*Source used first name only for anonymity
About one to two million people in the United States participate in sex work. However, due to the false perception that voluntary sex work is synonymous with sex trafficking, new legislation is making it increasingly dangerous for voluntary sex workers to obtain clients.
The UC Santa Cruz Student-Workers Union, Prism and the Gay Straight Alliance united in the Redwood Lounge at UCSC on Oct. 12 for an event called “Save Us From Saviors” to discuss the creation of a safe space on campus for sex workers and to bring awareness to a new law that further criminalizes sex work.
The event consisted of two informative talks delivered to about 40 attendees. St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco-based health and safety clinic for sex workers, introduced attendees to the misconceptions and dangers sex workers often face. Dr. Vanessa Carlisle, a sex workers’ rights educator, spoke on anti-trafficking policies and how they often impose harm on voluntary sex workers.
“The United States is still the most dangerous place to be a sex worker, so our movement is up against a much harder sell because the stigma [against sex workers] has such a death grip on the consciousness [of the U.S.],” Carlisle said.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), also known as Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking (SESTA), passed in April 2018 and targets different internet companies for hosting sex workers on their platforms. It also rolled back the protections of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act, which made online companies responsible for the content shared on their platforms. This criminalized online communication between or with sex workers and contributes to difficulties in locating and assisting victims of human sexual trafficking.
Since FOSTA-/SESTA took effect, sex workers have been reporting a major increase in pimps taking advantage of their vulnerability due to the termination of websites like Backpage. There is also no proof that FOSTA-/SESTA has done anything to deter trafficking, but rather move it to the dark web and further underground.
“Human trafficking is a major issue and no one concerned with FOSTA-/SESTA is debating that,” said event organizer and UCSC graduate student Jane Kimori. “By conflating all sex work with trafficking, we strip lots of different folks, who choose to do sex work for lots of different reasons, of their autonomy and their agency, their ability to choose what they do with their bodies and how they make their income.”
As society relies more on technology, sex workers have similarly increased their use of advertising websites like Backpage or Craigslist as opposed to unsafe methods such as working on the streets.
On the internet, sex workers can share information with each other and circulate “bad client lists” to prevent dangerous situations and repeat offenses. However, since FOSTA was enacted, sex workers were forced to turn away from these safety precautions.
“Many strolls have tripled or quadrupled in population” UCSC undergraduate and event organizer Leah* said. “Many more cases of violence from clients have been reported by sex workers since [FOSTA was enacted].”
One in five college students have considered doing sex work to pay for higher education. This misrepresentation often shames sex workers for doing their jobs and results in a lack of safe spaces.
The “Save Us From Saviors” event brought attention to the fact that there is no safe space for sex workers at UCSC, or even in the Santa Cruz community. Together, these organizations are trying to change that.
“We’re talking about it here on campus because Santa Cruz is a really unaffordable place to live and because of the increased precarity of students on this campus, a lot of students will be engaging in sex work, or already are, and they’re increasingly vulnerable to violence and assault. It’s a major concern and we hope to make this a safer space and a space of visibility,” Kimori said.
Media perception and legal action like FOSTA-/SESTA are often set in the idea that sex work is never the workers’ choice. However, there are many voluntary sex workers who just want basic rights and decriminalization.
“It’s a paternalistic policy that assumes that people who have no idea about sex work or workers have a better idea of how to keep them safe or protect them,” Kimori said, “when what sex workers have been demanding for so long is truly decriminalization.”