Sex workers in Portland and across the country are continuing to grapple with the consequences of two controversial anti-sex trafficking bills that sailed through Congress and were signed in April 2018 by President Donald Trump.
The House bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, along with its sister bill in the Senate, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, have been touted by advocates as a way to give states and victims greater power in taking down websites that facilitate human trafficking.
SESTA received widespread support from politicians and celebrities, including a PSA starring Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers. It passed the Senate easily, in a near unanimous vote where only Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Oregon’s own Ron Wyden dissented.
Even in the time leading up to its signing, SESTA’s influence could be felt, with Craigslist shuttering its personal ads section on March 22 and popular classified advertisement website Backpage being seized by U.S. authorities on April 6. Both sites were often characterized by anti-human trafficking groups as popular hubs for traffickers.
Despite this broad base of support, many advocacy groups and commercial sex workers have argued that the bill does very little to quell sex trafficking, instead making it more difficult and dangerous to work independently as a sex worker.
SESTA changed the wording of Section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act, a landmark piece of legislation for free speech on the internet that gave websites protection from what their users chose to post. That protection no longer extends to full service sex work.
“Calling it the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act is a misnomer,” said Adrienne Graf, a professor of social work at Portland State.
Graf worked as a confidential sexual and domestic violence advocate at PSU’s Women’s Resource Center for nine years, and in that time established the Student Sex Worker Outreach Project.
“Personally this topic is really important to me because I’ve been in a community of sex workers and people in the commercial sex trades for the past 15 or so years,” Graf said. “I have friends and community in the whole range of the sex trade, including stripping, dancing, porn performing, online sex work and full service sex work.”
AJ, a local full service sex worker who has been in the industry for almost three and a half years, said she has seen firsthand what SESTA has done to the local sex trade. “I’m a 50-year-old woman trying to make a living, and now it’s harder for people with less career options.”
After the passage of SESTA, many sex workers are being forced back onto the street, AJ said.
The risk of violence is much higher when the sex worker is soliciting outdoors, especially if the worker is a transgender woman or woman of color.
“I hope I don’t have to keep pursuing people, because there’s a danger in that,” said Chloe, a woman who has been in the escort industry for around six months. “What is beneficial about being online is you can screen people, and you can get to know them a little better than if you were just out on 82nd.”
Chloe offers only outcall services, meaning she only meets her customers at locations determined by the client beforehand.
“I could walk into a hotel room, and there could be five people waiting for me,” Chloe said. “Thank god that’s never happened, but when you do outcalls you’re going to people’s homes, going to motels and really just hoping for the best.”
Many groups that supported SESTA oppose sex work of any kind, including the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a conservative non-profit organization that has in the past condemned the K-12 information site EBSCO for allowing kids to, “search for information about sexual terms.”
NCOSE’s website states they are, “the leading national organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation such as child sexual abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking and the public health crisis of pornography.”
From 2009–10, Craigslist had a section of its website dedicated to the advertisement of sex. First known as “Erotic Services,” the section switched its name to “Adult Services” before shutting down altogether in Sept. 2010.
A 2017 study conducted by professors from both Baylor University and West Virginia University found that after the erotic services section was created, it reduced the rate of female homicides in America by 17.4 percent.
Full service sex workers are at higher risk of being killed than any other predominantly female occupation in America, and Craigslist’s decision saved approximately 2,150 lives, according to an estimate by Huffington Post.
With many of their platforms being seized, sex workers have had to resort to other avenues to find clients. Some have created full websites complete with photos, contact information and going rates for services offered. Some of these websites are run through offshore servers to avoid jurisdictional issues.
Graf said a carceral approach that attempts to stop trafficking through criminalizing sex work is misguided. “If we actually want to stop trafficking, we have to address racism, poverty, houselessness,” she said. “And the foster care system, which is one of the largest traffickers of young people and where a lot of sexual violence occurs.”
‘“I absolutely believe they should go after traffickers,” Chloe said. “But we’re talking about consenting adults and there’s no safety net for women in this line of work. We’re out here. We’re human. I’m a real person with a family. But people group us together like we’re all just whores and drug addicts and that’s not true.”
“It isn’t popular to look at the sex trade outside of a lens of exploitation, which is really problematic,” Graf said. “Even on a college campus, the information available on the sex trade is normally about trafficking specifically.”
Aside from safety concerns, local sex workers impacted by SESTA have also had a harder time making ends meet.
“SESTA has more than halved my business,” AJ said.
“It’s more difficult to find my services and its taking away many of my resources,” said Allie, a sensual massage therapist who has been offering full body rubs for about 10 years. “There are less avenues to put ads up online. It doesn’t matter if it’s body rubs, fetish or escort services. Everyone is struggling.”
For information on how you can help, or for support for student sex workers, contact or visit PSU’s Women’s Resource Center.