Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics Rhode Island (COYOTE RI) filed an Amicus brief with the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today, supporting the Appellants who argue that the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) violates the First Amendment. The case, Woodhull Freedom Foundation v. United States, is on appeal from the DC District Court, where Judge Leon found that the statute was constitutional.


The brief, which is joined by 12 other organizations, describes the harm FOSTA has caused sex workers and sex trafficking survivors since it was passed four years ago. The brief is based on a survey of 248 sex workers and sex trafficking survivors that found FOSTA dramatically increases sex trafficking, exploitation, and other violence. Furthermore, it silences protected speech and causes the greatest harm to the sex trafficking survivors it was intended to protect.


Passed in 2018, FOSTA modified Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to allow for prosecution of website operators who host user generated content that facilitates prostitution, broadly equating prostitution and other forms of sex work with sex trafficking. This resulted in an immediate loss of online resources for sex workers, including advertising websites, life-saving blacklist databases (used by sex workers to alert each other of dangerous predators posing as potential clients), and online forums. Desiree Alliance canceled its biennial conference “to advocate for human, labor, and civil rights for all workers in the sex industry” that summer due to fears of prosecution under FOSTA and has not held a conference since.


COYOTE RI’s research found survey participants reported a 40% increase in force or coercion within the industry (sex trafficking). For trafficking survivors who had been victims of force, fraud, or coercion within the industry already, that number was 64%. Other kinds of violence increased too, with 39% of survey participants and 67% of survivors of force, fraud, or coercion within the industry reporting increased violence. With no place to advertise online, 11% of survey participants turned to street based sex work, which is more dangerous. However, 24% of sex trafficking survivors who had entered the sex industry as minors reported turning to street based work.


Survey participants reported they were vulnerable to violence because of income loss due to losing advertising websites and the difficulty in properly screening potential clients for safety in a post-FOSTA market. The survey found 78% of participants reported FOSTA prevented them from using screening procedures that made them feel safe.


FOSTA made safety screening impossible and illegal,” wrote one survey participant. “It’s terrifying how lawmakers don’t care about our safety even though the effects of FOSTA were so clearly predicted by those in the industry.”


FOSTA has profoundly harmed public safety by making it harder for police to investigate reports of sex trafficking and assault because advertising websites are now hosted overseas and sex workers are less able to collect identifying information from those they meet. About half of the small number of survey participants who had reported crimes to the police since FOSTA, reported that police investigations were hampered by FOSTA. For people of color who reported crimes to police, FOSTA impeded investigations in every case.


Survey participants report FOSTA made them more afraid of reporting serious crimes to police. Seventy percent say they are less likely to go to police if assaulted due to FOSTA and 50% report being less likely to go to police if someone showed them child pornography. In addition to their fear of police, some participants reported that because of FOSTA, they would not have adequate information to provide to police about the offender.

“Everything feels much more precarious than before FOSTA and that is very, very unfortunate,” explained one research participant. “And to think that so many work[er]s are much worse off than me, have died [or] been left homeless or forced to return to street work and be exploited by pimps, directly as a result of FOSTA, is just devastating.”


FOSTA violates the constitutionally protected and life-saving speech of sex workers and sex trafficking survivors,” said Tara Burns, COYOTE RI’s Research Director. “It has increased sex trafficking and violence against sex workers, and even more so against sex trafficking survivors. It endangers public safety by further alienating people in the sex industry from police and making crimes against sex workers and sex trafficking survivors harder to investigate.”


COYOTE-RI was represented by The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women, a non-profit organization led by formerly incarcerated Black women and dedicated to ending the incarceration of women and girls. The National Council’s Senior Legal Counsel, who wrote the amicus brief, said she “was proud to help vindicate the First Amendment rights of sex workers, whose voices and expertise must be heard to find a way to end the horror of human trafficking.”


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