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Sex workers are rallying around a congressional candidate who’s pledged to fight FOSTA

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Photo by Adi Robertson / The Verge

In a dimly lit Brooklyn nightclub on a Saturday afternoon, congressional candidate Suraj Patel is castigating FOSTA, the new law that punishes web platforms for serving sex workers. “Every small-thinking politician that wants to take a bipartisan victory back home can stand around Donald Trump in the Oval Office and pat themselves on the back for coming out against trafficking,” Patel says, referencing the bill’s signing in April. “All they really did was make it very difficult for lots of people in this country to survive, and make it much more likely that they would be exploited.” Soon, he’s drawing cheers from a crowd of around 200 people, gathered at a town hall meeting specifically for sex workers and allies.

Patel’s take on the law isn’t shocking. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (variously known as FOSTA, SESTA, SESTA-FOSTA, and FOSTA-SESTA) is supposed to help prosecutors stop sex traffickers, but its heavy-handed approach has been condemned by sex workers, civil liberties advocates, and even anti-trafficking groups. What is unusual is that Patel wants to take the fight over FOSTA to Congress — where it passed both houses with nearly unanimous approval.

Patel is campaigning to represent New York’s 12th District, and he’s made repealing the law one of his signature issues, backed by activists who see FOSTA as a breaking point for the sex worker community. The law is aimed at websites that knowingly harbor sex traffickers, but its broad language strips legal protections from any site with content that “promotes or facilitates prostitution,” including consensual sex work. The result has been a crackdown on places where sex workers could advertise online, screen clients, or communicate with each other.

Initially, Patel didn’t have any position on the law — in his telling, he wasn’t even aware of it. But activists like the town hall’s organizer Lola Balcon, part of the group Survivors Against SESTA, saw an opportunity. She reached out to Patel, and along with other opponents of FOSTA, she helped craft a policy position that he announced in a Broadly editorial last month. Now, she’s helping to rally the sex worker community — in New York City and beyond — around this cause.

Congressional candidate Suraj Patel
Photo by Adi Robertson / The Verge

Patel’s opponent Carolyn Maloney was a co-sponsor and staunch supporter of FOSTA. “[Maloney] has been sponsoring really bad anti-sex-work legislation for literally decades,” Balcon told The Verge. “This community has a lot of will toward voting her out.”

In a panel after Patel’s speech at the town hall, activists describe the way that FOSTA would put sex workers — who are already vulnerable to violence and exploitation — at even greater risk. “In this community now, we are forced into such dangerous areas,” said Ceyenne Doroshow of community support group GLITS. With FOSTA, “we are forced into street work all over again.” In the weeks after Trump signed FOSTA into law, the blog Tits and Sass shared stories of disappearances, assaults, and deaths among sex workers who were pushed offline.

While FOSTA may hit sex workers the hardest, it could put any site that lets users post sexualized material at risk — The Wall Street Journal raised the alarm over FOSTA’s potential effect on dating apps, for instance. The policy weakened Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a vital safe harbor for web platforms, but is under fire from conservative lawmakers.

Patel suggests that the outsized lobbying power of companies like Facebook and Google lulled the tech community into complacency — these Silicon Valley giants initially opposed FOSTA, but amid fears that they’d be regulated even more harshly, they dropped their opposition. “Just because those two giants aren’t there, or aren’t affected by this, doesn’t mean that all these smaller sites and platforms and startups aren’t going to have a chilling effect on their free speech,” he told The Verge.

What are the odds of actually repealing FOSTA? If Patel makes it past next week’s Democratic primaries and wins the general election, he’ll still be part of a tiny congressional minority. Survivors Against SESTA isn’t just working with Patel’s campaign. Earlier this month, it helped organize a national lobbying day in Washington, DC, as part of a longer-term attempt to destigmatize and humanize sex workers. Even so, the possibility of Patel getting elected has given hope to some activists. “Our community is getting raped, beaten, murdered, and we have no way to defend ourselves,” said Doroshow. “Suraj, you’re our way.”

For others at the town hall, though, the fact that Patel is one of their best options was frustrating. The candidate opposes FOSTA, but although he finds arguments for completely decriminalizing sex work “extremely compelling,” he hasn’t officially taken a position on the issue. If FOSTA gets repealed, it will resolve a crisis that has potentially deadly consequences for sex workers — but it won’t solve the problems that they’ve been facing for far longer. “It’s great that you oppose SESTA-FOSTA, and obviously that’s a horrible law,” said one attendee. “What you’re saying right now, it’s great, and it’s awesome — and it’s just not enough. And so I need to know that you’re going to keep listening to us.”