SESTA/FOSTA and LIS [Farewell]

My semester is coming to its end, though my grad school career is not (I still have one more semester!). Still, this will be my last post on Hack Library School. I have deeply valued the opportunity to connect with LIS students across the country and learn about how this field simultaneously frustrates and inspires each of us. I myself have used my status as a contributing writer in order to enhance my knowledge on the intersections between library science and social justice topics such as feminism, food justice, environmentalism, and the status of people of color in the field. To continue this trend, I would like to use my farewell post to bring attention to an issue that I have observed few LIS folks discussing, despite its significant ramifications for our field. I thank my girlfriend for bringing the issue to my attention.

On April 11, 2018, a bill known as SESTA/FOSTA became law. It stands for Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA)/Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). It alters the Communications Decency Act of 1996, also known as Section 230. Previously, Section 230 protected websites and Internet service providers from the statements that users make on web platforms. If the platforms were breaking the law in some way, though, the U.S. Department of Justice still had recourse to prosecute them. With the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, Section 230 is significantly weaker, making it possible to prosecute websites that knowingly promote or facilitate prostitution, or facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.

According to sex workers, who consider themselves distinct from victims of trafficking and argue against conflating the two experiences, this new law will inevitably make life more dangerous for them. In anticipation of this law, certain websites have preemptively shut down to avoid potential liability. People engaging in consensual sex work have used these sites to screen clients, distribute information among themselves about clients who are violent, and generally find community. Because these websites are disappearing, many people are losing their livelihoods completely. Others have taken to the streets to find clients, which puts them in greater peril for assault. Even when sites continue to operate, there is evidence that those who simply send messages related to sexual acts are at risk for being arrested in police raids. Furthermore, there is strong evidence to suggest that the new law would contribute to greater isolation for victims of trafficking. To quote a blogger who writes about her experiences as a sex worker in Portland, SESTA/FOSTA “is about curbing free speech, about making sure online platforms have a vested interest in banning anything that keeps sex workers safe and alive, and it will be expanded to other kinds of speech because that is how these things play out.

Since our society is generally ignorant of and hostile to sex workers, many of us are inclined to dismiss situations that primarily or initially affect them, even when they are not the only ones who suffer. For this reason, SESTA/FOSTA has not attracted as much attention as the repeal of net neutrality, despite the existence in both legal matters of similar questions regarding privacy and access. It is common for people in power, through appeals to morality or economic responsibility, to designate particular groups as undesirables, undermining potential solidarity between those people and the rest of society. We see this today with undocumented individuals and the burgeoning incarcerated population. This divide and conquer strategy masks the reality that, even for those of us who are not sex workers, SESTA/FOSTA is a threat.

So what can we do as information professionals? We must begin by listening to sex workers to educate ourselves. Visit websites such as the Black Sex Worker Collective, Red Light Legal, and Survivors Against SESTA, and donate if possible. On social media, take a look at the hashtags #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA. It is important to avoid creating a false dichotomy between LIS folks and sex workers, considering that some LIS folks have engaged in sex work in the past (or the present). Their voices should be amplified, too. Moreover, as Maxine Holloway has pointed out, it is necessary to be vocal about sex worker rights in our personal, professional, and educational settings. One concrete action that comes to mind is increasing solidarity with incarcerated sex workers by donating to and collaborating with prison libraries. Certainly, it is true that the very concept of sex work is taboo in most of our workplaces. Nevertheless, if we stick to the missions and values of librarianship, we can play a part in mitigating harm and getting information resources to marginalized people.

Ayoola White graduates from Simmons College in December 2018.

Cover photo: An image of a red umbrella, the international symbol for sex workers’ rights, with the written message “WE DON’T NEED TO BE SAVED!” found on this website. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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