SESTA, the Senate bill, is currently supported by a seemingly disparate coalition: anti-sex work groups, some anti-trafficking services, religious right groups, and some women’s rights groups. Though they originally opposed it on the grounds that it would compromise free speech online, most major tech companies now back SESTA. The bill has also won a personal endorsement from Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Should FOSTA and SESTA become law, anyone engaged in the sex trade — whether through choice, circumstance, or coercion — risks losing access to websites like Backpage and others that connect them to work. Advocates say this would be a direct attack on sex workers’ ability to continue doing sex work on their own terms, and risk making people in the sex trades more vulnerable to trafficking.
The legislation is meant to protect victims of sex trafficking, but many advocates who work directly with people who have been trafficked oppose both bills. “They think that shutting down any online platform is going to miraculously end human trafficking,” Jessica Peñaranda, director of strategic initiatives at the Sex Workers’ Project, told In Justice Today. “They think it’s an easy way to do this.” But real solutions aren’t so easy, she says.
The position she and other advocates are voicing against SESTA and FOSTA is one that tends to get drowned out. Typically, high-profile anti-trafficking lobbying groups that lead the charge for federal legislation, such as World Without Exploitation (led by former Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Lauren Hersh), or Christian right groups like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly known as Morality in Media), oppose not only sex trafficking but sex work itself.
On 28 November, she tweeted: “That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist. That thing sucks.” And then: “James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword. I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.”
Then she logged off.
In what may have felt like Stoya’s silence, reporters, critics and fans wondered for her: what did this mean, this public rape story told in 55 words, involving two of the world’s most high-profile porn performers, who were once in a very public relationship with each other? (James Deen posted some tweets of his own, denying Stoya’s story. A request for comment from Deen was not returned by the time of publication.)
That silence was filled almost immediately by other porn performers, some with allegations similar to Stoya’s, and about the same man, and saying that, despite what the reporters and critics and fans might have been wondering, yes, no matter what you see on screen, a porn performer has a right to her boundaries, on-set and off – and that yes, they believed her. That chorus of voices that followed Stoya’s shook the porn industry. They reverberated, and now the public is hearing, perhaps as loudly as ever, about the particular structural problems the porn industry contends with, and the persistent and pernicious idea that sex workers are by definition unrapeable. So what change has Stoya’s intervention made – and what remains?
Rentboy was a website where men sought sex with men, and as such, media and advocacy groups who don’t typically bring a political analysis to sex work responded to the raid primarily as an anti-gay attack, while also calling for an end to the policing of sex workers. Some American LGBTQ organizations in particular have rallied around the political nature of the raid—in a way women’s rights groups in the United States, when women sex workers are targeted in similar raids, have not.
In fact, it might be the relative silence of women’s rights groups on the Rentboy raid that has provided space for sex workers’ rights to become the main focus of the story.
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents were there with the Rentboy defendants Tuesday afternoon at federal court in Brooklyn. The agents sat shoulder to shoulder, filling two front benches. They outnumbered the attorneys. They wore T-shirts and jeans, badges on their hips, looking relaxed and confident against the murmur of suits and ties. One agent stood and turned to us, the press and families and advocates in the back benches, and we could read the slogan on his shirt: “Vindicated—Justice Will Be Done.”
“You sure you brought enough guys?” one of the defense attorneys spoke into the air.
Amnesty’s announcement refers to sex workers as “one of the most marginalized groups in the world,” but today it is especially worth underscoring the resistance of sex workers. Sex workers have organized against police violence, HIV/AIDS, and punitive laws for decades—and did so while facing exclusion from feminist and human rights organizations.
This pressing on and clamoring for laws that put sex workers at risk might seem unique, but it recalls anti-abortion groups who express their opposition to abortion by deliberately chipping away at abortion access. Though these campaigns say they are concerned with rights and safety, the end game looks the same: create so much danger around something that you condemn in the hopes it will just go away.
Meagan Taylor has bright red hair. She takes cute selfies. She went to Iowa two weeks ago, a trip from her home in Illinois cut short with an arrest. Her name became a hashtag. She is black and transgender and young, and in a month that has seen at least five black women die in American jails, last Wednesday, Meagan Taylor left her cell alive.
When a Volusia County, Florida, deputy sheriff and chaplain came to Rebecca Brogan to inform her that her sister April had died last Friday, Rebecca didn’t believe them. “You guys are wrong,” she said. “She’s in jail.”
…there’s a good chance that if you’ve placed an ad online in the last two years for escorting, massage, BDSM, stripping, private modeling, nude housekeeping, selling your underwear, or any other permutation of the various sexual services people can put on offer, Rescue Forensics has a copy. And because Rescue Forensics has a copy, so do their users in law enforcement.