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RELEASE: Reps. Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee & Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden Introduce SAFE SEX Workers Study Act

December 17, 2019
Press Release
Legislation requires the first federal national study on the health and safety impacts on sex workers from SESTA/FOSTA and the loss of access to certain online platforms

Washington, DC - Today, Reps. Ro Khanna (CA-17), Barbara Lee (CA-13) and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), introduced the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, a bill to require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct the first federal study on the health and safety of 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 study will include an analysis of some of the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA, Public Law 115-164, which is the combined package of a Senate bill [Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA)] and a House bill [Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)]. While SESTA/FOSTA holds websites liable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking, it also impacts online platforms where users discuss consensual sex work and related topics.

Anecdotal reporting suggests SESTA/FOSTA and the loss of certain web services have had profound impacts on sex workers, who 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.

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.

“There has been a host of anecdotal reporting from sex workers and community health organizations that following the enactment of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers have faced greater threats of physical and sexual violence, as they are increasingly pushed off on-line platforms and onto the streets to seek clients. Despite these reports, no federal study has been conducted to assess the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers,” said Rep. Ro Khanna. “Sex workers have relied on such internet platforms to screen clients and negotiate boundaries for consensual, transactional sex services, including condom use and other harm reduction strategies. While SESTA/FOSTA was intended to curb online sex trafficking, by banning the “promotion of prostitution,” a host of internet platforms relied on by sex workers have shut down. My bill would mandate the first federal study investigating how the shutdown of websites in connection with SESTA/FOSTA impact the health and safety of people who rely on consensual, transactional sex. I’m proud to partner with Rep. Lee, Senator Warren and the many advocates on this critical issue.”

“For far too long, SESTA/FOSTA has demonized and harmed sex workers,” said Rep. Lee. “Instead of preventing sex trafficking, SESTA/FOSTA made it harder for sex workers to access critical health and safety resources. We need the full picture – that’s why I’m proud to work with Rep. Khanna and Senators Warren and Wyden on this legislation to study the full effects of SESTA/FOSTA. It’s imperative we ensure that everyone has the full picture when making reproductive health decisions.”

“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.”

“Last year I warned that forcing websites to take down any mention of sex work would remove agency from sex workers and put them at great risk of violence and abuse, all while making it harder to catch sex traffickers and aid victims of human trafficking. So far, initial reports from cities across the country show that violence against sex workers is rising dramatically and there’s little evidence that this law is helping victims. Representatives Khanna, Lee and Senator Warren are taking the common-sense position that HHS should study the impacts of SESTA-FOSTA on the most vulnerable members of society, so that Congress can make informed policy decisions, rather than chasing knee-jerk responses,” said Senator Wyden.

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 50 diverse national and regional organizations across the country, from LGBTQI+ rights organizations like Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the Sex Worker Outreach Project USA to Advocating Opportunity, one of only three programs in the country providing comprehensive legal services to victims of sex and labor trafficking of any gender, age, or documentation status. The date of the bill’s introduction, December 17th, is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

Supportive groups are:  AIDS United, Advocating Opportunity, American Civil Liberties Union, Athlete Ally, Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, Best Practices Policy Project, BiNet USA, Black and Pink, Black and Pink -Boston Chapter, Black Sex Worker Collective, CARES, The Center for Constitutional Rights, The Center for HIV Law and Policy, the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, Charm City Care Connection, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, Counter Narrative Project, Determine Your Destiny, Equality North Carolina, Erotic Service Provider Legal Educational and Research Project, FORGE, Free Speech Coalition (FSC), GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, HIPS, HIVenas Abiertas: A Network of Latinx People Living with HIV, Human Rights Campaign, LaGender Inc, Lambda Legal, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Center for Lesbian Rights, The National Equality Action Team, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, No Justice No Pride, Positive Women’s Network - USA, Positively Trans, Promundo-US, Rad Care, Red Canary Song, Reframe Health and Justice, Sero Project, Sex Workers Outreach Project - Behind Bars, Sex Workers Outreach Project - USA, Sex Workers Outreach Project - Baltimore, Sex Workers Outreach Project - Sacramento, St. James Infirmary, URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, Voices of Hope, Whitman Walker-Walker Health, and Woodhull Freedom Foundation.

