This is an op-ed by author Alana Massey on the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).
When I use my writing platform to discuss my sex work history and advocate for people who are currently in the sex trades, one of the occupational hazards I resent the most is the demand that I prove my legitimacy by reliving past traumas. Another is the unending task of learning the ins and outs of misleadingly labeled federal legislation that would be disastrous for sex workers. But learn it, I do, and you should too as a horrific bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA), inches closer to a Senate vote.
Before I delve into my personal experiences navigating the misunderstood nuances of sexual exploitation in the sex industry, as well as misguided attempts to legislate it away, there’s something you should know about me: I am generally fond of star-studded public service announcements.
Sarah McLachlan guilting me into rescuing another shelter animal? Send me the adoption papers. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kendall Jenner, and Samuel L. Jackson acting vaguely threatening so I register to vote? Show me to my polling place. I honestly think that celebrity involvement in social and political campaigns can bring new audiences to important issues. Which is why I was momentarily gobsmacked and then incensed by a celeb-heavy PSA featuring Seth Meyers, Amy Schumer, and others calling for an update to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and for support of SESTA.
SESTA comes on the heels of the House’s passage last week of a similar bill, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA), which would make websites criminally liable for hosting content linked to trafficking sex. SESTA would make sites liable if they “knowingly assist, support, or facilitate sex trafficking.” The problem is that these bills target websites that are widely and inaccurately believed to be hubs of trafficking activity when it is precisely those websites that enable people in the sex trades to do their work safely and independently, at the same time as they make it easier for authorities to find and investigate possible trafficking cases.
To fully understand what damage this legislation could do, let’s take a look at the 1996 addition of Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act, which Schumer calls a “stupid loophole” in the aforementioned PSA. It mandates that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In practice, that means that when a belligerent troll defames me on Facebook, I can’t hold Mark Zuckerberg legally responsible. If an icy-veined psychopath posts a YouTube rant about how One Direction was better without Zayn, I can’t bill my anger management class fees to Susan Wojcicki. And if an incensed and increasingly organized coalition of current and former workers in the sex trade takes to Twitter to call Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers a pair of hypocrites who wouldn’t know a decent joke if it literally killed them as the punch line, Schumer and Meyers couldn’t force Jack Dorsey to kick us off. (Though hey, he still might try to.)
Both those in the sex trade and those with any understanding of free online expression consider this so-called “stupid loophole” a “core pillar of Internet freedom” and the “most important law in Internet history.” The bills that would alter it have been roundly condemned by advocates for trafficking victims and survivors of trafficking, as well as by those willingly in the industry who would be at greater risk for exploitation in the absence of online platforms that allow them to share information. The nation’s largest network of anti-trafficking organizations, The Freedom Network, is all but begging legislators not to tamper with Section 230 of the CDA.
This is because the new legislation would threaten to criminalize peer-to-peer resource sharing that makes people in sex work safer and more connected. The very websites that these bills enable law enforcement to criminalize are precisely where I found the generous communities and actionable advice I needed to get out of and avoid exploitative sex work situations going forward. Though the bill is meant to target sites hosting sex work advertisements, it covers online forums where sex workers can tip each other off about dangerous clients, find emergency housing, get recommendations for service providers who are sex worker-friendly, and even enjoy an occasional meme. These are often on the same websites where advertisements are hosted.
The new legislation would threaten to criminalize peer-to-peer resource sharing that makes people in sex work safer and more connected.
Before you say, “Just get rid of the ads, then,” know that online ads themselves are one of the greatest tools for protecting yourself as a sex worker: They make it possible to screen clients, arrange safe indoor working conditions, and establish a communication record with clients that street-based work doesn’t provide.
Which brings us back to the PSA. (Hey, what’s a little mountain twice the size of Everest of evidence-based critiques and survivor-led pleas next to a ragtag team of celebrities with a cause?) The premise is that right this second and in your own hometown, it is totally possible to go online and buy a child for sexual slavery — that it’s “as easy as ordering a pizza,” according to Schumer. I put this claim to the test in my local area and surrounding counties via a set of searches on Backpage that have likely landed me on an FBI watch list. Not one lousy “kid,” “minor,” “teen,” or “child” was available for purchase. Meanwhile, Domino’s is at my house within 21 minutes of me placing an order, come hell or high water. It is almost as if perpetrators of human trafficking aren’t really all that likely to advertise using photos of shackled minors.
The reality is more upsetting. Rather than hiding under layers of deceitful advertisements, human trafficking is more likely to hide in plain sight: at those intersections where members of marginalized groups are impacted by poverty and housing insecurity, plus limited access to services that would alleviate either. “Identifying a trafficking victim is an extremely painful process that takes a very complex human being’s story and forces it into a legal designation,” Kate D’Adamo, a longtime organizer and advocate for the rights of people in the sex trades, tells me. “That pain is then intensified by the fact that we have abysmally limited resources with which to help them. We need to change the conversation from one about who is trafficked and who isn’t to acknowledging and addressing the needs of all people in the sex trades.”
We need to change the conversation from one about who is trafficked and who isn’t to acknowledging and addressing the needs of all people in the sex trades.
That’s where people like me come in and get angry about the dangerous buffoonery perpetuated by celebrity grandstanding. Toward the end of the PSA, the participants use #IAmJaneDoe as a rallying cry to come to the rescue of these exploited, invisible victims, a cry for which I must borrow from Meyers’s beloved “REALLY?” bit from SNL to voice my incredulity.
