Porn thrived on Tumblr in no small part because it was a safe space for women to consume femme- and queer-centric erotic content. But on Dec. 17, Tumblr banned all “adult content” from its platform, and in weeks previous had unleashed a porn-scrubbing algorithm that has flagged images of vases and gay pride pins as “explicit.” Even before Tumblr announced the adult-content ban, it shut down several sex-education blogs discussing kink safety and sex workers’ rights.
This is happening because of the sweeping language in FOSTA-SESTA, a hybrid of a Senate and House bill President Trump signed into law last April, which created an exception to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that has protected online platforms from liability for user-generated content for decades. Now, digital publishers will be responsible if third parties post ads for consensual sex work on their platforms which is incentivizing digital platforms — of which Tumblr is just the latest — to over-censor users, disproportionately silencing marginalized voices.
“Section 230 doesn’t cause lawlessness,” says Alexandra Levy, an adjunct professor of human trafficking and human markets at Notre Dame Law School. “Rather, it creates a space in which many things — including lawless behavior — come to light. And it’s in that light that multitudes of organizations and people have taken proactive steps to usher victims to safety and apprehend their abusers.”
Trafficking — like any other form of abuse — thrives when victims are isolated.
“This legislation will drive demand into the street corners, the back alleys…[and] will stifle meaningful discussions on education and safety, perpetuating the very problems they hoped to resolve,” Nat Paul, a former consensual sex worker and trafficking survivor recently appointed to the US Advisory Council on Trafficking, told Rolling Stone.
Advertising online allows workers to operate independently and screen potential clients from home. And it’s not only the anecdotal testimony of sex workers — a 2017 West Virginia University and Baylor University study found a 17 percent drop in female homicide rates correlated to Craigslist opening its “erotic” section. (That’s not homicide rates among female sex workers, specifically — the platform simply had that sizable of an effect.)
It is, at best, a grossly misguided attempt to cut down on illegal sex trafficking online but one has to wonder how in 2018 we are conflating child sex predators and adult, consensual sex workers. Instead of addressing the needs of trafficking survivors, targeting the predators who monetize child abuse or making it easier for prosecutors to take suspected traffickers to court, lawmakers have further criminalized one of the most vulnerable populations in the country.
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