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The internet made sex work safer. Now Congress has forced it back into the shadows

Offline and back into the dark

Illustration by Garret Beard & Alex Castro

Although FOSTA, or the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, was just signed on April 11th, the impact of the law has been immediate — and dangerous.

Heralded by supporters as a strong stance against exploitation and sex trafficking, FOSTA dismantled Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, making it possible for websites and digital platforms to be held legally accountable for sex work-related content posted to their services. Even before it was signed into law, websites were being taken down and terms of service were changed. Shortly after FOSTA became official, notorious escort advertising site was seized by authorities and shuttered.

But FOSTA has also put sex workers in danger, and many have faced serious real-world consequences in the wake of this digital upheaval. Although no official reports have been released as of this writing, anecdotal evidence is trickling in. Johanna Breyer, interim executive director and co-founder of the Saint James Infirmary, a health clinic that supports sex workers in California’s Bay Area, told me that in the weekend following FOSTA, the infirmary’s mobile van outreach saw a dramatic increase of street-based sex workers in the Mission District. Breyer estimated that there were about double or triple the usual number of workers seeking assistance.

In the weekend following FOSTA, the infirmary’s mobile van outreach saw a dramatic increase of street-based sex workers in the Mission District

Fancy, a Midwestern sex worker who manages a fund dedicated to providing financial support for sex workers in need, has seen a dramatic uptick in requests for help. In the wake of the Backpage shutdown, she says she went from receiving occasional requests for help to a dozen or two dozen messages daily. Many messages were from sex workers asking for advice on how to work on the streets safely. “I never used to have people asking me how to stay safe on the street, or even where to advertise or how to screen,” Fancy tells me. Now, responding those types of requests is a regular part of her routine.

How did FOSTA — a bill pitched as a way to end trafficking and make women safer — wind up driving women to work on the street, putting their lives and safety at risk in the process? The answer lies in the untold story of online sex work, a tale of how modern technology transformed the world’s oldest profession, offering sex workers increased agency, autonomy, and substantially improving their safety.

There are three things that can dramatically improve the safety of sex work, even in places where it’s partially or fully criminalized. As Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy for the International Women’s Health Coalition, tells me, those key safety strategies are being able to work indoors, being able to screen potential clients, and having access to a community of other sex workers who share information and resources with one another (including databases of dangerous or disrespectful clients commonly referred to as “bad date lists”).

Before sex work moved online, if a person wanted to avoid walking the streets, they needed access to essential safety resources that were largely mediated by third parties like agencies and pimps. It was these third parties that would find and screen clients and deter bad client behavior by making their presence known. If a client proved to be dangerous or untrustworthy, their name would wind up on a blacklist — but in the era before Google Drive, those blacklists were literal spreadsheets, mostly shared locally between agencies (if they were shared at all). If you were fortunate enough to work for someone caring and respectful, this setup could be a wonderful one. But for others, the choice could be working with an exploitative, abusive agency or pimp, or not working at all.

The choice could be working with an exploitative, abusive agency or pimp, or not working at all

“You really couldn’t make it as an independent unless you were a stripper or did street work,” says Mel, an escort who got her start in New England in the mid-1990s. Some workers who started with an agency did eventually go independent by poaching their favorite regulars and relying on referrals. (That’s how Mel went independent initially.) But it was a strategy that left workers heavily reliant on a handful of hopefully loyal clients.

The internet opened up a new world of possibilities. Advertising boards like the now-defunct Craigslist Erotic Services section enabled sex workers to connect directly with potential clients from the safety of their homes, rather than soliciting business on a street corner or at a strip club, or relying on a third party to connect them with work.

As more sex workers got online, the safety resources continued to improve. In her early days as an independent, Mel would screen clients by asking for their full name and phone numbers. She would cross-reference that with the phone book listing, relying on a potential client’s willingness to be honest — and the implicit suggestion that access to their contact details might offer her some recourse if they acted badly — as a way to weed out more dangerous clients. Maggie McNeill, who ran an escort agency in New Orleans in the early aughts, described a similar process of verification via phone number, noting that a client could be accepted or rejected based on how cop-friendly the hotel they were calling from was known to be.

Sex work-specific sites cropped up as well, combining identity verification tools with crowdsourced “bad date lists”

Online, the phone book could be swapped for global records databases like Intelius and Pipl, with sites like Facebook and LinkedIn providing additional ways to confirm that a client was who they claimed to be. Sex work-specific sites cropped up as well, combining identity verification tools with crowdsourced bad date lists. That gave sex workers around the country (and, potentially, around the world) a way to warn each other about dangerous clients, and it prevented those clients from escaping a bad reputation by moving to a different city.

In the same way that it’s helped bring together all sorts of isolated people with niche interests, the internet proved to be a particularly valuable resource for building a sex work community. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other online forums have all offered ways for sex workers to connect with one another, sharing professional knowledge, survival tips, and even just giving one another essential emotional support.

