Editors note: Many of the names of those quoted in the story were changed or assumed names were used because of the inherent danger and legal standing of some sex work.
Wearing a green dress, pink tights, and a tiara, transgender woman and former sex worker Lorelei Erisis held her fist high at the Northampton Pride parade on Saturday, May 5. Behind her, holding red umbrellas and signs that said “sex work is real work” were about two dozen sex workers and allies chanting in unison: “Repeal SESTA now!”
Bella Vendetta, a dominatrix and porn actress who lives in Berkshire County, organized the group, called Team Clear Heels 413, because of the dangers she sees to sex workers due to SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). The law, which passed Congress nearly unanimously earlier this spring, purports to curb sex trafficking, but instead harms consensual sex workers by taking away venues for them to advertise and increase safety, Vendetta said.
Team Clear Heels 413 is the first group of sex workers to march in the parade, Vendetta said.
“When you say to someone ‘support a bill that ends sex trafficking,’ of course people are going to support it,” Vendetta said. “But the language in the bill is so broad it covers consensual sex work. This is a law against the sex industry.”
SESTA, the Senate version also known by its House version name, FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), became law on April 11. The vote in the Senate was 97-2 and in the House it was 388-25 in favor. The law alters the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which allowed for user-generated content on the internet without holding internet service providers or web platforms responsible for that content. The change is that now there is an exception for ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work, and both web platforms and internet service providers can be charged with a crime if it is found that such ads were placed on those sites.
Almost immediately, online personals website Backpage and the Craigslist personals section were taken down. Federal agencies seized Backpage, and Craigslist said in a statement the passage of the law was the reason it stopped offering its personals section.
“Any tool or service can be misused,” a statement on Craigslist read. “We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”
Both sites were places where consensual sex workers could screen clients, advertise without resorting to street work, and communicate with other sex workers about dangerous clients, Vendetta said.
Since the law passed, sex workers like Vendetta have been working to get the message out that the law has made their work much more dangerous.
One marcher, who asked to be referred to as Scarlett, said SESTA has drastically reduced the places where she can advertise and drastically reduced her ability to screen clients.
“It just makes the work harder and a lot less safe,” she said.
Scarlett said this was the first time she had been at a public parade out as a sex worker, but she added that it isn’t something that she hides about herself.
“It was nice to see a lot of people who were supportive and that were cheering and that were happy to see us here,” she said. “There were definitely people who were, I don’t know, looking away a little bit, but I think it was important for those people to have seen us and to realize we’re a part of pride and we’re a part of queer culture.”
Vendetta said people were coming up to the marchers saying they were glad they were there, and some people she didn’t know joined them to march with them.
“A lady just came up to us; she’s 61 years old and she was so glad that we were here, so I think it’s been a long time coming and it was a good thing we were here,” she said.
Vendetta said that some members of her group heard negative comments, as well, but that she looks forward to Team Clear Heels 413 continuing to exist and advocate against SESTA. She said the group would also raise money to offer peer resource meetings for sexual assault, domestic abuse, and substance abuse with counselors.
Vendetta noted that there were many transgender people marching in the group, stating that all kinds of people become sex workers, not just “skinny females.”
“I think this is the first of many times we’re going to be marching and getting together and putting ourselves out in public,” she said.
Several anti-trafficking organizations celebrated the law’s passage earlier this year, with Worcester-based Living in Freedom Together director Nikki Bell calling it a “historic moment” for survivors of human trafficking.
“Time and time again, the survivor community has fought for justice and lost in the courts due to a law that desperately needed updating,” Bell said in a statement when the law was passed.
Lauren Hersh, national director and co-founding of World Without Exploitation, wrote that the law was more than a legislative victory, but a change in the country’s response to sexual exploitation. She said that the passage of the law provided a needed update Communications Decency Act Section 230, which was the section that protected internet service providers and web platforms from being responsible for third party content.
“To the websites that for years have hidden behind Section 230 and profited from the sale of vulnerable women and children, know that your tiem has run out,” she wrote.
That’s largely how members of Congress view the law, including politicians local to Western Mass.
William Tranghese, spokesman for Congressman Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said that Neal supports efforts to stop illegal sex trafficking and online prostitution.
“With millions of dollars a year being generated by online sex trafficking, steps must be taken that will make the internet safer for children and families in Massachusetts,” Tranghese wrote in a statement. “Some of the most vulnerable members of our society are being put at risk by this growing worldwide industry, and a strategic approach must be taken nationwide to hold those responsible for sexual exploitation accountable.”
Congressman James McGovern, D-Worcester, was present at the Northampton Pride parade, and also said it is important to stop sex trafficking. He added that he was unaware of the consequences to consensual sex workers and would look into it further.
Senator Elizabeth Warren also released a statement about her support.
“With the number of kids being sold online skyrocketing, it’s important that Congress has acted to hold websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking and illegal prostitution accountable,” she wrote in the statement.
