Some consider the commodification of sexual services inherently wrong, something that ought to be abolished outright.
The popular imagination typically pits feminism and free speech advocacy against each other. But in reality, they often align. The new SESTA-FOSTA bill is a case in point. Both feminists and free speech advocates should strongly oppose this law, and for closely related reasons.
Let’s start with some basic factual information. FOSTA (the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), which incorporates parts of the Senate’s earlier SESTA bill (the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) was signed into law on April 11th. This bill makes website owners liable to both criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits, reversing section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which previously limited their liability. In response, many web service providers are pre-emptively shutting down speech about sex.
As a result, sex workers (including the trafficked women the laws were supposedly designed to protect) are silenced in harmful ways. Web service provides are closing venues where they once screened their clients, or discussed health and safety issues among themselves, and many are self-censoring.
The most high-profile case concerns Backpage, a classified ad site that was seized by the FBI and shut down shortly before SESTA-FOSTA was signed into law. Backpage’s executives are certainly not heroes; they were already under investigation for money laundering, creating offshore shell companies, and systematically editing ads to cover up illegal activities (including both consensual sex work and trafficking), according to a Senate report.
Nonetheless, the closure of Backpage is harming sex workers. Those who used Backpage to find and screen clients now face the choice of working under more dangerous conditions, or losing their livelihoods altogether.
SESTA-FOSTA threatens to chip away not just at the speech of sex workers, but at the sexual speech of everyone: Craigslist has shut down its entire ‘personals’ section, and even a niche dating site for furries has closed down for fear of lawsuits.
This legislation was mostly driven by political forces outside the walls of the academy. But in our small way, feminist academics have been complicit in creating the conditions that allowed this to happen. In philosophy academia, there is a large literature on pornography which encourages confusion about the relationship between sex work and speech.
Much of the pornography literature centers on the question of whether pornography harms women by silencing them. Following the terminology of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, many philosophers use the word “pornography” as a quasi-technical term for depictions of sex that subordinate women. This terminology encourages harmful conflations—between bad working conditions on porn sets and the depiction of sexist content; between consensual sex work and the rape/abuse of sex workers; between sexually explicit media and misogynistic media. Furthermore, the focus on whether pornography silences women obscures the fact that censoring sex workers is a common and pernicious form of silencing. Individual philosophers may avoid making false claims by carefully drawing the right distinctions in the right places, but the terms of the debate encourage confusion.
The best way forward is to amplify the voices of sex workers in philosophical conversations about sex work. You can start by browsing Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), Tits and Sass, The Black Sex Worker Collective, and Survivors Against SESTA. You can also support sex workers who have been harmed by SESTA-FOSTA by donating to one of the initiatives recommended here.