When the legislative package known as FOSTA-SESTA took effect in the spring of 2018, it was heralded as a step forward in the effort to stamp out online sex trafficking, despite warnings that the bills could have unintended consequences.
Now 18 months later, legislators are pushing back on behalf of sex workers who say they face more dangers since the laws took effect.
On Tuesday, Rep. Ro Khanna of California's Silicon Valley introduced a bill that calls for a federal study to examine the 2018 legislation's impact on sex workers' safety.
"Sex workers have faced greater threats of physical and sexual violence, as they are increasingly pushed off on-line platforms and onto the streets to seek clients," Khanna said in a press release.
The new bill, SAFE Sex Workers Study Act, alleges that sex workers engaging in consensual transactional sex use online platforms to protect themselves by building community connections, screening new clients online and negotiating terms of services prior to any transaction.
Advocates say FOSTA-SESTA has restricted these protections by shutting down personal service websites like Backpage, including arresting some Backpage employees for promoting prostitution. As a result, they claim, sex workers have seen greater instances of violence.
Annemarie Davies, the founder of Pole Artists United and a longtime sex worker and activist, told ABC News "sex workers really relied on" websites the legislation shut down that had allowed them to form whisper networks to monitor violence in the community.
"Not only were sex workers vetting clients, but they were using sites like Tumblr and Craigslist to alert each other to dangerous predators in the community," Davies told ABC News.
A 2019 study by economists at Baylor University found that the introduction of Craigslist's "erotic services" section led to as much as a 17% reduction in homicide rates among women sex workers.
Additionally, Davies said, "Online sex workers are struggling to make the money they used to, and it's forcing more people out onto the street to do what they have to do."
While violence is a pervasive threat to sex workers, experts say online suppression can exacerbate the isolation and stigmatization of those who engage in sex work.
Dr. Francesca Sobande, a lecturer of digital media studies at Cardiff University who studies how sexism and inequality manifests in media and the marketplace, says that in addition to physical danger, online suppression can add to stigmas facing sex workers and impact their ability to find work.
"Online suppression is symbolically violent," Sobande told ABC News. "Certain people are demonized in our society, especially LGBTQ, black women and transgender people."
"[FOSTA-SESTA] inhibits people's ability to use these platforms, and that can result in losses of income that exacerbate already precarious living situations," she continued.
Advocates believe the reported negative impacts of FOSTA-SESTA came about because legislators are unfamiliar with the needs of sex workers, and even when advocacy organizations warn of misguided legislation like FOSTA-SESTA, warnings rarely reach lawmakers.
"Most offices had never confronted this issue before, so they were scared to oppose something under the umbrella term of anti-trafficking," Tyrone Hanley, senior policy counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said. "It's tough to confront decades' worth of outdated anti-trafficking efforts when people conflate sex work and trafficking."
To draft the new bill, legislators engaged with advocates like Hanley.
The ACLU sent a letter of opposition to the Committee of Commerce, Science & Transportation when FOSTA-SESTA was first introduced back in 2017, warning: "We are concerned that the bill would significantly chill the explosion of online political, artistic, and commercial speech without improving the plight of sex trafficking victims."
These concerns are echoed in the SAFE Sex Workers Study Act, in addition to the finding that the absence of online access has actually led sex workers who had always worked independently to encounter increased solicitation efforts from third-party traffickers.
The SAFE Sex Workers Study Act is co-sponsored by nine legislators, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and has received support from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
"We hope the bill encourages lawmakers to think about reform to protect the health and safety of sex workers," said Hanley. "There's an epidemic of violence against transgender women of color and sex workers in this country."
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