We lead an agency and programs that work with survivors of violence and trafficking. Both of our agencies see victims of trafficking marketed through online advertisements as part of their trafficking experience. As discussed elsewhere in this series, the federal legislation called Allow States to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) sought to protect people from trafficking via online communication and advertisements for sex. We are pleased to see legislative efforts to protect those victims.
But at the same time, we think FOSTA misses the modes, mechanisms, and root causes of exploitation among the most marginalized people who trade sex. We believe that FOSTA failed to recognize and see a whole group of people involved in street and survival-based sex trading. Where is the legislative push to help these marginalized people escape exploitation?
The View From Lake Street
Here we want to shine a spotlight on people involved in street and survival-based sex trading who do not necessarily trade sex online. Our agencies—the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and the Family Partnership’s PRIDE program—serve a wide range of people of color and Indigenous people. We partner on a street outreach project to reach people who trade sex on one of the Twin Cities’ long-standing and most entrenched street-based “tracks” along Franklin Avenue, Bloomington Avenue, and Lake Street in South Minneapolis.
Lake Street traverses several communities living in poverty, including African American, Indigenous, and Latinx enclaves. Along with restaurants, corner stores, gas stations, and other local businesses is a mix of street-level drug dealing and prostitution. The people trading sex on Lake Street are often invisible in national dialogues about trafficking and sex trading, and were not included in discussions around FOSTA.
MIWRC’s Experience: FOSTA Has Not Helped Our Relatives
MIWRC works with many other agencies and has served community members from tribes across the country. Our staff is over 70% Indigenous and we refer to the women and families we work with as relatives, rather than “clients.” This is grounded in our values and principles and removes power differentials that other agencies may unintentionally create. What we see among our community is multi-generational survival, street-based, and family system involved sex trading.
Commercial sex is rooted in the legacies and present-day impact of conquest, genocide, and (paradoxically) survival. According to Christopher Columbus’s journal, he trafficked 9- and 10-year-old girls back to Spain because they were in high demand; the true story of Pocahontas is a thinly-veiled case of trafficking, as she was barely 15 when she was kidnapped by the English and raped, according to the history told by her own people. The rape, sexual abuse, and sexualization of American Indian peoples has continued throughout American history.
Most of our relatives are not regularly posting themselves online but social media, such as Facebook, is extensively used to make connections, share messages, and forward messages to connect with buyers. We most often see online marketing and advertising from gang-based trafficking.
We have not seen FOSTA helping our relatives. The most marginalized people in commercial sex–those who are street-based, Indigenous, have co-occurring substance use issues, and/or have experienced generational trauma–were not using online marketing and are still being harmed. Family and gang-based trafficking continue to use personal networks and other online platforms to market their victims.
PRIDE’s Experience: Many Clients Face Fewer Options and New Dangers After FOSTA
PRIDE serves a wide range of people who identify as African American or white, and a smaller number of people who identify as native or Latinx. We see a wide range of ways people are involved in commercial sex that varies by age across the life span.
Many young people we serve use basic web applications like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, other social media, and dating sites. We found that female-identified and trans folks use the internet to market and connect with people who want to purchase sex, subsequently making arrangements to meet in hotels or private homes. Before FOSTA, many of our clients used Backpage.com, but not exclusively.
PRIDE staff have also found an increase in clients reporting violence from sex buyers. Violent acts and sexual exploitation continue to occur in the streets without much relief from policies like FOSTA to protect those who are impacted. Street-based prostitution increases in summer months and very little is being done to hold sex buyers and traffickers accountable, even when their presence in the streets of the Lake Street Corridor is evident.
Although it is a major market force, internet-based prostitution is not accessed by all of our clients. The market varies based on demographics such as age, gender, race, geographic area, and demand. Some of our older clients with long histories of exploitation and addiction turn to the streets as a means to support their addiction. They tend to experience chronic homelessness, serious mental health illnesses, and a myriad of other health concerns. These clients were not using online marketing and are not directly affected by FOSTA.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We agree with others in this conversation that the impetus behind FOSTA–to hold people accountable for criminal activity, whether it happens in the real world or online–was a good goal. From our close work with people in the sex trades, we saw many internet platforms making money off of exploitation and trafficking. FOSTA has raised awareness among web platforms that trafficking is happening on their website, and that is a good thing. It was necessary to put pressure on trafficking organizations and to take away a funding source for web providers (such as Backpage) who were clearly making money off the backs of exploited people.
But FOSTA has created additional harms for some and was irrelevant for those most exploited on the streets. The majority of people we work with trade sex for survival. If someone is using the commercial sex market for survival (food, a place to stay, pay their bills) and the market is disrupted, it gets more dangerous for them to continue making money in the way they know and have access to. FOSTA does not solve this problem.
To truly support people who are engaged in street and survival-based sex trading:
- We need more conversation about how those engaged in the sex trades can keep themselves safe, including a “bad date” list for people to identify violent sex buyers and ways to report them to police without fear of being penalized for prostitution or other related charges.
- We need more stringent policies that go after violent sex buyers. As we noted above, post-FOSTA we see more violence committed by buyers, a sort of free-for-all and sense of entitlement. We understand FOSTA’s push for identifying sex buyers online, but really need to focus on those who are violent in all markets.
- We need to center the lived experiences of the most marginalized. The people we work with at MIWRC and PRIDE rarely use or identify with the word “victim.” It’s more about resilience and getting by to the next day with what you need to survive, which for many includes trading sex.
- We need more resources and focus on addressing the underlying issues that cause people to trade sex. Increased access to safe and affordable housing, livable wages, and eliminating barriers would truly support people so that they would not need to engage in street and survival-based sex rading.
FOSTA was written by people who do not understand the depth of the problem, and therefore unintentionally created additional harms. From our work with those directly involved in the commercial sex trades, we know that healing actually requires work on the root causes of exploitation.
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