Backpage.com, has long been a target of anti-trafficking advocates who have claimed that the site allowed trafficking to flourish among its sex-related ads. In discussing SESTA-FOSTA, House Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte named Backpage.com as a site that would suffer the consequences of the law.
But at the same time, the Washington Post wrote that Backpage and certain anti-trafficking advocates pointed out that the site provides a reliable place for federal investigators to track illegal activity.
“We harness the technologies that have been created and use them intelligently to find and stop the perpetrators of this horrific crime,” quoted the Post from Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall, who was addressing an Arizona human trafficking task force in 2013. “Backpage has no tolerance for sex trafficking. As a result, Backpage is one of the best places in America to get busted trafficking a child.”
The Post story reported skepticism from antitrafficking groups, but also reported finding emails from law enforcement agencies thanking the website for their help over the years.
A prominent member of the U.S. Department of Justice, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, wrote a letter to Congress in February with his own concerns with the law, then a bill, including that consensual sex work, which Boyd characterized as being of “minimal federal interest,” was lumped in with sex trafficking.
Boyd also wrote that the bill’s text could be unconstitutional in that it applies retroactively, which he stated conflicts with the Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause, which prohibits imposing punishment for an act at a time when it was not a punishable offense.
For Yana Tallon-Hicks, a sex educator and Valley Advocate sex and relationship advice columnist, the law is too broad. She said it is affecting her work, which does not include prostitution or anything close to it.
“For sex educators, our stuff is getting censored and controlled as well,” Tallon-Hicks said.
She said she is no longer using American company Skype to video chat with clients and has moved to a service that is hosted abroad.
“All we’re doing is talking, but under the new terms of service it could be skewed that way,” she said.
For Vendetta, whose dominatrix sex work is legal in Massachusetts, Backpage was an important site. It was a place where sex workers, fetish workers, and trans sex workers could advertise, and it was inexpensive — less than $100 per ad.
Backpage and Craigslist both served more rural communities, including Western Mass, she said.
And for sex workers, many can not leave.
“At this point, being in 16 years, I don’t have a choice,” Vendetta said. “My face and name is out there and I’m known.”
Using the internet has made sex work safer, by virtue of the fact that sex workers can screen clients, talk to one another about dangerous clients, and avoid street work, according to Vendetta.
A study by Baylor University found that female safety among sex workers increased as a result of Craigslist erotic services ads, and that the female homicide rate among sex workers fell by more than 17 percent.
Lily, who lives in Springfield, is a sex worker who said she has been too scared to do any work since the law passed. Lily said she would not consider doing street-based work.
“I’ve been losing money and have been talking about moving,” she said. “I don’t ever want to be caught and I’m not going to risk it.”
Lily used to use an app called Mr Number, where sex workers would put client’s phone numbers and get a Yelp-like set of reviews that would say if the client was violent or dangerous.
However, Lily said that she does not even use websites and apps that are still operational, because of the fear that they have been infiltrated by law enforcement.
Lorelei Erisis, who stood at the head of Team Clear Heels 413 during the Northampton Pride parade, said she was surprised so little attention was paid to the law until it had already passed.
“Even now it’s sort of shocking how little attention this has gotten for what an impactful law it is,” she said.
Erisis said there were a lot of good impulses behind the people supporting the law, but that the flaws in it will be difficult to correct given the level of political support it garnered.
“It’s not a safe thing to stand up as a politician and say this is bad even though it legitimately is,” she said. “It is easy to smear someone’s career with a stand like that.”
Erisis said her belief is that the law will simply drive traffickers deeper underground and make them harder for law enforcement to ferret out. At the same time, while the law will do little to stop sex trafficking, it will push consensual sex work further into dark corners of the internet.
“We were already seeing, before the law had gone into effect, the ripples,” she said. “Sex workers are being pushed out of online forums, stopping consensual sex workers’ ability to organize. … It is providing a golden opportunity for predators to come out of the woodwork.”
Erisis sees sex trafficking as a scape goat and that the intent of the law is to go after sex work of all kinds.
“What we’re referring to as sex work is a major gray area,” she said. “Not all of it is illegal.”
Erisis never performed illegal prostitution, but was an assistant to a dominatrix. After coming out as a trans woman, it was hard for Erisis to find work, and sex work provided a steady income.
“There are a lot of marginalized trans people, people of color, who wind up doing sex work because it is the best option,” she said.
Erisis said she spent eight years looking for a server job with a long resume, but was only hired recently, even though in other parts of her life, she was receiving recognition, as when she successfully helped advocate for federal civil rights protections.
“I had been invited to the White House, but I couldn’t get a waitress gig,” she said.
Vendetta believes that the law should be repealed, but beyond that, she thinks that consensual sex work, including prostitution, should be legalized across the board. Doing so would empower sex workers to speak out about trafficking they see without fear of prosecution, she said.
“It just needs to keep being talked about,” Vendetta said of the law. “It needs to be repealed. But unfortunately it is going to take a lot of dead sex workers for anyone to notice.”
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.