SESTA/FOSTA and the Massive Failure of Good Intentions

by dmatson on April 13, 2018

President Trump signed a controversial bill called SESTA-FOSTA in an attempt to crack down on sex trafficking in the United States. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. But critics including the ACLU believe it will shut down free expression on the web. And independent sexworkers fear they will be less safe without access to online tools and communities for screening clients.

Prostitution (sexwork / escorting, and other sexual services) is illegal in almost all of the US except for some legal brothels in Nevada. It is easy to find people who do this work because they genuinely enjoy it, including interviews on mainstream podcasts,  And for many sex workers, it is a fairly well-paying job that is easy to get into and beats many of the alternatives for low-wage labor available.

Yet, despite its illegality, there is a vast demand for paid sex. The marketplace has always been slightly underground, though not hard to find. For years, you could find prostitution on Craiglist and Backpage. But now, with the shutdown of, the sex trade will be forced into the darker recesses of the internet, and for some, back onto the street.

backpage fosta sesta


Even if we assume “good intentions”, the negative consequences are very scary for workers.

How does Backpage help keep non-coerced prostitution safe for workers?

An independent escort can advertise and screen calls to avoid people and situations that feel unsafe. On the street, you simply don’t have that option.

Interviews with affected sexworkers at paint a very disturbing and desperate picture. It is worth reading their firsthand accounts for yourself to get some perspective.

Will this end the sex trade?

Ha. Sure.
Here’s what will happen:

  1. Online solicitation in the US will move to more decentralized sites on the dark web and overseas that will be harder to track. There are already backpage alternatives popping up like And it’s likely people using them will increasingly adopt more secure, encrypted browsers like Tor.
  2. Some sex workers will be forced into the streets, or back with pimps. Both situations vastly increase the risks and give up autonomy. But desperate people will make desperate choices.

Will this make Sex Trafficking less likely, or easier to enforce and prosecute?

Doubtful. In fact, backpage and craigslist were very supportive of law enforcement inquiries about who is posting ads.

Back in 2011, then FBI director Robert Mueller (who?) commended Backpage management for their support in these efforts:

What’s it all about then?

State Attorneys’ General and District Attorneys are political positions, and they need something to do that is dramatic and has public support.

As the criminal justice reform movement gains steam, positions like tough on crime, and the war on drugs are less popular. The politics have shifted against mandatory minimums and the prison industrial complex. People are more suspicious of police abuse in general.

And sex trafficking in genuinely horrific and real. To the degree that there is serious collateral damage to consensual sexworkers, they have had little political presence or visibility, at least until now.

In Massachusetts, Attorney General Healey is very aggressive at going after supposed sex traffickers. In addition, they regularly target “johns” in ad stings with law enforcement placing the ads and working right up to the line of entrapment. And when charging people with soliciting prostitution, Massachusetts prosecutors have become much more reluctant to work out reasonable plea deals that avoid a criminal record.

This isn’t to say it’s all for show. Most of the people involved in this crackdown are earnest and have the best intentions.

But it’s clear they haven’t spoken to anyone who will be seriously hurt by this legislation.

What’s next?

The situation is evolving rapidly. We will watch how law enforcement uses this law to crack down on solicitous online communication.

We will quickly see if online workers can organize effectively to get their concerns heard. But the marketplace for sex will evolve and continue to exist, regardless of safety or illegality.

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