For Bay Area sex workers, a new federal law means less safety and more poverty

A federal bill that passed last spring is pushing more women into the streets and into poverty in San Francisco

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published November 4, 2018 7:30PM (EST)


For Sasha*, a 26-year-old woman of color, finding work in San Francisco has never been an easy endeavor. Last spring, when the United States Congress passed a two-bill package called "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" and "Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act" (commonly known as SESTA-FOSTA), the ability to do her job as a sex worker became more challenging: she no longer had the internet as a resource to find and screen clients.

"Since SESTA-FOSTA, it has been really hard on me and I know other women are struggling as well," she told Salon. "Everyone is going through different things, and since there have been more crackdowns on the internet I've had to pick up other jobs that are considered legal... now I work three different jobs just to make ends meet."

The digital crackdowns include the closing of sites like BackPage as well as Craigslist's personal section. While the bills didn't explicitly seek to target sex workers (the messaging was to combat sex trafficking), prior to the bills being signed into law many raised concerns regarding the backlash it would have on the sex work industry nationwide.

Craigslist and Backpage weren't the only sites to close due to SESTA-FOSTA, either. Other sites used to vet clients were shutdown, too. The closures came a result to one provision in the bills that made an exception to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This legal line has long protected internet companies and their platforms from being held responsible for what happens on their platform. SESTA-FOSTA now holds these platforms responsible if the activity is, say, posting ads for prostitution — including consensual sex work.

Now, instead of working the digital streets — where clients can be vetted long before their first interaction — Sasha has had no choice but to look for work on the real ones.

"And I don't like working on the street, it is very uncomfortable for me to work out there," she explained to Salon. "I try to go back out, but it's really scary, and because the sites aren't up anymore we can't screen our clients; I have to do an in-person screen and that is a little scary because you never know who you are going to get."

Maxine Doogan, a sex worker and sex workers' rights advocate, told Salon since SESTA-FOSTA she has received "so many graphic, mean and threatening texts demanding unprotected services" from potential clients, too.

Soliciting on the streets of San Francisco poses its own set of challenges. There is no guarantee one will find work, as the competition is tough. Sex workers who have already been soliciting on the streets for a while have an advantage. Sexual violence and assault are real possibilities. There is also the risk of being arrested, and for those who already have a history of incarceration — or for those who lack the money to fight charges — that risk cannot be taken.

"The thought of getting arrested, that is my biggest fear," Sasha said. "I have worked really hard to get to where I'm at. I was on my way to get myself out of a low-income status, but now I'm right back at it.

"Living in poverty is not fun, and sex work was a way for me to get out of poverty," Sasha continued.

Sasha's three "legal" jobs have kept her from pursuing her academic endeavors, too.

"My biggest goal is to go to school," she said. "I want to break the glass ceiling."

SESTA-FOSTA was initially hailed as a victory by supporters due to its bipartisan promise that it would combat sex trafficking. Supporters included leading Democrats like California Senator Kamala Harris.

"Victims of sex trafficking should be protected and have the ability to seek justice," Harris said in a statement last spring. "That's why, from my earliest days as a prosecutor, I've led the fight against Backpage and other sex trafficking platforms. And I am proud to support the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which will make it possible for victims and state prosecutors to hold online sex traffickers accountable."

Yet consenting adult sex workers seem to have become unintended victims in all this. Sasha says now she is seeing more women in the industry be pushed to living on the streets, and living out of their cars. A mix between a high cost of living in San Francisco and no work is a recipe for poverty.

Rachel West, a spokesperson for the US PROStitutes Collective — a San Francisco-based organization campaigning to decriminalize sex work — told Salon there is often a strong connection between poverty and sex work in San Francisco.

"We see a direct connection between poverty and mothers in the face of very limited safety net, especially women trying to make a living and survive," West said. "With FOSTA-SESTA it really has had an impact on women's ability to make money."

Feminism & Homelessness

The San Francisco Bay Area has been a base for many progressive social and political movements over the last two years. This week, hundreds of Google employees staged a walkout a week after a report broke that a Google executive investigated by the company for sexual assault was awarded a $90 million exit package upon his resignation. Tech workers in San Francisco are also taking a keen interest in housing rights activism as Proposition C — which would tax businesses to fund homelessness initiatives — stands to be voted on next week.

Yet when it comes to sex workers and their rights, there is little in the way of mainstream activism.

Pike Long, the Deputy Director of St. James Infirmary — a peer-based occupational health clinic for sex workers and their families — said when it came to SESTA-FOSTA, she believes the goal was to eradicate commercialized sex nationwide.

"I think on a national level, 100 percent the goal is to shut down commercialized sex," she said. "I don't think that that's even something that the quote unquote 'anti-trafficking movement' has tried to hide; they realized a narrative of trafficking was much more sympathetic to an increasingly liberal nation that is beginning to think, 'Oh wait, maybe women like bodily autonomy, and feminism means that people do have the right to have access to their erotic services.'"

Despite feminist progress in the wake of the #MeToo movement,  Long explained, this year has been "unprecedented" in the attacks on sex workers' rights.

"I feel it's a real backlash to a lot of the progress we've been making where first of all, people recognize the term sex work, that it is labor, it is the form of labor and the rights that were demanding or actual labor rights," she said. "The Christian Right is very uncomfortable with that. A lot of people who call themselves feminists are uncomfortable with that."

Long said many sex workers, but not all, grew up in poverty and are "second or third generation sex workers."

"They're not necessarily doing it because it's the thing that they feel is sexually liberating, but they're like, "I need to make a living and this is what I have," she said. "I think that liberal San Francisco is incredibly disturbed by the idea that there are still these people, and it's a visible reminder that we're not doing our job."

An anonymous high-end sex worker told Salon she feels her clients are uncomfortable with sex workers having equal labor rights.

"In my experience as a high-end sex worker, my clients are lawyers, they're tech guys, they're people who make good money and who are very plugged in. They're like all for it [sex worker rights] when it is people they can relate to, they're all for it, when it's highly educated, articulate White or Asian women," she explained. "[But] they're still not comfortable with Black and Latina women and Trans people out there doing work in ways that they consider is unsavory or unsafe."

The Fight is Not Over

SESTA-FOSTA has just been one of many legal battles the industry is facing. Currently, many are organizing to fight a proposal in San Francisco that will increase the city's ability to shut down massage parlors. There are 200 massage establishments and 1,200 practitioners in San Francisco. The measure has been said by the industry to be yet another way to push lower-income people out of the city.

"If and where women are selling sex, parlor closures will force women on the streets where [it] is much more dangerous to work," US PROStitutes Collective said in a statement.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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