Kate D’Adamo is witnessing a shift.
For years, the Reframe Health and Justice activist has worked alongside organizations like the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, HIPS, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to uplift sex workers’ voices and protect their access to the tools that would help them build community and ensure their own safety. On a federal level, that often meant engaging with congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., in introductory conversations about sex workers’ rights. Some lawmakers wouldn’t listen to what activists had to say; other meetings would result in little more than polite promises of keeping in touch. But then lawmakers like Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA), Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) listened — and, crucially, joined the fight.
“It’s a different level of conversation,” D’Adamo told MTV News. “With most of the offices we sit down it’s, ‘Thank you for sharing this. We’re really excited to learn more.’ With these representatives’ offices, we sat down and they said, ‘Alright, so what are we going to do?’”
Lee and Khanna were voting members in February 2018 when the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) came to the House floor. FOSTA, a bill that every Democratic presidential candidate who served in Congress last year voted for, would hold online platforms accountable for the advertisement of sex-related services by third parties. The bill was purportedly introduced as a means to curb sex trafficking by holding digital companies responsible for the content on their servers — but in its process, it would also hurt vulnerable communities of sex workers by limiting their ability to conduct their business on their terms, which might include providing services online and screening clients prior to meeting. Lee and Khanna both voted against it; Republican Representatives including Justin Amash (MI) and Paul Gosar (AZ), voted against it on the grounds that the bill could infringe on users’ freedom of speech.
But FOSTA passed almost unanimously, with a final vote of 388 to 25. To comply with the new law, Craigslist closed its Personals section in an effort to curb what the company said was a “misuse” of its service; personals are still available to users outside of the U.S.. Backpage, a user-based ad space known for hosting ads for sex-related services, was seized by the FBI. Platforms updated their terms of service to include stricter policies and language surrounding what many considered “suggestive” content; Tumblr banned pornography and nudity altogether. As a result, plenty of people say their posts have been suppressed, censored, removed, and sometimes banned altogether. The loss of these online resources makes many more vulnerable to abusive clients, pimps, and other predatory figures, and can force many of them into dangerous situations with little protection.
When FOSTA was first introduced by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), proponents focused on the benefits it would ostensibly provide to trafficking victims, but even the Department of Justice raised concerns about the broad nature of how the bills attempt to achieve those means. “There’s this weird narrative that there might be collateral consequences for sex workers,” Nina Luo, a steering committee member of the advocacy group Decrim NY, told MTV News. As both she and D’Adamo told MTV News, the communities of sex workers and people subjected to sex trafficking overlap significantly. “By putting an entire population at risk, you’re actually making them more vulnerable to exploitation,” she adds. At least 50 sex workers have been killed or found dead in the United States this year, according to tabulations by SWOP; a significant number of them were trans women of color.
Activists have been sounding the alarm against bills like this long before FOSTA came to a vote. Yet D’Adamo and other activists have consistently struggled to make congressional staffers believe how harmful they knew FOSTA (and its Senate equivalent, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA) could be on a mass scale — something Lee, Khanna, and Pressley seemed to understand.
“Hearing a congressperson not only say, ‘I believe you,’ but say, ‘I believe you and I want to actually step up and do something,’ that is the game-changing conversation,” D’Adamo said.
When speaking with congressional leaders, activists often find themselves explaining who sex workers are and the factors they’re up against, given that skewed reporting about sex work is prevalent. A 2015 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality examined the experiences of trans sex workers in the trade; many respondents who had engaged in sex work reported being harassed by police, mistreated by staff at shelters and prisons, and levels of unemployment and poverty that far outstripped the national average. Another study found that the more legislators criminalize sex work, the more those workers are subjected to violence and STIs, and the less likely they are to receive healthcare and social services.
As a result, sex workers’ rights overlap with the decarceration and prison abolition movements, as well as LGBTQ+ rights and criminal justice reform overall. “[The conversation] needs to be really integrated with economic justice and racial justice,” Luo said.
But that’s a difficult task when lawmakers don’t take into account the experiences of the people affected by their legislation. As Rep. Khanna remembers, Congress did not feature any testimony from sex workers or allied organizations as it heard arguments for and against FOSTA. Khanna agreed with D’Adamo and Luo that oversight is one of the reasons why FOSTA has failed to serve those it purports to protect.
“It’s not even like we had a debate in Congress and said, ‘OK, this is going to drive sex workers out onto the streets and increase violence, but the benefits outweigh the risks,’” Khanna said of the FOSTA hearings. “There wasn’t even a consideration of the impact.”
Now, Khanna seeks to remedy that. On December 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, the congressman announced the introduction of the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, a bill enabling the National Institute of Health to study how FOSTA-SESTA has impacted sex workers’ safety, health, and proximity to violence, among other issues; the bill is being cosponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who voted for SESTA in 2018. Many activists and allies have also called for a full repeal of FOSTA-SESTA; this study serves as just one of many steps they’re taking to reach that goal. Khanna wants a repeal, too — as well as complete decriminalization and regulation of sex work — but believes that providing data is a crucial step in further underscoring why laws regarding sex work need to change.
“It’s almost impossible for Democrats to oppose getting more data, and it would be hard for even some fact-finding Republicans to oppose that,” he said, adding that trying to repeal FOSTA-SESTA at this time would likely fail. “So let’s propose a study to get evidence about the impact on sex workers, on the transgender community, on people of color, and then that report can help galvanize a movement to repeal FOSTA-SESTA.”
D’Adamo calls the shift away from radical change and towards a study a “very, very hard decision” but agrees that, if a vote to repeal FOSTA failed, it would likely do further harm to the movement more broadly. “This is a study that opens the conversation and centers it on the health and safety of sex workers,” she said. “That’s a conversation that is bigger than FOSTA-SESTA, and bigger than Backpage.”
“What we want is to center the conversation on the rights and safety of people trading sex and what that looks like through harm reduction and decriminalization, and what that looks like when we’re facing technology that is constantly kicking sex workers off their platforms,” she adds.
More and more people are joining the conversation around FOSTA-SESTA and the potential decriminalization of sex work altogether. The human-rights advocacy group Amnesty International called for the decriminalization of sex work in 2016, precisely because it reduces the level of trafficking and other harm that people who trade sex might be subjected to. When sex work was decriminalized in Rhode Island between 2003 and 2006 due to a lapse in law, the number of rapes reported to police dropped 31 percent. The state is now engaging conversations weighing its current laws against its brief period of decriminalization; legislators in Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. are following suit.
Nevada is currently the only state in the country where trading sex is legal, but there are significant restrictions regarding where and how the work is conducted, which some traffickers exploit or disregard entirely. Yet some presidential candidates have indicated that they would be open to decriminalization, which as Re.Wire News explains is distinct from legalization, and isn’t simply about scrubbing the laws. According to Luo, true decriminalization also includes providing people with the resources they need to live the best life they can, which can include affirming healthcare and providing a safe working environment. It also allows for people to advocate for themselves, both online and off, in and out of legislative offices.
And while sex workers have been championing their own rights and needs for years, Khanna believes it’s a congressional duty to ferry that work home. “I view myself as helping to put this on the radar, and working side by side with these groups who are really doing the heavy lift,” he explains. “But ultimately they need to be invited to the committee hearings. Their stories are the ones that need to be heard. Their advocacy is making the difference.”