FOSTA: you’re hurting the people you want to help

On paper, FOSTA was supposed to be about protecting people like me. During 2017, when the proposed law was still called SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), I was 17 years old and performing sex work online. I was above the age of consent for sex in my state and was never “trafficked”; I worked independently and made all my own decisions. But under federal law I was still considered a minor, and a victim of sex trafficking. Helping people in exactly my position had been the original selling point of the law.

Under its new name, FOSTA (for Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) finally became law in April 2018, a month before I turned 18. By this time SESTA’s original focus on minors had been quietly dropped, and its real agenda had been unmasked. Under an expansive definition of “sex trafficking,” FOSTA could see Internet companies penalized for facilitating any sort of commercial sexual services, regardless of the age of the sex worker, and whether or not they identified a trafficking victim.

I don’t identify as a victim, I identify as a powerful young woman who uses not only her body, but also her intelligence and her emotions to further herself in life and to make other people happy. But that’s not to say that sex work was smooth sailing for me, particularly when I was at an age that the law (and, to be honest, most other sex workers) consider too young for such work. I did have clients who were abusive, and who made me wish I had somewhere I could turn for help and advice.

Turning to the law wasn’t an option that I considered before FOSTA, and it isn’t one that I would consider afterwards. For young sex workers, and particularly for queer women of color like myself, the legal system is seen as more of a threat than a refuge. Had I turned to the law for help, being arrested and outed to friends and family would have been a best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, it’s no exaggeration to say that I might have been raped or even killed.

Instead, my best options for obtaining help and support were from my peers. In the years that I worked online before FOSTA, thriving and supportive communities of camgirls, kinksters, sugar babies, and full service sex workers were able to communicate safely and anonymously with each other. We could also connect with the respectful clients that we chose to engage with, and to block and warn others about those that we chose not to.

To be honest, as a headstrong and already defiantly sexual 17 years old, I wouldn’t have listened to any do-gooder who tried to convince me to stop doing sex work because it was “wrong” or because I was being “abused”—even if I was. In that sense, a law like FOSTA was always doomed to fail. Teenagers may be impetuous and overconfident, but they will always find a way to get around the restrictions that adults seek to place on their sexuality.

On the other hand, I did listen to my peers, and I learned from them. For many of us, there wasn’t a clear separation between our working lives, our sex lives, and the art and fiction that we shared and enjoyed for pleasure. Many of us began our journey by following other young queer and kinky people, picking up safety tips and information about sexual health and pleasure, long before we ever considered turning our sexuality into a business.

Following FOSTA, the channels that we used to use for this type of self-discovery, sharing and support are vanishing one by one. And it isn’t just a safe channel for sex work that is vanishing along with them—it’s everything else that went along with it. Sex positive validation for LGBTQ+ teens—gone. Information about consent and STIs—gone. Art and fiction that young teens could use for pleasure before becoming sexually active—gone. Tips about risk aware consensual kink—gone.

I agree with the motivations that many of the grassroots supporters of FOSTA thought that they had by supporting this harmful law. There are ways of supporting young people who find themselves drawn towards sex work, but it is not through the kind of “help” that FOSTA provides, which has only resulted in censorship of the kind of information that those young people would find most helpful.

What young sex workers need is to be empowered to form safe, empowered, and self-supporting communities of their own. In such communities, brash young teens who really are too young to enter into sex work can be gently convinced of this by their peers, rather than by being exposed to the violence of a police state that would see them institutionalized, or to moralistic preaching from those who promote “abstinence only” as a viable sex education message.

The kind of communities that we need are the kind of communities that we had before FOSTA came along, and FOSTA has destroyed them. If FOSTA was meant to save people like me from abuse, it has accomplished exactly the opposite of what it set out to do. But we haven’t yet seen the full extent of its failure. I fear for young people who find themselves as I was—curious, horny, rebellious, and broke—before FOSTA became law.

Today, teens like me will be pushed into shadowy dark corners of the Internet, perhaps even to the dark web, where the worst and most vicious child pornography is shared. They will even more become vulnerable to extortion and predation. If they hope to make money at all, they may be pushed onto the streets, where they will become prey for organized criminals.

I believe that sex work by adults ought to be safe, and that it ought to be legal. Only when this becomes the case, and when we again have safe online spaces where we can talk about sex work in a supportive and positive environment, will minors truly be kept safer from sex trafficking and sexual abuse.

The photograph used to illustrate this testimonial is a stock image.

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