In 2011, when the nation was transfixed by the “Craigslist murders” in Ohio, I had a unique vantage point to what was going on. Not only was I living in Ohio, but I was going through a period of very low employment; I had some freelance writing work to help me pay my bills, but I wasn’t teaching, and I really needed more money. I’ve never been one for Craigslist — if my days of being an avid video gamer taught me anything, it’s that I have lousy luck buying pre-owned stuff that doesn’t break by the time I try to use it — but even before the killers were arrested, and authorities were cautioning Ohioans about the murders that had happened so far, there was a part of me that was wondering if I would ever get desperate enough to answer a Help Wanted ad on Craigslist, even knowing the risks involved, just for a chance to make some more money.
One of the more welcoming developments on this front has been an increasing number of police stations offering space for people to conduct transactions arranged over the Internet through services like Craigslist. It’s difficult for most people to figure out a public space for these kinds of meetings that will feel truly safe, so police departments letting people use their parking lots and such to conduct transactions is probably as close as we’ll get to an ideal workaround for this problem. It doesn’t eliminate every problem, like the possibility of post-transaction stalking, but it’s definitely a step up from trusting your local coffeehouse to be a safe meeting spot. The principle at work here isn’t hard to understand: When you bring these transactions out “into the light,” that makes things harder for people looking to abuse others’ trust.
This system has its limits, though, such as the fact that pretty much no one is going to use police property to conduct an illegal transaction, like a drug deal. The grey legal area that sex work resides in makes matters even more complicated; although paying for sexual intercourse is illegal in nearly every part of the United States, there are a lot of activities that fall under most people’s definition of sex work, such as non-sexual kink activities and fetish audio/video production, that are either technically legal or have laws against them that aren’t really enforced. (This doesn’t even touch on the problem of how some people define the term “sex work” so broadly to include safer sex education, but I’ve blogged enough about that lately.) Still, even if there were clear and unambiguous legality when it comes to these manifestations of sex work, I’m guessing that most people wouldn’t be comfortable conducting those transactions in a police station parking lot, even with the ready availability of handcuffs there.
Having special spaces set aside for transactions involving sex work is hardly anything new, though. The core impulse for this — to keep such places far away from schools and other places where underage people gather — is a noble and fairly uncontroversial one, but it does create a sense of “otherness” to sex work (and the people who participate in and/or consume it) that can increase problems for everyone involved; nearly every brick-and-mortar “adult” store has an intensely negative reputation, to the point of becoming a cliché. The only exceptions to this are the upscale-looking “sex boutiques” that thread the needle of marketability by pitching their shops as places for soccer moms to go in order to help make themselves more pleasing to their husbands — and the high levels of heteronormativity should tell you a lot about how these places tend to be run — and charging absurd mark-ups for ninth-rate merchandise (er, or so I’ve been told), and even those are barely more palatable to a lot of people.
From the early years of its mainstream popularity in the mid-1990’s, the Internet transformed sex work in drastic ways, eliminating the need for people to go to physical stores in order to purchase erotic paraphernalia or pictures or videos. Even when it came to areas of sex work that necessitate human interaction, the Internet afforded all kinds of possibilities, and beyond whatever black market activities were happening with people emailing one another and such, everything from the Craigslist hookups of ages past, to the sexually-oriented social networks of today, did their part to shine a light on the realities of sex work, and regardless of how people felt about those realities, there’s a strong body of evidence suggesting that this literally saved lives.
Keeping underage people away from that material on the Internet was a major problem back in the nineties, and it’s still a huge issue today, and for good reason. Protecting young children from the dangers of non-consensual sex work is something that every person on the planet should be supportive of, and I doubt that even the most ardent of small-government conservatives would oppose allocating more resources to combat the child sex trade. Instead of targeting this very specific, very grave threat to our children, though, the legislation that made its way through Congress this past week — the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA, and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA — treats all sex work as being akin to forcing children into sex slavery, and if the past link between hiding sex work and increasing its riskiness holds true now, then these new acts could easily cost some Americans their lives if they’re signed into law by President Trump.
Given the insane news week we’ve just been through — trying to pick a topic to blog about for today was like trying to pick my favourite piece of classical music — there’s a part of me that wants to be generous towards the politicians who voted for this legislation, since they probably had to cast their votes while dealing with even more craziness than usual pervading the halls of Congress. At the same time, though, voting on laws that profoundly impact many Americans’ lives without a proper and thorough debate on the underlying issues just isn’t a good way to run a country (and make no mistake, Democrats and Republicans are both guilty of this), and I’m fairly certain that a lot of the legislators who cast votes a few days ago didn’t even want to hear the pro-sex worker side of this debate, let alone consider it.
The rhetoric of this legislation — lumping everything under the harrowing term “sex trafficking” — is just the latest example of sex workers being ignored by the people who, whether they like it or not, are supposed to be considering their welfare just as much as the welfare of every other citizen they represent. Proponents of the legislation, when they talk about it, keep their focus on the bill’s efforts to reduce children being forced into sex work, and no one should be against that. By avoiding discussion of how this legislation will affect those who are consensually involved in sex work, though, these politicians are sending a message (not for the first time) that they don’t think sex workers’ lives matter. I can understand why some people are squeamish when it comes to discussing sex and sex work, but when that reluctance can literally cost people their lives, that is beyond unacceptable. If a politician would rather allow some of their constituents to be killed, than to have to discuss a topic they’re uncomfortable talking about, then that politician isn’t fit to serve, and I don’t care if the topic is sex or guns or what have you. If you can’t handle discussing something that profoundly affects so many people’s lives, especially when some of those people’s lives are literally at stake in the discussion, then you shouldn’t be in a position where you can make laws about them.
It’s been heartening to see so many young Americans speaking these past few weeks, and especially on Saturday, about how they and their friends don’t deserve to have their lives put at risk because of the barely-disguised venality of some politicians. We must heed their voices, but sex workers and their friends also need to speak up now, and educate the rest of America about how the legislation that passed through Congress this past week could lead to more Americans dying as well. Just like the students in Parkland, and just like those victims of the Craigslist killer in Ohio, sex workers don’t deserve to die.