February 7, 2020
Dear Senators Warren and Wyden and Representatives Khanna and Lee:
We are women’s rights and human rights activists, children’s rights advocates, leaders in the field of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, feminists, and survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution. We write regarding your proposed bill, the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, mandating a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study on the effects of the 2018 law Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA) on individuals who engage in “consensual transactional sex,” i.e. prostitution. You list a number of organizations as proof of support for this bill, but the undersigned were not consulted by your respective offices.
First, what is most puzzling about your bill is that it illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both federal and state laws. Just 21 months ago, 97 Senators voted in favor of FOSTA- SESTA, which passed 388-25 in the House of Representatives. In light of the years-long fruitless court battles against Backpage.com and other online sex trafficking platforms, FOSTA-SESTA was enacted to hold accountable websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking and promote prostitution (whose federal definition is pimping) and to allow victims who were sex trafficked online to sue the websites that enabled such crime. While FOSTA-SESTA has indeed had an impact on disrupting the online commercial sex market and the demand for commercial sex, the law has yet to be implemented.
Second, prostitution is largely governed by state, not federal law. The buying and solicitation of sexual acts is only legal in registered brothels in a few rural counties in Nevada; otherwise, every state criminalizes prostitution. Whether or not you agree with these laws, your bill would in effect establish a precedent for allowing individuals to engage in illegal activities, as long as the parties involved “consent” to such illegality.
To be clear, we believe that no state should arrest, criminalize, or incarcerate persons bought, sold and exploited in the sex trade, but must provide services to such individuals so that they can exit the sex trade and rebuild their lives without devastating barriers, some of which your bill enumerates. The state must, however, hold accountable sex buyers and other perpetrators who cause egregious harm.
Third, your bill uses the term “sex work,” which is not defined under state or federal law. Coined by the sex trade and its supporters, “sex work” is a euphemism for prostitution that normalizes its harms in culture and in practice. Prostitution is neither “sex,” nor “work,” but a system of gender-based violence and discrimination that preys on the most marginalized among us for the profit of a global multi-billion-dollar commercial sex industry. We expect that you will provide HHS with a comprehensive definition of “sex work” and all of its elements, as well as the mechanisms required for the state to distinguish “consensual engagement” in prostitution, taking into account the Trafficking Victims Protection Act definition of sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”
Nonpartisan, peer-reviewed studies show that in jurisdictions where the sex trade is legalized, a higher prevalence of sex trafficking occurs. Basic economics explain this phenomenon: if the state sanctions the demand for commercial sex (patronizing), traffickers and pimps will meet that demand by recruiting and harboring our most vulnerable populations—especially children, marginalized women of color, and transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) youth—for commercial sexual exploitation.
Your bill mandating HHS to study the alleged negative impact of FOSTA-SESTA on those who claim it has harmed their “consensual engagement” in prostitution is fundamentally flawed and must be amended. The overwhelming majority of those who are surviving or have survived the sex trade are persons who are/were coerced by lack of choice, poverty, racial and gender inequalities, homelessness, childhood sexual violence, foster care residencies, domestic violence, and psychological vulnerabilities. All are purchased by men who pay for sexual access, power, and control over their bodies. An overwhelming percentage were sex trafficked as children, begging the question as to why the state fails to recognize that this legal status and the accompanying trauma does not disappear when the sex trafficked minor turns 18 years old.
For any study on the impact of laws and the sex trade to be valid, HHS must first collect and publish information on the total number and percentage of those who identify as “consensually engaging” in the sex trade within the total population bought and sold in the sex trade.
Given that your bill presumes prostitution as a job like any other, you must request that HHS provide data that disaggregates the claimants’ activities in the sex trade (i.e., video-camming, dominatrix activities, phone sex, escorting, street prostitution, brothels, illicit massage parlors). What is the average salary of these claimants, pre and post enactment of FOSTA-SESTA? HHS must also document whether or not individuals claiming “consensual engagement” and “independent” in the sex trade have in fact third-party entities “managing” (i.e. pimping) and profiting from them, including escort services, producers or distributors of pornography, brothels and other commercial sex establishments, or online “sugar dating” facilitators.
Additionally you should instead ask for comprehensive data on the demographics of sex buyers (e.g. average age, income bracket, profession, race, ethnicity, prior felony charges, participation in online “hobby boards”) and the types of sexual services for which they pay. HHS should also determine the costs of the sex trade on taxpayers and society, including costs related to emergency room and other medical care, law enforcement, community resources, and state health and human services
While Backpage and similar websites knowingly facilitated sex trafficking and promoted prostitution, and profited from such illegal activities, they are not the ones who directly harmed or murdered victims: sex buyers, third-party profiteers, and the system of prostitution itself does that. You therefore owe your constituents and Congress a bill mandating a comprehensive study on the nature and impact of the sex trade on marginalized communities and our entire country, both of which you took an oath to protect.
Center for Success and Independence – Texas
Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd
Episcopal Diocese of New York Task Force
Freedom Church Alliance
Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova Law
Modeling Equality World Without Exploitation
National Center on Sexual Exploitation
National Organization for Women
New Hampshire Traffick-Free Coalition
New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition
Out of Darkness – Ohio Chapter
Prostitution Research & Education
Sanctuary for Families
Shared Hope International
The HOUSTON 20
The Samaritan Women
The Wild Hope
Truckers Against Trafficking
World Without Exploitation
Teresa Forliti (Breaking Free)
Jewell Baraka (Exodus Cry)
Susan Munsey (GenerateHope)
Nicole Bell (Living In Freedom Together LIFT Inc)
Kelly Dore (National Human Trafficking Survivor Coalition)
Alisa Bernard (Organization for Prostitution Survivors)
Alexandra Pierce (Othayonih Research)
Linda Ogden (PROJECT3MP, LLC; S.H.A.D.E Movement)
Jeanette Westbrook (SPACE International – USA)
Rev. Dr. Marian Hatcher (SPACE International – USA)
Autumn Burris (Survivors for Solutions)
Rebekah Charleston (Valiant Hearts)