Kamala Harris’s election as U.S. vice president is truly historic. Harris is the first woman and first Black American to serve as vice president, the first Black woman ever even nominated on a major ticket, the first woman to be part of a winning presidential ticket, and the first Asian-American on a major ticket.
One of her first moves in office should be to advocate for the full repeal of SESTA/FOSTA, the legislation Harris co-sponsored and Donald Trump signed into law in 2018. Harris must grapple with the reality that, no matter how well intentioned, the only impacts of SESTA/FOSTA thus far are more sex trafficking, a less-free internet, and more dead sex workers.
SESTA/FOSTA exacerbates sex trafficking
Harris claims to have been committed to combating human trafficking throughout her career. So I’m sure it matters to her that the law supposedly aimed at reducing sex trafficking actually makes it more difficult for law enforcement to find and rescue victims. Which is why, as Vox has reported, “A coalition of sex workers, advocates, sex trafficking survivors, and even the Department of Justice have all strongly opposed the idea that FOSTA-SESTA is an effective deterrent to sex trafficking.”
No one has been charged under SESTA/FOSTA. The government claims sex-work online advertising decreased by 90%. But just four months in, such ads rebounded to 75% of the original figure. Censoring sex-work ads actually makes finding sex-trafficking victims more difficult, since ads are one of the primary ways law enforcement finds traffickers.
SESTA/FOSTA makes the internet less free
SESTA/FOSTA holds website owners liable for any communication related to sex trafficking that users might engage in on their websites. The problem is twofold. First, law enforcement conflates consensual sex work and sex trafficking. Second, because distinguishing communication about sex from communication about sex work is difficult for website owners, who now have to police their users or risk possible prison time, they have responded to SESTA/FOSTA by simply deleting vast swaths of user content that is in any way related to sex.
The examples of websites chilling online speech in response to SESTA/FOSTA are sweeping and endless. Google and other cloud-storage sites started scanning users’ private files for sex-related content and deleting it without warning or permission. Reddit banned multiple subreddits. And Microsoft started scanning its services for adult content.
SESTA/FOSTA endangers sex workers
Not only is the internet less free, but sex workers are also less safe thanks to SESTA/FOSTA. It cost them access to websites like Craigslist and Backpage which helped them avoid police violence, share lists of dangerous clients, positively identify clients, and negotiate rates and boundaries at a safe distance and without the need for pimps. In many cities, all female homicide dropped by as much as 17% within a few years after Craigslist Erotic Services debuted. Losing these sites forced sex workers back into street work and using pimps.
In SESTA/FOSTA’s first month of life, thirteen sex workers were reported missing, and two took their lives. According to advocacy groups, the number of missing and dead sex workers across the country spiked, and sex workers are experiencing more trouble advertising, economic instability, and client violence since SESTA/FOSTA. Literally 99% of sex workers who used the internet for sex work said the law does not make them feel safer.
As a biracial woman, Harris no doubt knows that BIPOC are disproportionately impacted by violence. Sex workers are no exception, which is why organizations like the Black Sex Workers Collective oppose SESTA/FOSTA.
Decriminalizing sex work is the right way to fight sex trafficking
Even Harris herself has argued that police shouldn’t arrest anyone for selling sex. So how do you justify depriving sex workers of a way to safely work online? Harris then argued that police should arrest clients of sex workers. But according to Amnesty International, “The criminalisation of clients has not reduced trafficking or sex work, but has increased sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, harmed HIV responses, and infringed on sex workers’ rights.” Prohibition and stigma kill sex workers and exacerbate human trafficking. Which is why New York State Sen. Julia Salazar (D) and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) support sex-work decriminalization.
SESTA/FOSTA has not reduced trafficking or sex work, but has increased sex workers’ vulnerability to violence and infringed on everyone’s right to discuss sex online. Decriminalizing sex work is the best way to help find trafficking victims, preserve internet freedom, and keep sex workers safe.
It’s time to repeal SESTA/FOSTA
The courts are currently considering a challenge to FOSTA’s constitutionality on First Amendment grounds. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have introduced bipartisan bills to investigate SESTA/FOSTA’s negative impacts.
While there’s much to celebrate about Harris’s historic win, the real celebration should start when the administration is able to make substantive changes to policy that make a difference. One way for her to begin that important work would be to urge Congress to repeal SESTA/FOSTA, to help law enforcement find and rescue sex trafficking victims, restore online freedom, and protect sex workers from needless violence.