March 03, 2022

Senator Warren, Wyden, Representative Khanna, Lee Introduce Safe Sex Workers Study Act

Following new findings released by the Government Accountability Office, lawmakers reintroduce legislation to study the effects of SESTA/FOSTA on the health and safety of sex workers.

Text of Bill (pdf)

Washington, D.C. — Today, on International Sex Worker Rights Day, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), reintroduced the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act to direct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct the first federal study on the impact that a 2018 anti-sex trafficking bill known as SESTA/FOSTA has had on sex workers. The landmark study will require consultation, as appropriate, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and report to Congress on the study within one year of the date of enactment. The bill also adds a new requirement that the Attorney General submit a report on SESTA/FOSTA’s impact on human trafficking investigations and prosecutions.

In the Senate, cosponsors include Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). House cosponsors include Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Greg Stanton (D-Calif.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.).

The reintroduction comes after a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that SESTA/FOSTA has never been used by federal prosecutors to seek criminal restitution for victims of sex trafficking. In fact, while Congress passed SESTA/FOSTA to crack down on sex trafficking by making websites legally liable for content that helps "facilitate prostitution," the GAO study confirmed that the law has only made it more difficult for officials to investigate and prosecute sex trafficking cases.

Anecdotal reporting suggests SESTA/FOSTA and the loss of certain web services have had profound negative impacts on sex workers. Before SESTA/FOSTA, many sex workers used online platforms to screen clients. Negotiations could happen virtually, instead of on the street. Some sites even provided vetting tools, like blacklists of dangerous clients. After SESTA/FOSTA was enacted, these sites and the tools that came with them shuttered overnight.

The SAFE SEX Workers Study Act would study the impact of SESTA/FOSTA on the health and safety of sex workers, including disparities in these effects on LGBTQI+ individuals, people living in rural areas, racial and ethnic minorities, Tribal communities, people experiencing exploitation and trafficking, and undocumented and documented foreign nationals.

Sex workers are frequently among the most marginalized members of our society. In the 2015 United States Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 19% of respondents reported having exchanged sex for resources, such as money, food or a place to sleep. Transgender women of color, including Black (42%), American Indian (28%), multiracial (27%), Latina (23%), and Asian (22%) respondents, were more likely to have participated in sex work than the overall sample.

“As lawmakers, we are responsible for examining unintended consequences of all legislation, and that includes any impact SESTA-FOSTA may have had on the ability of sex workers to protect themselves from physical or financial abuse,” said Senator Warren. “I’m glad to be working with Representatives Khanna and Lee, and Senator Wyden to do just that with the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act.”

“It is tragic that SESTA/FOSTA has done nothing to help victims of human trafficking, while by all accounts causing sex workers to suffer from increased violence and threats. As I feared, SESTA/FOSTA demonstrated that shutting down online speech inevitably hurts marginalized groups hardest. I applaud Senator Warren and Rep. Khanna for authoring this legislation to comprehensively study SESTA/FOSTA’s impacts on sex workers,” said Senator Wyden.

“Thanks to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, we know that SESTA/FOSTA has not been successfully used to crack down on sex trafficking. Instead, since its enactment, I’ve heard from sex workers who have experienced increased physical and sexual violence after being pushed off online platforms and forced onto the streets to find clients. Despite this, there has still never been a federal study on how shutting down websites impacts people who rely on consensual, transactional sex,” said Rep. Ro Khanna. “Congress needs to listen to the stories of sex workers. I’m proud to partner with Rep. Lee and Senators Warren and Wyden on this bill and grateful to the many advocates working on this critical issue.”

“For years, SESTA/FOSTA has demonized sex workers and subjected them to an increased risk of violence and abuse. Instead of preventing trafficking, it made it harder for sex workers to access critical health and safety resources. I’m proud to reintroduce this legislation with Rep. Khanna and Senators Warren and Wyden to study the unintended consequences of SESTA/FOSTA and enable Congress to make informed policy decisions to protect the health and safety of sex workers,” said Rep. Barbara Lee. 

The bill was drafted in consultation with sex workers, advocates for LGBTQI+ and sex worker rights, HIV/AIDS prevention and advocacy groups, and organizations that provide health, safety and legal services for sex workers and sex-trafficking victims. The bill has received the endorsement of more than 70 diverse national and regional organizations across the country.

