COYOTE RI urges DC Circuit Court to strike down harmful sex trafficking law
Posted on September 18, 2022
Undo your tired old Rhode Island ethics (COYOTE RI) today filed an amicus brief with the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, supporting the appellants who argue that the Combating Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOST) violates the First Amendment. The case, Woodhull Freedom Foundation v. United Statesis on appeal from the DC District Court, where Judge Leon concluded that the law was constitutional.
The brief, which is joined by 12 other organizations, describes the harm FOSTA has caused to sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking since its adoption four years ago. The dossier is based on a survey of 248 sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking which found that FOSTA significantly increased sex trafficking, exploitation and other violence. Moreover, it silences protected speech and causes the greatest harm to the sex trafficking survivors it was meant to protect.
Adopted in 2018, FOSTA amended article 230 of the Communications Decency Act to enable the prosecution of operators of websites that host user-generated content that facilitates prostitution, broadly equating prostitution and other forms of sex work with sex trafficking. This resulted in an immediate loss of online resources for sex workers, including advertising websites, vital blacklist databases (used by sex workers to alert each other to dangerous predators posing as potential customers) and online forums. Desiree Alliance canceled its biennial conference “to defend the human, labor and civil rights of all sex workers” that summer due to fears of prosecution under FOSTA and did not hold a conference from.
COYOTE RI research found that survey participants reported a 40% increase in force or coercion within the industry (sex trafficking). For survivors of trafficking who had previously experienced force, fraud or coercion within the industry, that number was 64%. Other types of violence have also increased, with 39% of survey participants and 67% of survivors of force, fraud or coercion within the industry reporting an increase in violence. Without a place to advertise online, 11% of survey participants turned to street sex work, which is more dangerous. However, 24% of sex trafficking survivors who entered the sex industry as minors said they turned to street work.
Survey participants said they were vulnerable to violence due to loss of revenue from loss of advertising websites and difficulty in properly screening potential customers for safety in a post-FOSTA market . The survey found that 78% of participants said FOSTA prevented them from using screening procedures that made them feel safe.
“FOSTA has made security screening impossible and illegal,” wrote one participant in the survey. “It’s terrifying how lawmakers don’t care about our safety even though the effects of FOSTA were so clearly predicted by those in the industry.”
FOSTA has deeply harmed public safety by making it harder for police to investigate reports of sex trafficking and assault, as advertising websites are now hosted overseas and sex workers are less able to collect identifying information from those they meet. About half of the small number of survey participants who had reported crimes to police from FOSTA said that police investigations were hampered by FOSTA. For people of color who reported crimes to police, FOSTA impeded investigations in all cases.
Survey participants report that FOSTA has made them more afraid to report serious crimes to the police. Seventy percent say they are less likely to go to the police if they are assaulted because of FOSTA and 50% say they are less likely to go to the police if someone shows them pornography juvenile. In addition to their fear of the police, some participants indicated that because of FOSTA, they would not have adequate information to provide to the police about the offender.
“Everything feels a lot more precarious than before FOSTA and that’s very, very unfortunate,” one research participant explained. “And to say that so much work[er]s are much worse off than me, are dead [or] being left homeless or forced back to street work and being exploited by pimps, directly because of FOSTA, is simply devastating.
“FOSTA violates the constitutionally protected and life-saving speech of sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking,” said Tara burns, research director of COYOTE RI. “It has increased sex trafficking and violence against sex workers, and even more against survivors of sex trafficking. This puts public safety at risk by further alienating people in the sex industry from the police and making crimes against sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking more difficult to investigate.
COYOTE-RI was represented by The National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women, a non-profit organization run by formerly incarcerated black women and dedicated to ending the incarceration of women and girls. The principal legal adviser to the National Council, who drafted the friend brief, said she “is proud to help advance the First Amendment rights of sex workers, whose voices and expertise must be heard to find a way to end the horror of trafficking. human being”.
Call Off Your Old Fated Ethics Rhode Island (COYOTE RI) is a grassroots organization of current and former sex workers, sex trafficking survivors, and allies who advocate for the health, labor, and human rights of people in the industry of sex. Learn more here.