Phoenix Calida’s friends are preparing for death. Some are sending photos of tattoos to make it easier to identify their bodies. Others are giving instructions for eulogies.
Calida, 35, is a Chicago-based sex worker who has depended on websites that host classified ads, such as Craigslist and Backpage.com, to meet and screen clients. But the US government’s recent crackdown on those platforms has abruptly eliminated many workers’ primary source of income, forcing some to turn to the streets or to rely on abusive pimps, greatly increasing the risk of violence.
“Girls are going back to the streets and they are going to die in the streets, and nobody cares,” said Calida, a mother of two, who said she used to do street work and fears she will have to start again to make ends meet. “Everybody is terrified.”
Congress recently passed legislation with bipartisan support that purports to combat online sex trafficking by making websites criminally liable for users’ content. But some say the Online Sex Trafficking Act (Fosta) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (Sesta) will have the opposite effect. Critics argue that the legislation broadly censors online speech, takes income away from people who engage in consensual sex work, and helps traffickers get away with crimes by pushing the industry underground.
Emily Benavides, a spokeswoman for Senator Rob Portman, Sesta’s sponsor, defended the bill in an email, saying it was “narrowly crafted” and “gives state law enforcement the tools they need to go after criminals who traffic women and children online”, adding: “This bill was widely supported on a bipartisan basis, and we’re proud that it will become the law of the land.”
Donald Trump is expected to sign the law this week, but sex workers across the country told the Guardian they were already suffering consequences. Craigslist shut down its personals section, and federal authorities seized Backpage.com, releasing an indictment this week accusing its founders of money laundering and “facilitating prostitution”. The list of charges did not include trafficking.
“It’s devastating,” said a sex worker who goes by the name Jala Dixon. “They just took everything from me.”
Dixon, who is based in Georgia, said she chose to do sex work to help save money for school and that she was now considering turning to the streets. “This is really not doing anything but making us unsafe and putting us at risk.”
Sex worker rights groups have long argued that initiatives targeting child trafficking end up hurting the most marginalized workers by broadly criminalizing the industry. That includes queer and transgender people, the homeless and others who have been excluded from traditional employment. Defenders of Backpage and Craigslist say those sites gave workers control over their jobs and allowed people to detect and report traffickers.
When Calida worked on the streets in her 20s, she said, she would face abuse from clients and police. Some men would demand sex without condoms, cross her boundaries, refuse to pay, or physically hurt her, said Calida, who asked to be quoted under the name she uses for online writing and activism. She said passersby had thrown garbage at her.
“I really, really, really don’t want to have to do this,” she said, explaining that on sites like Craigslist and Backpage workers could negotiate terms in advance, request that clients provide references, run cross-checks on clients’ email addresses, and communicate with other sex workers about dangerous or violent people to avoid.
Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Sacramento, said her phone had been ringing off the hook since the seizure of Backpage: “The fear is astronomical.”
One woman told her she was forced to return to an abusive client due to the lost income, she said. Others have resorted to taking on “managers” who have leverage over the women and their income and could exploit them, she added. “Very easily, you can lose control of your own life.”
“This bill is creating an actual market for pimps,” Calida said, adding: “People don’t know if they are going to be able to pay rent … how they are going to afford food.”
DiAngelo said she also feared the crackdowns could extend to organizations like hers that focus on harm reduction initiatives, such as handing out condoms. Could prosecutors accuse her of facilitating prostitution?
“They’ve just unemployed massive amounts of marginalized people,” she added, “They’re taking away life-saving resources.”
Kit, who is in her late 20s and works as an escort, said that she chooses to do sex work because it has provided sustainable income. Under the law, however, she could be treated as a trafficking victim, even though she said she was not being coerced: “Sex work is the thing that gives me an ability to make a living wage and kind of do OK for myself … It’s what works for me.”
Jackie Monroe, a 25-year-old California woman, said she was previously a victim of trafficking and was forced to do sex work. But Monroe, who asked to use her nickname to protect the privacy of her children, said she didn’t believe shutting down the websites and arresting people for prostitution would help victims like her.
“It hurts my heart,” she said, thinking of women she knows who will now work on the street. She noted that law enforcement never helped her when she was a victim, instead charging her with prostitution and loitering offenses. “How is this protecting us? How is this saving us?”