There Isn't a Single Story When It Comes to Defining the Politics of Sex Work

You probably heard about SESTA months ago.

SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) was signed into federal law alongside FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) in April of 2018. Designed to stop sex trafficking, the law amended a section of the Communications Decency Act in order to make it legal to prosecute website providers who knowingly allow others to use their platform in the promotion of prostitution or the sale of illegal sex acts with sex trafficking victims.  “(promote) or (facilitate) prostitution” or “facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.”

SESTA/FOSTA is signed into law. 

SESTA, however, was a dubious solution to a complicated problem. SESTA, in fact, seems to have created more issues than it has resolved. By punishing website providers for hosting advertisements for sex work, consensual sex workers are forced to do their work offline, making their occupation much more dangerous. Furthermore, law enforcement loses the ability to track illegal sex practices advertised online once it becomes illegal to advertise sex work online. Some critics of the law feel that its erosion of the protections offered in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will only lead to further erosion of internet safe-harbor protections.

However, perhaps the most harmful side effect of SESTA is its inability to make a distinction between consensual sex work and trafficking. Under the law, website providers are punished for advertising sex work, whether or not that sex work is consensual.

SESTA’s conflation of consensual and nonconsensual sex work illustrates a broader phenomenon crucial to the way we discuss policies pertaining to pornography, sex work, and trafficking.

Pornography, sex work, and trafficking present dozens of political stances mixed willy-nilly across the left-right spectrum. The politics of sex and sex work, however, have always been tangled. After all, the conflict between “sex radical” and antipornography feminists was one of the watershed moments in the decline of the women’s liberation movement during the 1970s. However, amidst the thicket, one thing remains clear: black-and-white solutions don’t provide viable solutions to the issues presented by pornography, sex work, or human trafficking.

Neither party wants to see women and children suffer as a result of human trafficking. Neither party wants to see an increase in female homicide. And, in the case of SESTA, both parties should have considered the side effects a bill that made it illegal for website providers to advertise sex work would have on consensual sex workers.

But SESTA/FOSTA is only part of a larger issue at play when it comes to the politics of sex-related industry. For example, it’s difficult to talk about issues related to pornography without picking a rigid sex radical or antipornography stance. On one hand, antipornography feminism erases the narratives of women choosing to be in pornography and continues a legacy of silencing LGBTQ+ women who have faced the harshest censorship under 20th-century obscenity legislation. On the other hand, it’s impossible to categorize pornography as an always consensual production between two adults in light of evidence that suggests pornography both fuels the demand for sex trafficking and creates an opportunity for sex traffickers to profit off of victims forced to produce pornographic media.

Ultimately, the politics of pornography, sex work, and human trafficking cannot lead to legislation that silences the voices of some and prioritizes the voices of others as the single story of sex work. Future policies concerning pornography, sex work, and human trafficking should consider all aspects of sex work in order to create legislation that protects both sex workers' safety and agency. 

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