Opinion: Australian sex workers respond to FOSTA SESTA

The impact of the US FOSTA SESTA law has been felt all over the world. Source: SBS

A recently introduced law in the US radically changed the way sex workers conduct business and increased threat to their personal safety. The effect of the law has rippled out to sex industries all over the world, including Australia.

In April 2018 a bill was passed into law in the US known as FOSTA SESTA. The aim was to curb sex trafficking on online personals sites like Backpage- a popular site for posting ads, especially for sex work, but also for sex trafficking. Previously Backpage and other websites could not be held responsible for sex trafficking content posted by their users, but now due to FOSTA SESTA - they can.

The law allows greater policing of these sites and opens them up to lawsuits from trafficking survivors. However, language of the law is tenuous, penalising all websites that ‘promote or facilitate prostitution’ meaning a lot of sex-related content and websites are disappearing and sex workers around the world using US-based sites are being cut off - including in Australia.

Cameron Cox, from the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) tells us how Australian sex workers have been hit by FOSTA SESTA, and how they’re finding ways to recover.

The recently introduced FOSTA SESTA has been a disaster for American sex workers. United States sex worker organisations are reporting that the instant removal of the only (and only partial) safety systems that US sex workers had painstakingly developed over any years has led to significant acts of violence, and in some cases the deaths of United States sex workers. This is of course in addition to the instant destruction of the business models of most sex workers causing in many cases total loss of income and sex workers’ abilities to support themselves and their families.

The impact of this legislation on Australian sex workers was just as instant, but fortunately not as severe, although SWOP received many reports of increased violence being experienced by local sex workers.

It should be a wakeup call for all Australians that a law passed in another country, could have such an immediate and devastating impact here in Australia.

Overnight local sex workers lost the key places we advertised and our online profiles where we vetted clients for safety, and consequently many of us lost our incomes. SWOP experienced an increase in requests from sex workers for information and support and these requests were from all corners of the industry.

As well as working with NSW sex workers to assist their response to FOSTA SESTA , at SWOP we had to consider the impact these laws might have on our ability to continue as a health education organisation, as in the United States other SWOP organisations were closing their outreach operations as a result of the legislation.

Personally, I was appalled by the FOSTA SESTA legislation on many levels. Anyone with any even a peripheral experience of the intersection of criminality and sex work knows that the criminal law is a blunt, ineffective and always counterproductive and FOSTA SESTA has now proved to have worked against its own goals. As well as having a completely disproportionate and negative impact on sex workers FOSTA SESTA also rolls back a fundamental protection of free speech on the internet that existed under the US Safe Harbors legislation. It removes the ability of sex workers to have even partial control of safety in their workplaces, as well as their ability to work.

The response of sex workers both in Australia around the globe was rapid and amazing.

Sex workers organised almost instantly to protect themselves and their community. Sex workers and many sex work businesses supported those who had been most severely affected. Sex workers proved to be adaptable and resilient and benefited from being a tech savvy, early adopting work force. Sex workers’ strong global networks also came into play, as we scrambled to find web hosts in countries with robust privacy laws comparatively insulated from US law and with better legislation than the US regarding sex work.

Unlike other Australian industries – most recently our strawberry farmers – local sex workers received no Government bailout to protect our business interests when these American laws crashed down upon us unaware. While our politicians were quick to encourage people to feel confident about purchasing the beleaguered berries, they were conspicuously silent when it came to supporting our decriminalised sex industry as it was battered by these offshore laws.

Luckily we’re used to making do ourselves, and from the ashes of these American advertising sites rose our first sex worker owned and run classified website ‘Crockor,’ and though business was initially slow to rebuild, local sex workers restored client confidence themselves. 

Cameron Cox is the CEO at Sex Worker Outreach Project in NSW.