“This bill is historic in recognizing that the lives, health, and safety of people who trade sex matter. Some members of the LGBT community, particularly transgender women of color, sometimes rely on sex work for survival because they face extreme discrimination in the formal employment sector. After the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, people who trade sex have been pushed to the streets where there are higher risks of violence and exploitation. This bill takes a critical step to understand these impacts in a thorough and rigorous manner. We commend Congressman Ro Khanna, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Ron Wyden, for their leadership in seeking to understand the impact of SESTA/FOSTA in these vulnerable populations,” said Puneet Cheema, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal.   

 “As an organization providing holistic legal services to people who have been trafficked in the commercial sex industry, we have seen an increase in violence against those engaged in trading sex following the passage of SESTA/FOSTA. We’ve received multiple reports that SESTA/FOSTA has led to increased arrests of sex workers, including those being trafficked, while hampering law enforcement efforts to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. While anecdotal reports are valuable, a comprehensive study of the effects of criminalization of online sex work on those involved in the sex trade is exactly the kind of evidence-based approach we need to more fully understand the unintended consequences of SESTA/FOSTA,” said Megan K. Mattimoe, Executive Director at Advocating Opportunity.

 “We were honored to have been consulted on how federal legislation impacts the people we represent. Our voices should be centered in this conversation and we are proud to know our elected officials are taking action in furtherance of our goals laid out in multiple meetings with members of the Sex Worker Advocacy Coalition. We are working with many others from across this nation and are working to bring about concrete change and recognition of the hundreds of thousands of people in the Sex Industry, particularly Black and brown trans and cis women, LGBTQ communities, and poor communities,” said Tamika L Spellman, Vice President at Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). “This bill examines the negative and unproductive legislation that categorically disenfranchised people who have been marginalized for far too long. On behalf of SWAC, we stand in full support of this proposed legislation as it will study the needs of Sex Workers impacted by the implementation of SESTA/FOSTA nationwide.”

 “As trans women of color experience an epidemic of violence, the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act will foster better understanding of how laws impacting sex workers contribute to that violence. Understanding the impacts of losing on-line platforms for transgender people engaged in the sex trade will provide critical information for developing policies that support their health and safety, and for all sex workers,” said Tyrone Hanley, National Center for Lesbian Rights Senior Policy Counsel.

 “The data show that criminalizing the lives of those who trade sex hits transgender people especially hard. Since passage of SESTA-FOSTA, we’ve heard communities across the country raise the alarm that it is making people less safe. We need to understand those unintended consequences so we can take action, and we thank Rep. Khanna, Rep. Lee, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Ron Wyden and the co-sponsors of this simple bill for working to do just that. Every member of Congress should support finding out whether such a consequential law is helping people the way they hoped or is actually making things worse,” said Mara Keisling, Executive Director, National Center for Transgender Equality.

“Sex workers have for years been talking about how access to the internet has been an important tool for safety and autonomy. Before FOSTA/SESTA passed, sex workers knew exactly what the impact would be. After the FOSTA/SESTA passed it was sex workers who were forced to live its consequences and have been diligently collecting stories and sharing knowledge and showing the meaning of mutual aid. The SAFE SEX Worker Act is recognition that sex workers should not silently live these collateral consequences but instead be looked at as a valuable voice of expertise and a community deserving of dignity,” said Kate D'Adamo, partner at Reframe Health and Justice, a collective committed to developing and delivering holistic, harm reduction solutions to social injustices.

"The SAFE SEX Workers Study Act would be an important step toward ensuring that individuals engaging in sex work are able to do so safely. The Human Rights Campaign supports the National Institute of Health undertaking a study into how FOSTA/SESTA may be disproportionately harming these folks, and how we could move forward to mitigate those harms in the future," said David Stacy, Government Affairs Director at the Human Rights Campaign.

Original cosponsors in the House are Reps: André Carson (IN-7), Judy Chu (CA-27), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Pramila Jayapal (WA-7), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12).

Original cosponsors in the Senate are: Sanders (I-VT).

Read the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act online here.


Contacts: (Khanna) (Lee) (Warren) (Wyden)