“Working in isolation is one of the most dangerous [ways] to work,” Maxine Holloway tells me, going on to say that she “couldn’t imagine doing this type of work without community.” While screening resources and bad date lists are obviously essential aspects of sex worker safety, being able to connect with people who understand the various stresses that come with sex work can be equally life-saving. “When you have a stigmatized profession, it is really important to have people who understand what that feels like,” says Holloway.

As sex work moved online, the public perception of the industry began to shift, becoming less taboo in certain corners of society. That sense of increased safety and acceptability may have helped fuel the rise of a more culturally palatable version of sex work marked by high-end escorts who were largely white, privileged, college-educated, and who saw clients, not out of financial need, but out of a love of sex and money and luxury. Such characters popped up on TV shows like The Secret Diary of a Call Girl and The Girlfriend Experience.

At the same time, the shift toward internet-enabled sex work was also a major boon to low-income sex workers. Low-priced or even free advertising sites like Craigslist and Backpage made it easy and affordable to advertise services online, and they provided a vastly safer alternative to street-based work. As the impact of FOSTA continues to ripple out across the industry, it’s those same survival sex workers that will suffer most, as the advertising sites and other safety resources that continue to exist will begin raising their price, effectively shutting out the most vulnerable members of the sex work community.

Sarah, who turned to survival sex work during a homeless stint in spring 2016, is adamant that the internet offered her a lifeline, keeping her afloat during an extremely uncertain time. Sarah was living out of her car with an abusive, heroin-addicted partner, and she needed regular influxes of cash to help her partner manage his drug habit. Sex work was an obvious way to quickly get access to that cash.

Stuck in a precarious and dangerous circumstance, the platform offered at least a modicum of safety, control, and security

Her initial plan involved knocking on truck doors at the gas station where she was currently camped out. It was a strategy that, she now recognizes, could have easily gotten her assaulted or even killed. Fortunately, one of her friends told her about Backpage, and for the next few months, Sarah used the site to connect with clients. Stuck in a precarious and dangerous circumstance, the platform offered at least a modicum of safety, control, and security.

Connecting with clients online meant she could chat with them first and weed out the worst ones, rejecting those she didn’t like without fear for her physical safety. Posting advertisements online could sometimes result in multiple offers of work, giving her the ability to choose the best job rather than take whatever opportunity presented was presented to her.

Even street-based sex workers who aren’t personally using the internet have directly benefited from the internet, specifically from online organizing and activism done on their behalf. “I’m working on an outreach program for sex workers right now,” Holloway tells me. “We are using the internet to find out where outdoor workers are and what their needs are.” Yet, under FOSTA’s expansive definition of “trafficking,” even work like this could be at risk.

The intention of FOSTA may have been to end sex trafficking, or at least drive it off the internet, but no one I spoke with actually thought that would be the end result — nor did anyone think this would be the end of sex work. “People need to make money in some way,” says Kristina Dolgin, a sex worker and founder of Red Light Legal, an organization that provides direct legal services, legal representation, community education, and effective policy advocacy to sex workers in all corners of the industry. When sex work feels like the best option, it’s the one that people will turn to, regardless of whether they’re able to advertise online or if they have access to screening resources.

What’s less clear, however, is what the sex work of the future is going to look like. Some of the people I spoke with predicted a return to pre-internet strategies, where third parties provide access to clients and protection, noting that agencies and pimps had already been coming out of the woodwork to offer their services to independent sex workers in the wake of the Backpage shutdown.

Some predicted a return to pre-internet strategies, noting that agencies and pimps had already been coming out of the woodwork

Others were less convinced that a shift back to older models of sex work safety was likely or even possible. “Massage houses and agencies still use these websites to advertise,” says Arabelle Raphael, noting that the now-defunct RedBook was extremely popular with massage parlors. “Everybody uses [online sex work resources], they’re not just for independent sex workers.”

McNeill is similarly bearish about a return to the agency model, telling me that the same anti-trafficking activism that led to FOSTA has resulted in increased crackdowns on agency owners. She points to Amber Batts, a woman she describes as “a really good, ethical, helpful agency owner,” as an example of how things could go wrong for agency owners. Whatever rave reviews Batts may have gotten from the women she worked with didn’t matter to the court that convicted her of sex trafficking. Who would want to take on the work and headache of establishing and running an agency if it could easily mean landing in prison?

What seems most likely to happen is an evolution toward a new model, one that combines established, mainstream search tools with enhanced cybersecurity and sex work-specific sites hosted on offshore servers taking the knowledge gained from the past 20 years of internet-enabled sex work and adapting it to fit the new legal environment.

But getting to that point will take time — time that the most vulnerable sex workers don’t have. And as sex workers struggle to adapt to the realities of a significantly less open internet, it’s the very population that FOSTA purported to protect that’s most likely to lose access to the resources that were keeping them safe.