Trigger warning: This article discusses violence against sex workers.
It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, sex work was big – and legal – business in the United States. It was here that the term “red light district” first appeared in print, then referring to the red lanterns that rail workers would leave outside of the doors and windows of places where they met prostitutes, as sex workers were referred to at that time. The term “sex worker” was first used by artist and sex workers’ rights activist Carol Leigh, AKA Scarlot Harlot, in the late 1970s.
In 1910, the Mann Act, or “white slave traffic act,” became the first federal law prohibiting prostitution. At the beginning of World War I, a navy decree demanded the closure of any sex-related businesses within five miles of a military base. By 1916, 47 red-light districts around the United States had been shuttered. In 1917, the infamous Storyville district in New Orleans was ordered closed. Facing retaliation from law enforcement, the American sex trade was forced to go underground.
In the century that’s passed since criminalization, sex workers have experienced increasing amounts of violence, making the trade more risky than it’s ever been. As a brand that encourages self-development through pleasure and sensual exploration, Chakrubs recognizes the important role sex work plays in our society and we support sex workers’ right to conduct business without interference from law enforcement or threats against their safety.
We thought this International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was an opportune time to discuss the violence that sex workers face and how measures like FOSTA-SESTA only create more threats to their livelihood. As always, we’ve included resources for how you can make a difference and self-care tips if you’re personally affected by this violence.
What is FOSTA-SESTA?
House bill FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and Senate bill SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) were packaged as legislation that would reduce human sex trafficking. The most controversial aspect of the bill was an exception in the Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a long-standing rule of the internet that allows platforms and ISPs to benefit from user-generated content without being held responsible for the type of content that users generate. This exception holds website publishers responsible if third parties are found to be soliciting sex work on their platforms – even if it’s consensual.
The bill makes no effort to distinguish between consensual sex work and non-consensual sex work and workers can be targeted even if their content is legal according to local law. For example, sex work is legal in some areas of Nevada, but workers in that area could still face repercussions according to FOSTA-SESTA. It also impacts international companies that have operations in the US. As websites institute new policies to comply with FOSTA-SESTA, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s operating like a censorship law.
FOSTA-SESTA passed with bipartisan support in April 2018 and goes into effect on January 1, 2019.
Impact of FOSTA / SESTA
The closure of sites like Backpage and Craigslist Personals actually makes it more difficult for law enforcement to find human traffickers
Websites that allowed sex workers to advertise services, process payments, and screen clients have been shut down. This further marginalizes sex workers, forcing many to work with cash and find clients in other ways. This has also affects sex workers in legal trades like BDSM, porn, and erotic dancing.
Hoping to earn its way back into Apple’s App Store, Tumblr recently announced that they will begin banning adult content starting December 17. Tumblr served an important role as a supportive community resource for sex workers and this new policy effectively destroys that. The new algorithm has already incorrectly flagged inoffensive content, like an illustration of a witch and photos of tights. The platform still relies on users to find and report hate speech and abuse.
Facebook updated their sexual solicitation policy to effectively ban talking about sex which threatens sex educators, LGBTQ communities, and anyone who discusses sex online. It’s unclear how this change will affect their new dating site venture.
Violence against Sex Workers
Cyntonia Brown is an example of how our country’s criminalization of sex work further harms those affected by human trafficking. At the age of 16, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen. She had been forced into prostitution by a pimp named Kut Throat who physically abused her and forced her to take drugs. Brown was sold by her pimp to Allen for sex and Brown testified that he became aggressive after they arrived at his home. She says she shot him because she feared for her life. At Brown’s appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Brown must serve at least 51 years before she is eligible for parole. After being confronted by Black Lives Matter activist Justin Lang, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is now considering clemency for Cyntoia Brown.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that sex workers who live in countries where the trade is criminalized were three times more likely to experience sexual or physical violence from a client and were twice as likely to have HIV or another sexually transmitted infection as those who lived in countries where sex work was tolerated.
Globally, sex workers have a 45 to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point in their careers and a 32 to 55% chance of experiencing sexual violence in a given year.
Sexual assault against sex workers (especially criminalized forms of sex work) in the United States is particularly high. In Phoenix, Arizona, 37% of sex work diversion program participants report being raped by a client, and 7.1% report being raped by a pimp. In Miami, Florida, 34% of street-based sex workers reported violent encounters with clients in the past 90 days. In New York, 46% of indoor sex workers reported being forced to do something by a client that they did not want to do, and over 80% of street-based sex workers experienced violence.
Sex workers often aren’t protected by rape shield laws. New York and Ohio explicitly forbid prostitution from being used as character evidence against rape victims. Judges in states without explicit exclusion of sex work often allow for prostitution to be brought up.
Sex workers are especially vulnerable to sexual and intimate partner violence. Conflating sexual violence and sex work can increase violence against sex workers by perpetuating stigma, it can alienate sex workers from social services, and it can result in sex workers who are victims of violence being ignored.
Donate to Sex Workers Outreach Project, the grassroots social network that created International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
Donate to Switter. Switter is a social network for sex workers that is free from censorship and stigma. It was created by sex worker Lola Hunt with the help of the Melbourne-based Assembly Four collective. Almost 200,000 people have signed up for Switter since its launch, but in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA, the future of the platform remains unclear.
Listen to and uplift sex workers’ voices. Health care and social service organizations can train staff to be culturally competent towards sex workers. They can organize bad date lists. They can support policies that increase sex worker access to justice, safety, and human rights. They can support or create space for peer-led efforts for safety and organizing.
Self Care Tips
If you’re feeling triggered by news related to violence against sex workers, grant yourself permission to take a break from reading the news and checking social media. Choose websites that feel safe and supportive to receive your news from and then make a conscious decision when you’d like to engage with their content.
Make sure you’re sleeping enough, drinking enough water, and nourishing your body. If you have a backyard or park nearby that you can visit, I recommend taking your shoes off for a quick grounding exercise. Remember that you are supported by this earth and let yourself tune into that connection.
Reach out to friends or community and share your feelings. You might be surprised to find out that those close to you are also feeling affected.
Look into local, grassroots organizations to volunteer with. Directly supporting a good cause can help you recognize your power to make a difference.