PSU Legal Services calls for decriminalization of sex work

Portland State’s student legal services hosted two speakers from PSU on April 16 to discuss the wide-reaching and potentially harmful implications of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act on sex workers.

SESTA and FOSTA are a set of bills signed into law by President Donald Trump that took effect on April 11, 2018. The bills seek to limit sex trafficking by making it illegal for websites to provide a platform where sex workers can advertise.

The interactive presentation was held in the Women’s Resource Center at PSU as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The two speakers—April Kusters from student legal services and Adrienne Graf from the PSU School of Social Work—gave a broad overview of SESTA and FOSTA during their presentation.

Both speakers argued the bills’ continued criminalization of sex work as more harmful than helpful to sex workers and the sex work profession.

According to Kusters and Graf, websites such as Backpage—used by sex workers to advertise and screen potential clients—were immediately shut down after the implementation of SESTA and FOSTA. Websites such as Craigslist and Tumblr were forced to remove all sections of their sites that could potentially be used for sex work.

Before the bills took effect, websites like Backpage were protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a piece of internet legislation that stated websites are not responsible for content published by users on their platforms.

SESTA and FOSTA created an exception to this rule, declaring websites are responsible for third parties publishing ads for sex work on their sites.

Websites like Backpage provided a rating system for sex workers. The system allowed users to screen and identify potentially dangerous or unwanted clients. The website also allowed sex workers to work independently and from their own homes.

Kusters and Graf criticized SESTA and FOSTA throughout the presentation for the ramifications sex workers have already begun to experience because of the two bills.  

According to Kusters and Graf, the bills make it more difficult for sex workers to safely work online, forcing them to migrate to the streets.

“St. James Infirmary Clinic was tracking data right after SESTA/FOSTA went into effect,” Graf said. “After Backpage and some other websites were taken down, within a month there were around 20 workers that previously had done indoor sex work, now doing outdoor sex work, that went missing or were murdered,” Graf said.

Graf also said not all sex work-related advertisements have been removed from the internet. She pointed out the bills disproportionately affect members of marginalized communities.

“There are still tons of sites that are up and running, most of them you have to pay to be a part of,” Graf said. “They’re very exclusive. They tend to be for white, cisgender women—people that fit into dominant beauty standards, people that don’t live in fat bodies.”

Graf continued saying the hierarchy of oppression still exists in the sex industry the same way it exists elsewhere.  

“The majority of those sites are still operational, but the sites that were more accessible are down,” she said. “It disproportionately affects more vulnerable workers.”

Citing an Amnesty International Paper that collected information from anti-trafficking organizations and sex workers rights activists from around the world, Graf said “decriminalization is the only thing that supports the human rights of people that are trafficked, and people that are sex workers.”

At the end of their presentation, Kusters and Graf took questions and comments from the audience. Attendees already familiar with the bills voiced their concerns for the system allowing sex trafficking to continue, as the bill does not differentiate between kinds of sex work.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the United States Department of Justice have spoken out against provisions in the bill that would potentially make sex work more unsafe.  

Kusters and Graf provided a string of examples of people whose lives have been torn apart by criminalizing sex work. “I feel very critical that criminalization is the main way that we approach this conversation,” Graf said. “I am an advocate for decriminalization.”