Bill To Study SESTA’s Harms To Be Introduced in Congress

December 2, 2019

Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) , who was one of only 25 votes opposing FOSTA/SESTA (SESTA) in 2018, has announced a bill to study this new federal law. The bill, which would cause the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study SESTA’s harmful effects, would “establish the risks sex workers face on a day to day basis: the risk of violence, safety, [and] dignity.” There is no evidence that SESTA has reduced trafficking, while there is significant evidence it causes increased violence and economic desperation.

In addition to broader concerns about SESTA’s limitation of free speech on the internet, the law negatively impacts sex workers’ ability to protect themselves against violence and predators posing as clients. By restricting online advertisements of sexual services, SESTA removes safety networks used to vet potential clients and drives sex workers onto the streets.

In a Rolling Stone article, Tamika Spellman of HIPS DC estimated that there had been a 75-80% increase in street-based sex work since SESTA became law. Maxine Doogan, president of ESPLERP, says that SESTA has caused sex workers to lose their housing and has reduced workers’ bargaining power when negotiating with clients, forcing them to make riskier decisions.

Lived experience is backed up by hard data. A 2019 study by economists Scott Cunningham, Gregory DeAngelo, and John Tripp showed that the former “erotic services” section on Craigslist, a platform for sex workers to advertise and screen clients, reduced the overall female homicide rate by a staggering 10-17%. This finding comports with economic theory: Reducing the restrictions on any industry expands available economic opportunities and increases bargaining power, particularly for those at the bottom of the economic scale. With the balance of power shifted towards workers, those they interact with change their behavior.

Despite ample evidence of SESTA’s harmful effects, there is a lack of comprehensive research into the scope of SESTA’s impact. A short survey of trafficking-victim service providers, conducted by the Samaritan Women in July 2018, found disastrous consequences. Shelters have seen an uptick in aggravated assaults since the law was implemented and have had to increase capacity to meet the growing need.

Violence, abuse, and the number of victim/exploiter relationships have gone up according to service providers. There is no way to determine if SESTA is the direct cause, but the correlation is clear. One interviewee said that “pimps have been actively seeking out prior victims with the promise of clients since it’s more difficult for those involved in the industry to find customers on their own.”

Law enforcement officers working in anti-trafficking, who relied on sites like Backpage.com for intelligence gathering and sting operations, have had to abandon several pending investigations. As trafficking and violence escalates, law enforcement’s front line of defense has been severely compromised. Additional research is needed to asses the longer-term impact of these harms.

With the Woodhull Freedom Foundation’s constitutional challenge to SESTA still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals, winning this case would be an essential step in potentially overturning the law. Rep. Khanna’s bill is a historic step towards incorporating the voices of impacted community members into federal legislation. Visit DSW’s Take Action page to contact your U.S. House member in support of this vital legislation.

Marchers in Las Vegas demonstrate against SESTA in June. (Photo: John Locher/Bangor Daily News)

U.S. Rep. Khanna announced his bill on December 2.

DSW Welcomes Two Incredible New Team Members

December 1, 2019

DSW has gained two invaluable colleagues. Ceyenne Doroshow and J. Leigh Brantly will be joining the organization as Community Engagement Consultant and Research and Project Manager, respectively.

Ceyenne Doroshow is an author, activist, organizer, performer, and public figure in the trans and sex worker rights movements. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS), an organization that works to provide holistic care to LGBTQ sex workers.

Ceyenne is an internationally renowned public speaker and has been featured in numerous international media outlets, TV shows, and documentaries such as The Red Umbrella DiariesMiss Major, Showtime’s Oz, and Netflix specials on sex worker rights. She has presented at The Desiree Alliance, Creating Change, Harm Reduction Coalition, International AIDS Conference, and many other events.

Her passion, warmth, respect, and tireless generosity have positioned Ceyenne as a thought leader in the sex worker rights movement, sharing her work and personal experiences as a black trans woman and former sex worker. She currently serves on the boards of Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, Caribbean Equality Project, SOAR Institute, and the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG).

At the intersection of policy, creativity, and research is where you will find multiracial genderqueer J. Leigh Brantly, who currently serves on advisory boards for GLITS and SOAR Institute and is the co-president of the New York State Gender Diversity Coalition. J. Leigh received the 2019 Marsha P. Johnson Community Leader Award from NYTAG and worked on an amicus brief with DSW’s Melissa Broudo to challenge the bad federal law known as FOSTA/SESTA.

J. Leigh has spoken at MOMA/PS1’s Sex Workers’ Festival of Resistance (with Ceyenne Doroshow and DSW’s Melissa Broudo) and the International AIDS Conference, and they co-curated sex worker films at both of these events. They have represented sex work on Showtime’s Billions and Fox’s The Following; been featured in TIME, VICE News, and TimeOUT NY; and spoken at the NYC Women’s Rally, sandwiched between Gloria Steinhem and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

In collaboration with the Colectivo Intercultural Transgrediendo, they co-produced SEXHUM, an ethnographic sex worker short film for an international academic research project, which was funded by the European Research Council. In 2021, they will begin a Ph.D. research program focusing on sex workers with physically (dis)abled clients.

Ceyenne Doroshow (second from right) and J. Leigh Brantly (far right) at the 2018 International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam with Jill McCracken, Ph.D. (center), Alex Andrews (right of center) of SWOP Behind Bars, and other sex worker activists.

