Who will be harmed by this “Sex Trafficking” Legislation?

On Wednesday March 21, 2018, the US Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, the counterpart to the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act that passed the House last month. The legislation is now headed to Trump for signature.

While the titles of the bills would lead the general public to believe that this legislation is to protect “victims of sex trafficking,” the intent is to shutter “websites that promote and facilitate prostitution.” Section § 2421A of the house bill, for example, states that “Whoever uses or operates a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or attempts to do so with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.” An aggravated offense in regards to any entity that “promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons” is tied to 25 years imprisonment. This legislation intends to target online venues where sex workers are thought to advertise.

A couple of weeks ago in a conversation with several advocates for the rights of sex workers, it was noted that we still do not know how this legislation will be implemented and that is even more worrisome. While it is true that not all is known, based on all the history of the implementation of criminalizing legislation pertaining to “sex trafficking” and anything relating to sex work, the following pattern emerges.

  1. Law enforcement efforts to implement this legislation will focus on people of color, specifically African Americans, routing them into jails and prisons. Low income women of color will face the harsh penalties associated with “facilitating” prostitution. To read more about how this has happened before, pick up a copy of Invisible No More by Andrea Ritchie.
  2. Transgender people, specifically transgender women of color, will be targeted with law enforcement efforts. The spaces where transgender people of color congregate online for any reason will be policed and in some situations transgender women will be misgendered as men in order to facilitate their arrest and demonization. This is already happening, as per observations made by Monica Jones, about the closing of sites since the passage of the legislation.
  3. These new laws will be used to police and surveil immigrants, leading to their deportation under the guise of ending sex trafficking.

The work for us now as advocates for the rights of sex workers and for the rights of trans people and other communities targeted by law enforcement, is to bring our knowledge of how racism, xenophobia and transphobia fuels the implementation of this kind of legislation. And to be ready to support those who almost certainly will be harmed. People of color, trans people, immigrants, young people and sex workers of color.