One of the suit’s plaintiffs, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, a national human rights group whose mission is to “protect sexual freedom as a fundamental human right,” says it has had to censor its work supporting sex workers, which it does in part through an annual conference where sex workers lead workshops on health and rights.
Yang Song’s experience, as elaborated in the report, reveals the limitations of any approach that attempts to rescue sex workers by first arresting them. According to the report, Yang Song was nearly finished with a mandate from the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court—five counseling sessions at Restore NYC to resolve a September 2017 prostitution arrest—when the raid took place. She had one session remaining, scheduled for three days after her death.
The Queens DA’s office collected surveillance footage from multiple cameras, according to Hai Song and a second person who viewed the video but was not authorized to speak on the record: from the stairwell outside of the room where Song fell, from inside the room, and from outside the building on 40th Road. In the stairwell video, Yang Song is seen walking up the stairs with a man identified in the meeting as an undercover police officer, according to those present. In the room footage, the man is seen entering the bathroom before leaving the apartment. In the external video, a body falls through the frame, which captures neither the balcony nor the sidewalk below.
To directly assist those who are struggling with a loss of income in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers have raised funds for and from each other. Dominique, who helps run the sex worker mutual care fund Lysistrata, explained that the funds empower sex workers to refuse risky work. “It is downright nauseating,” said Dominique, “to see our mutual care fund strained and our members facing ever-magnifying physical and financial stress after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA while millions pour into the coffers of anti-prostitution organizations…. Let me make this abundantly clear, sex work is work!… It is an industry not of victims, and not even an industry of necessarily happy hookers—and that is okay.”
Within days of the raids, dancers and other workers in the French Quarter clubs led an “Unemployment March” to protest the club closures. They sold dollar bottles of water labeled “Stripper Tears,” carried signs reading “Twerking class hero” and “Your political agenda shouldn’t cost me my future.” They chanted, “Strippers’ rights are human rights,” “my body, my choice,” and “I am not a victim! I do not want to be saved!” The large and passionate protests brought media coverage that was starkly different from the pre-raid pieces with Covenant House-guided narratives: it actually acknowledged the dancers could speak for themselves.
Like many of her peers in law enforcement who have focused on fighting trafficking with arrests and prosecutions meant to disrupt sex work, Stephan believes there’s no meaningful difference between sex work and trafficking. “Just from being on the ground doing this work for a long time, even those people that tell you they are choosing this life, they were recruited at an early age,” Stephan told the Voice of San Diego earlier this month. “So in my head, you know, how do you really become free if this is all you know when you don’t have [an] education or any other line of work to sustain yourself?”
Since FOSTA was enacted, the groups that pushed for its passage — among them law enforcement, anti-sex work groups, and religious right groups — have acknowledged the vocal opposition to the legislation from sex workers themselves. Marian Hatcher, the senior project manager and human trafficking coordinator at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, who lobbied in favor of the legislation, tweeted on April 13, “#SEXWORKERS … SESTA had NOTHING to do with SW.” Hatcher and other high-profile FOSTA supporters continue to maintain, however, that there are no safe places for sex workers. Republican Senator for Ohio Rob Portman, who drafted the original bill on which FOSTA was based, was asked about sex workers’ safety; a spokesperson responded, “Tell that to the mothers and fathers of daughters who’ve been murdered after being trafficked on Backpage.”
Sex workers have used the internet over the last decade to carve out some independence, safety, and community in their work. For many, advertising online is a form of harm reduction — a way to choose how to work and whom to work with. To lose online ads means different things to different sex workers: For some, it means losing the equivalent of a paycheck, and for others, it will lead to losing control over their jobs, if not losing their jobs altogether. Friday evening, as it became clear that backpage.com was gone, I began contacting sex workers from across the United States: from a range of backgrounds, types of sex work, and years of work experience. Here are some of their stories, in their own words, as told to me on Saturday, April 7, and Sunday, April 8, 2018.
Before the Senate had finished its vote on FOSTA on March 21, its co-sponsors gathered for a press conference, livestreamed by the Senate GOP. “We had a big victory,” began Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). “We now have the ability to go after these websites that are exploiting women and children online.” A few minutes later, an adult model named Brie Taylor said she was trying to access Cityvibe.com, a website that hosted sex work-related ads. “I was flagging an ad with my pics in it,” she tweeted, “…and then the site was gone.” That advertising site is still offline — along with Craigslist’s entire Personals section, and the ad sections of several lesser-known websites. But the big news came Friday afternoon, when Backpage had its homepage replaced with a notice stating, “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division.”
“Anti-Backpage Law Not Yet Enacted, But the Crackdown on Sex Workers Has Already Begun” by Melissa Gira Grant for The Appeal
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.