety of their homes, warn each other of aggressive clients, negotiate pay online, and find business without having to involve a third party. The passing of legislation known as SESTA-FOSTA this spring has taken these freedoms away and made their work more dangerous. This is especially true for marginalized people, who are more likely than others to turn to sex work as a means of making an income. Mainstream media should have done more to tell that story before it was too late.

Two similar bills known as SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were introduced in Congress in 2017 and were combined under FOSTA and ultimately passed with overwhelming majorities earlier this year. President Donald Trump signed the legislation into law in April, with some fanfare. It was widely regarded as legislation designed to combat sex trafficking (as the names suggest), but it conflated sex trafficking with consensual sex work. And sex workers were too often left out of the media conversation.

In the lead-up to SESTA-FOSTA’s passing, mainstream media rarely featured sex workers’ perspectives -- often ignoring the sex worker and advocate opposition to the legislation entirely in their limited news coverage or featuring misinformed celebrities and politicians. Fox News, meanwhile, simply mocked sex workers’ concerns.

And their concerns were significant: Websites that host user-generated content (like Craigslist) are now discouraged from moderating their content and reporting trafficking ads, because, according to the law, the host site is now also liable for what is posted. Because SESTA-FOSTA conflates sex trafficking with consensual sex work, consensual sex workers who used these kinds of platforms to find and conduct business are finding it more challenging to stay safe in their work. Law enforcement also used these sites to recover trafficking victims, and now that they’re gone, there’s no telling where traffickers will go.

Sex trafficking is a heinous crime, but tragically, this law is exacerbating the issue and putting consensual sex workers in danger. This could have been avoided if sex workers were a bigger part of the mainstream media coverage of this law before it was passed. When communities affected by these laws are included in the conversation, the outcome is better for all parties.

Video edited by Miles Le

Story edited by Pamela Vogel