Supportive groups include: Charm City Care Connection, Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, Drug Policy Alliance, Harm Reduction Coalition, Reframe Health and Justice, Center for Democracy and Technology, Fight for the Future, S.T.O.P. - Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. Kairos Action, Defending Rights & Dissent, Assembly Four, Transgender Law Center, National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), Black and Pink, Black and Pink Massachusetts, GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, MPact Global Action for Gay Health & Rights, Athlete Ally, Positive Women’s Network - USA, Whitman-Walker Health, The Center for HIV Law and Policy, Peer Wellness & Recovery Services, Inc., Sero Project, The Moore-O'Neal Law Group, LLC, AIDS United, Counter Narrative Project, Treatment Action Group (TAG), Urban Survivors Union - San Francisco, AIDS Foundation of Chicago, CARES of Southwest Michigan, SWOP Behind Bars, Sex Workers Outreach Project - USA, Support Ho(s)e, Red Canary Song, Free Speech Coalition (FSC), Whose Corner Is It Anyway, Sex Workers Outreach Project - Sacramento, Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, Hacking//Hustling, BAYSWAN (Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network), Strippers United, Sex Workers Outreach Project - Los Angeles, Disabled Sex Workers Collective, Advocating Opportunity, Amara Legal Services, New York Anti-Trafficking Network, Freedom Network USA, New Frameworks, Human Trafficking Prevention Project, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, Massachusetts Bail Fund, FORGE, Inc., Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, Womankind, Center for Constitutional Rights, Advocacy for Principled Action in Government, Organization for Identity and Cultural Development, Oasis Legal Services, American Atheists, American Civil Liberties Union, Win Without War, MediaJustice, 18 Million Rising, Color Of Change, Public Citizen, Woodhull Freedom Foundation, The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, and Prostasia.

"SESTA/FOSTA has not created more online safety against sexual predators, instead, it has only increased dangers specifically for LGBQ+, TGNC, migrant, and BIPOC sex workers by further oppressing our clients that need access to work. Like any other profession, all workers should feel protected; The Safe Sex Worker Study Act is a dire next step when it comes to increasing health and safety measures for sex workers whether on the spectrum of choice, circumstance, or coercion." Zola Z. Bruce, Director of Communications, Sex Workers Project of The Urban Justice Center

"Sex workers became even more vulnerable after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in 2018 which pushed more sex workers offline and into the streets, where they have to work in isolated areas to avoid arrest and deal with clients without background checks. The SAFE SEX Workers Study Act would study these effects, helping us make informed policy decisions that protect sex workers' health and rights. Sex workers, like all workers, have the right to safety and security as they make a living." - American Civil Liberties Union.

"In April of 2018, with the passage of FOSTA/SESTA and the closure of Backpage, sex workers across the globe lost a range of digital platforms and internet spaces used for meeting resource needs, staying safe, accessing community, and organizing for their rights. In the last several years, the community has reported a range of impacts of losing these digital spaces - increased violence and dependence to fear and erasure. The SAFE SEX Worker Study Act is the first bill which asks the government to take a serious look at what happens when marginalized communities are turned into legal liabilities for the spaces they seek to stay safe. As digital regulation becomes an increasingly discussed topic, it is basic due diligence that we understand these impacts and bring those communities to the table." - Kate D'Adamo, Partner, Reframe Health and Justice.

"Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google employ a surveillance capitalist business model that is fundamentally incompatible with basic human rights and democracy. But it's essential that legislation intended to address these companies' harms is not only well intentioned, but well crafted, and that it centers the needs of impacted communities. SESTA/FOSTA, the only major change Congress has made to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is a clear example of legislation that ended up doing enormous harm to the vulnerable population that it was supposed to protect. Lawmakers must learn from their mistakes in order to avoid repeating them. Congress should pass the Safe Sex Worker Study Act before many further changes to Section 230 that could undermine human rights and free expression for marginalized people." - Fight for the Future.

"The legislative process needs to be an inclusive one, where those impacted by public policy have a rightful seat at the table. The Safe Sex Workers Study Act is an important bill that seeks to ensure that trafficking survivors, those that participate consensually in commercial sex work, and everyone in between, has a voice and can engage in the legislative process equally by sharing their lived experiences, expertise, and the impact of any policy that purports to help them. Otherwise, legislation can jeopardize the health, safety, and the inherent right of citizens to work and to live a self-determined life," - Amara Legal Center CEO Carole Bernard.

“Sex workers — far too often overlooked by policy analysis — have long been among the communities most impacted by HIV and are thus critical partners in our collective efforts to end the HIV epidemic in the United States. The communities experiencing the disproportionate burden of the criminalization and stigma of sex work are, not coincidentally, also among those most impacted by the HIV epidemic: queer and transgender people, communities of color and immigrant communities, and people without access to adequate social services and care. Research and community input are needed to understand the harmful effects of recent policies on sex workers and consequently on ending the HIV epidemic. The SAFE SEX Worker Study Act is a piece of legislation that will enable such vital research. Congress must pass this bill to advance the health of our community members and to bring us closer to ending the domestic HIV epidemic,” - Jesse Milan, Jr., AIDS United President & CEO.