The Senate will vote this week on a bill that could force websites such as Craigslist and Backpage.com to banish sex work ads from their platforms. The measure holds companies liable for any content related to sex trafficking, and it has the backing of feminist politicians and celebrities. But critics say it conflates victims of sex trafficking with women who voluntarily work in the sex industry ― and puts both groups in danger.
A bill similar to the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) easily passed the House in February.
There are statistics to back up the link between online platforms and sex worker safety. A 2017 paper by Baylor University economics professor Scott Cunningham and colleagues found that after Craigslist created an “erotic services” section, the rate of female homicides in U.S. cities fell by 17 percent (excluding crimes in which the victim knew her killer, such as domestic violence). The researchers concluded that sex workers who advertised online spent less time on the streets, where they were more likely to face dangerous situations.
HuffPost spoke with Cunningham, who has studied sex work for 10 years, about how SESTA could push more sex trafficking victims and sex workers into darker corners of the web and onto the streets.
What led to your research on the link between Craigslist and sex work safety?
I did a survey in 2008 that found online platforms were helping sex workers screen clients through references and email correspondences. That research seemed to be extremely important for thinking about sex workers’ safety. Prostitutes have the highest homicide rates of any female occupation in the country. They have been targeted by serial killers, violent men, and they are viewed as disposable, as people nobody will miss.
How did Craigslist ads ― specifically those posted in the now-defunct erotic services section ― reduce the number of sex workers who are killed by such a drastic amount?
We mainly found evidence of street prostitutes moving indoors. Online platforms allow them to find one another without having to work for a pimp or an agency or having to be outside on the streets. And if they are soliciting clients through email or online messaging, they are probably corresponding with them and trying to get a sense of whether this guy’s shady or not. Outside, women are in situations where they have to make split-second decisions. And there are so many environmental risks. This technology puts tools in their hands. It keeps them considerably safer and could potentially save their lives.
Why was the erotic services section of Craigslist shut down?
Craigslist voluntarily shut it down in 2010. Even though the company was protected under a section of the Communications Decency Act ― which gives websites legal immunity from user posts, though that would be compromised under SESTA ― I think the harassment they were getting from law enforcement and politicians was just not worth it. Instead the ads went into all the other sections of the Craigslist back pages, such as “women seeking men” and “men seeking women,” and onto other platforms, such as Backpage.com.
Proponents of SESTA say this bill will reduce the number of women forced into sex work by holding online platforms liable for any sex trafficking ads posted to their site. Based on your research, what’s wrong with this logic?
I think that probably people overestimate the prevalence of sex trafficking. I think when you really do give a critical eye to that academic literature, it sucks. It shouldn’t even be published in peer-reviewed journals. So you end up with a lot of anecdotes, and those anecdotes don’t tell you about the prevalence of the problem. There’s lots of embellishment. I think there’s a tremendous amount of voluntary sex work, and I believe it’s the majority of the market. But if you conflate voluntary sex work with sex trafficking, this liability involves all of the sex work ads. Part of what’s going on in this bill is basically to treat all sex work as the same thing.
Why is voluntary sex work conflated with sex trafficking?
There is a group of activists who say all prostitution is sex trafficking. They find prostitution morally repugnant, and they can’t understand why people would do this. So that’s a philosophical argument, which says this type of work cannot involve free agency. But if you talk to sex workers, many simply say, “This is fundamentally false. I chose to do this.” And why do people choose to do jobs? Well, that’s another question. Lots of people work in jobs that they don’t necessarily like because they don’t have better options. In this bill, activists have been successful in painting prostitution as a one-dimensional evil that completely disregards the voices of many women who do this voluntarily.
What effect could this bill have on the safety of voluntary sex workers?
It could disrupt the ability of voluntary sex workers to screen their clients and work indoors. If Backpage.com, for example, is held liable for a trafficked ad being on its website, what will the company do? If the liability is large, it will shut down the platform. If Backpage.com doesn’t exist, where will sex work advertisements go? They will they go to places much more difficult to police, like the dark web or to international companies that have no incentive whatsoever to work with national police departments. I know economists working with dozens of law enforcement [agencies] using machine-learning algorithms to help identify trafficked women online. If online ads for sex trafficking are being funneled through one platform, such as Backpage.com, at least you know where they are.
So it sounds like the bill could put victims of sex trafficking at risk, too?
At the end of a day, a violent male or a serial killer is going to be just as happy killing a trafficked person as they are a non-trafficked person. When we did our study, all we can say is female homicides fell 17 percent as a result of Craigslist ads. What percent of these women were trafficked victims? What percent were voluntary sex workers? We don’t know. But any bill that makes it more difficult to screen clients and work indoors means higher risk for trafficked or voluntary sex workers.
Why haven’t activists and policymakers paid more attention to this research?
This bill claims to be all about sex trafficking, but it seems to have a deep ignorance about how these markets work and a deep ignorance about the benefits of these technologies.
The people who support it don’t know about the client screening, they don’t know about the movement indoors and they don’t know that women are using these online platforms in order to avoid danger. They don’t know or they don’t care.
Though I’ve been doing this research for 10 years, all you have to do is go out and ask sex workers how important these online platforms are for their safety. It’s the voluntary sex workers you just don’t hear about in this conversation. They don’t have a union, they aren’t collectively mobilized and they are vulnerable. They have no voice.