Sex workers gain foothold in Congress

Sex workers have gained the backing of a small group of Democratic lawmakers after largely being shut out of the policymaking process.

The turning point was the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), also referred to as SESTA after the original Senate bill, which was framed as a way to punish online platforms facilitating trafficking and abuse but was broadly opposed by the very industry it was meant to help.

Despite the best efforts of sex workers to dissuade lawmakers, the bill passed through both chambers easily and was signed by then-President Trump in 2018.

“It was not just that their perspective was discarded. Their perspective wasn’t even heard. They were considered almost untouchable in the Capitol,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who is pushing a bill designed to study the effects of FOSTA-SESTA.

Sex worker advocate organizations and congressional staffers who spoke with The Hill said that stigma was one of the primary factors keeping those voices sidelined.

“No politician wants to or until very recently wanted to be seen as facilitating sex work or encouraging sex work,” said Mike Stabile, director of public affairs at the Free Speech Coalition, an adult industry trade association. 

Khanna told The Hill that his colleagues “didn’t even want to take meetings because of the possible images or pictures” with sex workers that could have been taken.

Stigma also hurts organizations’ funding because consumers of pornography are “embarrassed” to publicly back them, says sex worker and writer Cathy Reisenwitz.

Tight funds have left sex worker organizations with minimal capacity to put pressure on lawmakers on the ground in Washington.

“There are no lobbyists. … There’s more people who are engaging in federal legislation, but we’re all still kind of working on spit and duct tape here,” Kate D’Adamo, a sex worker rights activist and partner at Reframe Health and Justice, told The Hill. 

Some organizations have narrowed their efforts to sympathetic lawmakers to make up for the lack of resources.

Mary Moody, a founding board member at the Adult Industry Laborers & Artists Association, met with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) office earlier this year. The Massachusetts lawmaker is the Senate lead on the FOSTA-SESTA study bill and has met with sex worker groups in the past.

“We were able to discuss issues impacting workers, how legislation around Section 230 and like SESTA-FOSTA can cause harm and ask them to commit to keeping an open line of communication on future issues,” Moody told The Hill, referring to the 1996 law that protects online platforms from liability for content posted by third parties.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also became more aware of sex worker concerns during the debate over FOSTA-SESTA and has kept in touch with the organizations since.

“Sex workers sit at the intersection of a lot of important, but exceedingly difficult, issues surrounding law enforcement, gender, race and speech,” he said in a statement. “When Congress makes policy that affects any of those concerns, it would be malpractice not to take their voices into consideration.”

The sex worker community has been particularly vocal on internet regulation proposals, especially as many of them have had to rely on online revenue streams during the pandemic. FOSTA-SESTA’s carved out an exception in Section 230, a mechanism that several recent bills have borrowed.

Advocates did hours of outreach last year to try to slow down the EARN IT Act, a bill championed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that would make exceptions under Section 230 protections for child sexual abuse material.

Concerned that the threat of lawsuits would dissuade platforms from hosting any adult content at all, they worked to get lawmakers and experts to address the root causes of exploitation such as insufficient health services and excessive criminalization, according to D’Adamo.

Sex workers also organized earlier this year against Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) SAFE TECH Act over fear that it would lead platforms to censor their content. 

Adult industry organizations are also active at the state level and have had some recent successes.

Maxine Doogan, a working prostitute, launched the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project in California in 2008 after a San Francisco ballot measure to decriminalize prostitution failed. 

The group has since successfully blocked multiple ballot initiatives in California and pushed for reforms in other states such as Alaska, which passed a measure in 2017 that gives immunity to sex workers who report dangerous crimes from being cited for prostitution.

One of the roadblocks for sex workers both in states and at the federal level has been a collection organizations including the anti-trafficking group Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), formerly known as Morality in Media.

These groups, according to sex workers who spoke with The Hill, overstate the risk of trafficking and weaponize that sentiment to demonize and threaten the porn industry.

“Their approach, which has been very successful, has been to oversimplify and exaggerate the extent of the problem,” added Jeremy Malcolm, the executive director of the Prostasia Foundation, which seeks to take an evidence-based approach to reducing the harms of sex trafficking.

The groups have also been successful at pulling in funding — the Justice Department gave NCOSE a $240,000 grant in 2020 to research the sex trade — and influencing Congress. 

For example, Laila Mickelwait, the founder of the Exodus Cry-backed campaign to shut down Pornhub, Traffickinghub, appeared before the House Financial Services Committee earlier this year. 

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) cited reporting relying heavily on the campaign when introducing the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act, which sex workers have said could be the death knell of their industry.

Counteracting those forces and stabilizing the adult industry’s foothold in Congress will take more time and work from sex workers, their organizations and the small cadre of lawmakers in their corner.

Khanna told The Hill that one step in that process is passing the FOSTA-SESTA study bill, which those lawmakers are working to persuade key colleagues on before reintroducing this Congress.

“We need the study in the bill,” he said. “But the issue is about overcoming the stigma, it’s about getting people who are on the margins of society a voice. The legislation is just a vehicle towards trying to accomplish that.”

Tags Ben Sasse Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Jeff Merkley Lindsey Graham Mark Warner Ro Khanna Ron Wyden Section 230 sex workers
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