Shutdown of Sex Sites Puts Lives at Risk, say Indigenous Women

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Native American pottery designed by Donna Featherstone. Photo by Zyg Zee via Flickr

A law signed by President Donald Trump this spring to curb sex trafficking has created new risks for sex workers in tribal lands, Native American women and advocates said Thursday.

The women, speaking on Native America Calling, a live call-in program dedicated to issues specific to Native communities, charged that the so-called FOSTA-SESTA legislation has made life more “dangerous” for sex workers—and has left Native American women especially vulnerable.

“The intention sounds positive, but the impact that [the law] has on people who are being trafficked and on sex workers is pretty negative,” said Becki Jones, a sexual health educator for Planned Parenthood of The Rocky Mountains, and a member of the Diné tribe.

The House bill known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Senate bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which were combined into a single package, were welcomed by some groups as a victory for sex trafficking victims.

But, said Jones, FOSTA-SESTA’s restrictions on commercial sex sites effectively removed sex workers ability to “screen for particular clients that might be super violent.”

By shutting down what amounted to protective online resources for sex workers, the measures in effect closed off a source of networking and mutual aid for women whose occupations often left them victims to violent predators.

The show’s guests said many Native American women turned to sex work because of the scarce opportunities for other work in a climate where tribal values largely empower men.

With few other work options open to women, they said sex work deserves legal protection and must be de-stigmatized.

“The stigma is definitely hard to talk about and combat,” said Jones. “I hear it in the classroom, too. One way I can combat and stand up for sex workers is to help squash myths (such as) talking about how sex workers are ‘dirty,’ or have unprotected sex, when in general a lot of sex workers take really good care of themselves, of their bodies, and of their health.

The central intention of the law is to crack down on online prostitution rings. Its supporters claim that one key measurement of success will be its ability to reduce female homicide rates resulting from Craigslist personals ads.

Nonetheless, participants in the Native America Calling program said, the law has also had the consequence of forcing sex workers to revert to street walking and other high-risk methods of the sex trade.

“There are not a lot of resources for sex workers, and a lot of law enforcement were getting tips from these websites, as well,” said Jones.

Online sex work allows a worker to screen the individual requesting sex, and gives the worker the agency of selecting her client, rather than being forced to accept any and all requests, she said.

Until the passage in April of FOSTA-SESTA, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act ensured that user-generated content that was posted to websites was not the legal responsibility of the website to police.

Now, under the FOSTA-SESTA laws, websites themselves are responsible for such content. Many websites have thus deleted sexual classified ads and services, consensual or not.

“These new laws are completely dangerous,” said Cheyenne Antonio, another Diné, who is Sex Trafficking Program Coordinator of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, and an advocate of legalizing prostitution.

“Sex work is a human right, and the criminalization of sex work was the root of the problem.”

However, none of the guests on show said they would advise or encourage a young person to enter the sex industry.

“The only reason that sex work is more dangerous is because it’s not legally protected,” said Alex Trujillo (of the Diné and Laguna Pueblo), and a trans sex worker.

“There are no laws in place to protect sex workers, and if we face violence we can’t go to the police because prostitution is illegal. We’re being murdered as trans women at really fast rates.”

Alex was raped in high school, and after graduating she became a sex worker.

“My sisters are having to go back to pimps,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking, and this bill has messed up our lives in ways you can’t imagine.”

Trujillo spoke about the importance of philosophically distinguishing between selling yourself and selling a service.

“It’s like any other form of labor,” she said. “I feel like if we separate selling yourself from selling a service; that’s really important because selling yourself is dehumanizing, but that’s not what sex workers are doing.”

The distinction between sex workers and victims of sex trafficking was a distinction that the program’s guests were eager to point out, as part of raising awareness around sex work and to humanize those who work in the sex industry.

“This bill was put in place by rich white men, and when I was doing in-person escorting, that was 90 percent of my clientele,” said Trujillo. “I feel like the reason this has been done is because if it was legalized there would be ways to trace it back to see, oh, this person paid for sex work.”

Antonio wrapped up the program by describing her organization and the importance of having a conversation with sex workers about what screening “looks like now that we can’t practice sex work online.”

The organization does street outreach, but Jones said more services are needed, such as “drop-in centers, condoms…we need to share as many resources as we can and maintain our visibility on the streets.”

The full program can be accessed here.

In an earlier program, Native American transgender inmates revealed abuses they had suffered since the Trump Administration reversed measures aimed at helping them avoid discrimination behind bars.

John Ramsey is a news intern for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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