Talking FOSTA-SESTA at the FCAA Spring Funder Forum

As FCAA’s most recent data spotlight points out, sex workers are at 13 times greater risk of contracting HIV than the general population. This is due to a number of factors – greater economic vulnerability, the inability to negotiate for protected sex through condom use, and the experience of violence, criminalization, and marginalization. In July 2018, a set of new bills signed into law in the United States – the House bill known as FOSTA, (the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), and the Senate bill, SESTA, (the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) – added further complication.

The results of this ill-informed policy were the topic of FCAA’s recent Spring Funder Forum. A dynamic panel of speakers – including three activists involved in the sex worker rights movement – helped to paint the very complicated, deeply concerning picture that has developed since the passing of FOSTA-SESTA.

FOSTA-SESTA legislation makes it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate or support sex trafficking, specifically by removing the immunity that online services previously had from the activities their sites were being used for. This has led to the elimination of web platforms previously used by sex workers to advertise and vet their clients, and to ensure a safer work environment. Though the law was purportedly intended to curb illegal sex trafficking in the U.S., it has elevated risks for those engaged in consensual sex work.

 The panel views the bill as a politically motivated assault on sex workers’ human rights and an effort to deny services fundamental to their survival. Tamika Spellman, Policy and Advocacy Associate for HIPS, explained how the law directly affects people’s livelihoods and puts them in danger.

“Favorite online avenues that people would advertise on (such as Facebook, Reddit, and Craig’s List) are gone,” she said. “Some exist, but require bank accounts, which a lot of people don’t have. Even if you do have one, it’s way more expensive.”

As a result, there has been as much as an 85% increase of sex workers on the streets where safety is a critical concern. Those doing street-based sex work are less able to negotiate for safe sex practices, greatly increasing the risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. In addition, they are more vulnerable to violence and theft.

Before FOSTA-SESTA went into effect, sex workers used online forums not only to advertise, but also to post information about clients, identifying those that might be violent or likely to steal. Such safe guards are no longer allowable.

“The online avenues to screen clients have been removed. The messaging boards where you talk about bad clients have been removed,” said Tamika.

The safety found in community also has been compromised.  Sex workers who work in pairs or groups for added safety, can now be subject to trafficking charges under the new laws.

“We used to work in pairs or groups,” explained Cecilia Gentile, Principal at Trans Equity Consulting and an active member of the Decrim NY coalition. “Now, people are doing sex work in isolation. And isolation equals danger.”

Furthermore, the law is not alleviating the problems it intended to solve.

“It’s not reaching industries where there are significantly more people being trafficked such as construction, farm labor, and hotels,” said Tamika.

The panel suggested that one of the most effective ways for funders to help mitigate the impact of FOSTA-SESTA is by supporting the exciting work being done within the sex worker community. Such efforts include working to address stigma and discrimination and increasing access to vital services. There are also efforts underway to make it easier for sex workers trying to report police violence.

Panelist Liaam Winselt, Operations Officer with Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo in Queens, also served as a Fellow with the Third Wave Fund’s Sex Worker Giving Circle, the first sex worker-led fund housed at a U.S. foundation. Prior to the Fund’s launch, only $1.5 mil in HIV-related philanthropy addressed the needs and rights of sex workers in the U.S., and only a portion of that supported capacity and leadership development of sex worker populations.  In fact, much of organizing and rights-based work among the sex worker community is often self-funded, through sex work, and the ability to self-organize and self-fund is also further under attack under FOSTA-SESTA.

Importantly, this is an area where a small amount of funding can be leveraged for enormous impact. Decrim NY, for example, currently receives no revenue; their work – including travel, food and meeting expenses – is entirely self-funded.

Yet, despite no funding support, Decrim NY already has introduced two bills in the state assembly – one aimed at expanding the relief available for human trafficking victims who have criminal records resulting from their victimization and another looking to repeal the loitering for the purposes of prostitution law. In talking about her efforts to put these bills forth, Cecilia mused: “A trans Latina sex worker with a history of being undocumented is sitting at a table with two senators talking about changing a law. Is that not amazing?”

Amazing, yes. And hopefully a glimpse into the future of the sex worker health and rights movement.

FCAA also highlights that this panel was powerful because it featured three transgender women of color speaking from their lived experiences. This should not be a unique experience in philanthropy, and we all have a role to ensure the voices and perspectives of sex workers, the transgender community and transgender women of color specifically, continue to be a part of discussions on policies, funding and programs that impact their lives and work.  We encourage you to listen to the recording of this session to learn from them directly.