On April 11th, 2018 President Donald Trump signed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act(SESTA). This was a huge victory for fighting human trafficking and this in conjunction with the FBI shutting down the ad marketplace, Backpage, has helped to bring this issue into the forefront https://dontcallmebeth.com/2018/04/09/fbi-shuts-down-backpage/. SESTA holds companies responsible for the content placed on their websites with many companies now taking down any pages that might contain ads for prostitution. The backlash from this has been swift with critics citing violations of first amendment rights. Sex workers are outraged that they have lost the ability to post ads for potential clients and are losing out on their livelihoods. While I do understand both sides of the argument, shows how confusing and blurred the lines of human trafficking and prostitution are.
Prostitution as we all know is the act of selling sex for money. A sex worker is someone who sells sex for money. There are many people who engage in this line of work and I do support them if they CHOOSE to do this. Prostitution is illegal in the United States of America, except for eight rural counties in Nevada. Any sex work done outside of these areas are illegal. This means that every time a willing sex worker posts an ad selling sex outside of these eight counties that this is a crime. SESTA creates an obligation for companies and holds them liable for allowing these types of ads on their websites, because it is illegal. This is not violating anyone’s first amendment right because what they are posting is still a crime. I do agree that at this point in history, we should make prostitution legal. Humans will never stop paying for sex, it is one of the oldest professions in history. Legalization would allow for regulation and protection for sex workers.
Sex trafficking is defined as the illegal business of harboring, recruiting, transporting, obtaining, or providing a person especially a minor for the purpose of sex. A sex trafficking victim in more simple terms is a slave who is being forced to have sex. This means that they are not a willing participant and are being raped repeatedly for a profit that they do not keep. SESTA is holding companies liable for postings of sex trafficking on their sites. One of the biggest misconceptions about sex trafficking and prostitution is that they are the same thing. They are not. If anyone under the legal age to consent is involved in prostitution, it’s considered sex trafficking because according to the law they cannot make that decision. So even if a 15-year-old says that she wants to sell her body for sex, legally she cannot make that decision. Someone can be trafficked from the age of 15 and continue in prostitution when they become an adult, but they are still a victim of sex trafficking because they started at the age of 15. Many people are duped into sex trafficking thinking that they will be doing legitimate work and then it becomes their worst nightmare. People are sold into sex trafficking by their parents or loved ones. And some people are selling their bodies to survive. If a 12-year-old runaway is selling sex to have money for food to eat, she is a victim of circumstance not a willing participant. Cases can vary by each specific individual, prostitution and sex trafficking are not the same thing.
The ads that are posted on these websites are not easily distinguishable between sex trafficking and sex work. So, to end this confusion, all the ads must go. This is not about first amendment rights. This is about protecting children and victims of sex trafficking. SESTA will not stop sex trafficking. Sex trafficking existed before the internet and it will continue despite the internet. But by holding companies accountable for the content that they allow, it sends a strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated. The backlash and the confusion around this law shows that there is so much more to do to bring awareness about human trafficking and understanding about sex work. If you would like to know more check out https://polarisproject.org. It’s one of the many organizations fighting against human trafficking and is responsible for the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888).