The term “Jane Doe” has two main uses: The first is referring to a woman in court, often a victim of sexual violence, who is not being legally identified in the proceedings. The second is referring to the unidentified corpses of women murder victims. These bills seek to destroy the few lines of defense people in the sex trades have to protect themselves from becoming Jane Does. These online resources are how I found people who could help me transition out of sex work safely. They didn’t smuggle me out of a lurid foot fetish party in a suitcase under cover of night. They introduced me to editors and gave me some nice pointers on what I could write about when just starting out. My career trajectory was every bit as boring as most career trajectories are: often characterized by boredom and punctuated by both extreme satisfaction and intense desperation.
I don’t feel especially moved to talk about the exploitative scenarios I mentioned above just so I can be summarily dismissed as either a liar or too damaged to speak for myself. I have turned my traumas into practical guidance for new sex workers to help them avoid similar situations. The legislation these celebrities are championing may soon make this healing and sharing process a criminal act punishable by years in prison.
And while I understand the importance of constantly reinforcing the message that sex work and trafficking are not the same, it is not uncommon for those who trade sex to fall into periods of coerced and exploitative situations and get back out of them, sometimes repeating the cycle several times. But still, people in the sex trades are pushed to adhere to one of two tidy narratives: Either they consented fully to every moment of their experiences and even enjoyed themselves, or they were voiceless captives enduring unending trauma.
It is not uncommon for those who trade sex to fall into periods of coerced and exploitative situations and get back out of them, sometimes repeating the cycle several times.
The truth is that there is overlap between these two poles and many shared needs among those in the sex trades, but we are often reluctant to talk about this openly out of fear that our survival decisions will be put on trial in the court of public opinion all over again. As D’Adamo points out, “People in the sex trades have clearly articulated their most pressing needs repeatedly: living wages, secure housing, freedom from policing and surveillance that threatens their freedom of movement, access to and knowledge of available human services, and the elimination of the silencing stigma faced by anyone who has ever traded sex under any circumstances.” It is with great regret that I inform [squints] actor Tony Shalhoub of Monk fame that an unbeatable hashtag has not made the short (or long) list of things survivors need.
I imagine it would be inconvenient for Schumer to hear from a former stripper that the most coercive sex work scenario I’ve been in was with a manager at a perfectly legal strip club. It might cause her some discomfort about having done a sketch on her show where Schumer’s date accidentally kills a stripper and Schumer agrees to bury her, only to realize the stripper isn’t actually dead, at which point Schumer…kills her with a shovel.
The final call of the PSA is #ListenToSurvivors, which is an interesting choice considering that no known survivors spoke in the PSA.
And on the note of regrettable decisions in entertainment, I wonder if Meyers regrets the time he made fun of Eliot Spitzer for not wanting to use a condom when he visited sex workers because, ewww, gross hooker reasons, instead of targeting Spitzer for the despicable act of allegedly coercing a 22-year-old sex worker into unsafe working conditions (especially when he was a state governor). I wonder if Meyers knows that following the 2014 shutdown of a sex worker advertising and community site called Redbook in the Bay Area, sex workers were forced to work on the streets, where they were afraid to carry condoms for their own safety because police could use them as evidence of prostitution.
The final call of the PSA is #ListenToSurvivors, which is an interesting choice considering that no known survivors spoke in the PSA. The creators probably didn’t think they knew any, and certainly not any famous ones. And look, I know that neither Meyers nor any of the other stars of the PSA conceived of and cast this whole misguided mess. But I do think they would have more thoughtfully considered participating in it they had been more open to understanding the nuances of what it means to be a victim of exploitation, a survivor sex worker, or a sex worker performing sexual labor willingly but doing so because of extremely limited options.
Meyers has welcomed Janet Mock as a guest on his show, a woman who has been candid about her time doing survival sex work as an economically disadvantaged trans youth of color. He’s also welcomed Amber Rose, whose first foray into stripping was when she was 15.
And while it’s not clear why he isn’t choosing his best life and inviting Cardi B on his show, maybe if he did he’d learn that sex work actually made it possible for her to leave a violent partner (as well as befriend the most revered and fearsome of all sex workers, Russian strippers who assist with financial planning). People in the sex trades are neither punch lines nor plot points in easily digestible storylines. Meyers and the rest of this PSA cast should know this.
Now is the moment for celebrities to give up the fantasy of saving Jane Doe, and start seeing people in the sex trades as fully formed, complex individuals with actual names.
It is difficult to admit making a mistake, dear celebs, but this is an insufficient reason to double down on a mistake when it poses a true mortal danger to people in the sex trades. Time is running out as this bill gets closer to a vote in the Senate, threatening to isolate people already at the margins and deprive them of the means of doing their work safely.
Now is the moment for celebrities to give up the fantasy of saving “Jane Doe” and do the hard work of seeing and listening to people in the sex trades as fully formed, complex individuals who have actual names. “If our responses to address trafficking exacerbate the marginalization and isolation of people trading sex, it is clear we have missed the forest for the trees,” D’Adamo says. “It says a lot more about how we want to see ourselves than about meaningfully witnessing and responding to violence done to others.”
I have been trying to think of a joke on which to end. I want to maintain the incredulous and dry humor of this piece to distract from my increasing panic. But I am counting down the days until these laws threaten to destroy the lives of people I love, people who have saved mine. And so, if there’s a joke in the world that would make this easier for people to swallow, I have no interest in telling it.
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