Ceyenne and J. Leigh are powerhouses within the sex worker and TGNCNB communities. They have worked together at GLITS, spoken on panels together, and organized for sex worker/transgender rights. They collaborated on a study of transphobia and queerphobia experienced by LGBTQ sex workers for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

Both acted as advisors to the Museum of the City of New York, where Ceyenne’s groundbreaking cookbook (written while she was incarcerated on prostitution charges), Cooking in Heels, is now permanently featured in the museum’s transgender activism exhibit. With unparalleled expertise in media, advocacy, and harm-reduction work, DSW is fortunate to have them on board.

As DSW takes on additional initiatives, our organization is expanding its capacity to better serve the goals of the sex worker rights movement. The progress we have made in 2019 motivates us, and we look forward to continuing the momentum into the new year.

Ceyenne Doroshow: Author, activist, spokesperson, and public figure in the sex worker and transgender rights movements

J. Leigh Brantly: Researcher, filmmaker, and organizer

Remembering Yang Song: Wife, daughter, New Yorker, and victim of criminalization

November 30, 2019

Two years ago, during a raid on the Flushing massage parlor where she worked, 38-year-old Yang Song jumped from the building’s third-floor window, rather than face the vice officers who were running up the stairs. Yang died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital the following morning.

Yang Song had been arrested months before on prostitution charges. Her case was referred to the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs), and a court date had been scheduled for December. Hyphen magazine’s interview with Yang’s family following her death confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted while in police custody.

An officer had confiscated her money and her phone and then demanded sexual services. An immigrant working in a criminalized industry, Yang felt powerless to refuse. She bravely reported the assault to the local precinct and helped them identify the police assailant.

This victory was short-lived and costly for Yang. Following the report, vice agents began to harass and threaten her. They pressured Yang to become an undercover informant, to turn in clients and friends. When Yang refused, law enforcement targeted her in repeated stings. With the assault in recent memory and a December court date scheduled, facing re-arrest would have meant prison time and possible deportation, not to mention the prospect of another attack, or worse.

Yang’s experience at the hands of law enforcement is an illustration of why sex workers are unlikely—and in some cases unable—to report crimes committed against them (especially by the police). Following her death, a report issued by the Queens District Attorney’s office denied any wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement.

The raid took place months after NYPD pledged to curb prostitution arrests. A 2017 report by the Urban Justice Center revealed that arrests of Asian-identified people for prostitution and unlicensed massages increased by 2700% from 2012 to 2016. Fully 87% of the arrests for unlicensed massages were of Asian migrant women.

Tragedies like this are enabled by bad laws that systematically disenfranchise immigrants and sex workers. Police raids are traumatic and violent, treating supposed victims as criminals. Arrests do not help, saddling defendants with court fees and criminal records that further limit their ability to find another job. HTICs, established in Queens Criminal Court in 2010 and later expanded to NYC’s other four boroughs, fail to identify trafficking survivors and neglect to provide workers with the services they need, such as employment, housing, education, and healthcare.

A report by the Yale School of Public Health found that courts increase harm by providing a way for ICE to target immigrants.

Criminalization of prostitution allows discrimination and government-sponsored violence to thrive. Yang Song’s tragic death brought these realities to light. In a world that pities, condemns, or erases them, sex workers continue to demand rights. Organizations like Red Canary Song and Womankind advocate for Asian sex workers and survivors of trafficking in New York. Red Canary Song held a beautiful vigil to honor Yang Song’s life on November 30 of this year.

Help support the rights and safety of all by visiting DSW’s Take Action page.

Marchers honor Yang Song at a vigil in 2018 and call for decriminalization to prevent more harm. (Photo: Emma Whitford/Hyphen magazine, 2019)

Yang Song’s family traveled to New York the month after her death in the hopes of gaining insight into the circumstances surrounding her death. Yang’s mother, Yumai Shi, and brother, Hai Song, are pictured in the office of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team’s office on 40th Road, across the street from where Yang fell. (Photo: Scott Heins/The Appeal, 2019)

Defense Lawyers Understand the Harms of Criminalization

November 20-22, 2019

DSW attended the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ (NACDL’s) 2019 Defending Sex Crimes Seminar, an annual event that brings together defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates. NACDL is an opportunity for experts to exchange knowledge around protecting the rights of defendants and promoting a more equitable justice process.

This year’s seminar, “Zealous Advocacy in Sexual Assault & Child Victims Cases,” covered topics such as alcohol and memory, campus sex cases, DNA, false confessions, issues with juveniles in sex cases, and the psychology of the jury, among others. Melissa Broudo and Kaytlin Bailey of DSW got a warm reception at the conference. They enjoyed talking to compassionate litigators with decades of experience working on legal issues related to sex and crime.

DSW’s booth illustrated the disastrous consequences of conflating consensual adult sex work with trafficking; the former should be decriminalized, and the latter should not. Defense attorneys visiting the booth expressed nearly unanimous support of DSW’s work.

DSW’s Kaytlin Bailey and Melissa Broudo (left to right) on the first day of the conference.

Making friends and gaining allies: DSW’s Melissa Broudo and Kaytlin Bailey are pictured with new DSW supporter, criminal defense attorney Rick Horowitz.