Federal Court Gives Sex Workers Major Win In Decrim Lawsuit

"Sex workers have been waiting for our day in court for over 100 years," announced Kaytlin Bailey, Director of Communications for the group Decriminalize Sex Work, "and finally, we’re going to get it." On January 24, sex workers and their allies won an important victory in our ongoing constitutional challenge to SESTA/FOSTA, a federal law that attempts to erase the oldest profession from the Internet."

As AVN recently reported, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs’ case can proceed to trial, where a federal judge will decide whether SESTA/FOSTA interferes with the constitutional rights of website operators and their users.

"If you use the Internet, this law affects you," Bailey noted. "And if people’s health and safety is important to you, you should be siding with the sex workers in this case."

SESTA/FOSTA, enacted in 2018, imposes severe criminal penalties for website operators that allow discussions of prostitution, which is being broadly interpreted to include massage therapists, harm reduction service providers, and sex worker rights activists.

Sex workers who had been using websites to schedule and screen their clients have since resorted to more dangerous tactics, soliciting on the street or relying on third parties, such as pimps. Some are using offshore platforms on the dark web that, unlike Backpage and Craigslist, do not cooperate with law enforcement.

Prohibition doesn’t work, the group declared, and the more government pushes the sex industry underground, the more dangerous it becomes. A meta-analysis reviewing 30 years of data published by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and John Hopkins University found overwhelming evidence that repressive policing of prostitution leads to less health and safety among sex workers.

SESTA/FOSTA attempted to erase places on the Internet that sex workers had been using to mitigate the risks of their trade for years. Immediately after this law took effect, the St. James Infirmary in San Franciso reported a 700% increase in street-based prostitution. Sex workers and harm reduction advocates have reported a marked increase of homicides, suicides, overdoses, and desperate people doing desperate things to survive.

The only way to reduce violence and exploitation in the sex trade is to make it easier for sex workers to screen their clients and advocate for their own safety and health. Sex workers cannot protect themselves from predators and police at the same time.

Studies show that when Craigslist Erotic Services allowed adults to negotiate consensual sex with each other from the privacy of their homes, the female homicide rate dropped by 17%.

When sex work was decriminalized in Rhode Island from 2003 to 2009, reported rapes dropped by 30% and gonorrhea by 40%. Allowing sex workers to find and negotiate with potential clients online before exposing themselves to risk reduces violence and STDs. This is not conjecture or theory; studies prove what sex workers have been saying for literally a century.

On January 25, 1917, 300 prostitutes in San Francisco marched in the street to protest the imminent eviction of the brothels where they lived and conducted their work. They told the moral reformers and politicians that eviction would only make their lives worse and their work more dangerous. They were right. And on January 24—103 years later—federal appellate judges gave sex workers and their allies the chance to make their case in court. Victory is one court case away.