Photo: Blemished Paradise on Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Bipartisan War on Sex Workers

There’s no shortage of partisan posturing in congress, but on certain issues, there’s more of a bipartisan consensus than soundbites suggest. As ever, both parties are more than happy to unite behind bills that expand state power.

Take, for instance, the approval of a $700 billion defense budget, FISA reauthorization, or the bill recently put forward by senators Tim Kaine and Bob Corker that would give the executive branch the ability to detain and imprison any U.S. citizen indefinitely without charge.

Another such legislative effort, one that passed through both houses with near unanimous support (including from Bernie Sanders), is SESTA/FOSTA, which President Trump signed into law just last month.

The pair of bills, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (House) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (Senate), creates an exception to section 230 of the 1996 Communications Act that will now allow online outlets to be retroactively held responsible for any third-party content posted on their site that facilitates or promotes prostitution and any other form of sex work that might fall under the bill’s vague definition of trafficking, which makes no distinction between consensual sex work and forced exploitation.

Perhaps the most immediate effect of SESTA/FOSTA was the recent raid and shutting down of the website Backpage. Sites like Backpage and the previously shuttered erotic services section of Craigslist created a digital infrastructure that allowed for more thorough client vetting and the formation of an online community for sex workers, in a sense organizing a profession whose criminalization has always left its workers unprotected and subject to gross exploitation. As a result of this legislation, those same workers are being pushed offline, onto the streets, and into greater danger. In fact, there are already reports of predators targeting workers who formerly used Backpage to advertise their services.

With the media and the left mostly silent on the matter, it’s fallen solely upon displaced workers to speak up against the legislation. Despite their unified outcry, as well as evidence that shows that sites like Backpage are correlated with a decrease in violence against sex workers, congress is on course to pass another bill that falls under the same false premise behind SESTA/FOSTA.

HR 2219, or the End Banking for Human Trafficking Act, has already passed the house and is now being co-sponsored in the senate by Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio. Again, the bill’s text is vague in its definition but likely to broad-reaching in its effects. With one significant platform already cut off, HR 2219 threatens to further harm sex workers by targeting their ability to complete financial transactions related to their work altogether.

While masquerading as a means to combat and curb human trafficking, we should not assume the politicians behind these bills are ignorant to the negatives effects that will result from their passage. The truth of the matter is that they not only see punishing sex-workers as acceptable but commendable.

Consider, as a sex-worker noted during a recent interview on Chicago DSA’s Talkin’ Socialism podcast, that “the sex industry is the one industry in which women…command a higher rate of pay than men.” As such, those in power see sex-workers as belonging to the lowest of the low, a class of thieves who not only cast patriarchal norms of sexual repression to the wayside but have been able to directly monetize their bodily autonomy independent of state control or capital’s oversight.

But sex work is work. And as such, SESTA/FOSTA and HR 2219 amount to direct attacks on workers writ large. As socialists, we must remember that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” and stand in solidarity with sex workers by speaking out against these bills, especially when our elected officials rubber stamp them en masse.