Students, Sex Work, and SESTA

By Abi Rahman-Davies
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The U.S. has some of the most conservative policies on sex work in the world, criminalizing both buyers and sellers of sex in most states. However, sex work is becoming increasingly normalized, perhaps without many of us noticing. Entertainment news sites such as Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Vice have published several articles about peoples’ experiences with the dating website Seeking Arrangement, in which “sugar daddies,” typically wealthy, middle-aged men, seek the companionship of “sugar babies,” typically young women. Sugar babies, in return, receive gifts and money from their sugar daddies.

Seeking Arrangement does not openly condone nor admit to the selling of sex, calling itself an escort service instead of a marketplace for “prostitution” or “sex work.” Several women have testified, though, that they were intimate with their sugar daddies, or were expected to be intimate, in order to receive their gifts. Further, Seeking Arrangement gives free premium memberships to sugar babies with .edu emails—it targets students, many of whom use the website to escape or avoid student debt. According to Seeking Arrangement, 1.2 million of its users are American college students. This makes up around 40% of its 3.2 million total users in the U.S.

In a three-year study conducted at Swansea University in the U.K., researchers found that over 5% of students were engaged in voluntary sex work, and almost 22% had considered entering the sex industry. While these numbers are specific to a college outside of the US, I believe that, given the epidemic of rising tuition and student debt, domestic researchers would find similar if not larger portions of students engaged in sex work in the U.S.

The same study revealed that student sex workers felt that they were discriminated against and discouraged from seeking emotional, financial, or physical support when they needed it. Researchers also interviewed several university staff members, who said that they would take action against students to avoid the risk of tarnishing the school’s reputation. Many students involved in the study lamented that the decriminalization of sex work, or at least the educating of the general public on the topic, would decrease the harmful stigma.

Recent federal legislation, called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), have noble intentions of reducing sex trafficking in the US, but contradict the interests of student sex workers. Signed into law by President Trump in April of 2018, the FOSTA-SESTA package was created to combat online sex trafficking by holding websites accountable for content related to sex work and allowing people to sue websites for posting such information online.

This law will have disastrous impacts on women who are involved in voluntary sex work. It has already caused Craigslist to remove its “personals” section, stating that “any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services.” Backpage.com, the largest online marketing tool for sex workers, has also been shut down. These consequences have been considered victories by FOSTA-SESTA supporters.

The bipartisan support for FOSTA-SESTA stems from a widespread but misinformed conflation of compulsory sex trafficking with voluntary sex work. The conflation of sex trafficking with sex work also drives the legal remedies of sex work in the U.S.: jail time and heavy fines. This misunderstanding pushes vulnerable women further into a cycle of marginalization. Many sex workers either view the criminal results of getting arrested as a premium for selling sex, or are discouraged from leaving the sex industry because of the heavy fines which are imposed on them.

The legal model used in most parts of the U.S., which criminalizes all parties involved in sex work, yields dangerous working conditions, shady customers, the inability to seek help from the police or to report abuse, and an unregulated industry—one that is pushed underground from fear of arrest. FOSTA-SESTA makes these conditions even more unsafe; now, sex workers are being forced to resort to dangerous street prostitution instead of posting online advertisements, which made it easier to vet clients before meeting in person.

If websites like Seeking Arrangement are, similar to Backpage.com, intimidated into shutting down, I do not believe that selling sex among students would decrease; rather, student sex workers would continue to sell sex but would not be able to vet clients beforehand through the website, forcing them to engage in a riskier industry. Students should not be forced underground for engaging in voluntary sex work.

Sex work, which offers flexible hours and wages higher than other service industries or other forms of unskilled labor, should be considered a viable source of income for women and especially for students who often struggle to pay for their school tuition. The law should treat it as it would any other industry, as a consensual agreement between two consenting adults. It should be considered real work, and the stigma associated with sex work and female sexuality should be forgotten. It should protect sex workers and work toward making the profession safer.

While FOSTA-SESTA has noble aims of cracking down on coercive sex trafficking, it (perhaps inadvertently) also puts the safety of sex workers at risk. Other industrialized countries, such as Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and the Netherlands have decriminalized all or some parties involved in sex work as a measure to protect the women involved in the industry. Instead of joining these countries in protecting women and the human rights of sex workers, the U.S. has gone in the opposite direction by making sex workers even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

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