Today, with the President’s signing of H.R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as FOSTA-SESTA, anti-trafficking advocates and survivors of sex trafficking and their families celebrate this long awaited progress in the effort to combat online sex trafficking. Today’s bill signing comes days after federal agencies seized Backpage.com—a website that the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations reported is knowingly facilitating child sex trafficking—and charged seven Backpage executives in a 93-count indictment. With FOSTA-SESTA signed into law, state prosecutors can prevent similar websites from taking over Backpage’s market share and courtroom doors have been opened to trafficking survivors who seek to hold exploitative websites civilly liable. These concurrent efforts by federal law enforcement, Congress and the President are drastically changing the landscape that, until now, has allowed the sex trafficking industry to thrive.
As anti-trafficking advocates and sex trafficking survivors have argued throughout the process of passing FOSTA-SESTA, the long term impact of civil and state criminal liability for Backpage and other websites that employ a Backpage “business model” is to limit the online marketplace for sex trafficking victims. As the federal government investigates and prosecutes Backpage for its role in facilitating sex trafficking, FOSTA-SESTA will enable state prosecutors to respond when smaller websites begin to employ the same business model. Just as the majority of human trafficking prosecutions occur at the state level, this legislation will enable a more agile, prompt response to similar websites, addressing the problem before the scale of exploitation matches the harm caused by Backpage.
Recent criticisms of FOSTA-SESTA and the Backpage seizure claim these efforts harm trafficking survivors who post ads on Backpage and similar sites for commercial sex. However, these criticisms fail to recognize the inherent harm that commercially sexually exploited individuals face every day—whether survivors are bought and sold online or on the street, they face rates of violence that dwarf the potential for violence faced by most other sectors of the population. Research on the commercial sex industry and survivor accounts demonstrate how the majority of individuals sold for sex are under the control of a trafficker or pimp who often receives the money survivors earn from commercial sex transactions.
The reality is that online advertisements do not insulate victims of sex trafficking from the harm of being sold, purchased and raped; conversely, online advertisements facilitate the violence. Online platforms, like Backpage, that facilitate access to marginalized individuals do not provide them protection from the harms inherent in the commercial sex trade. Instead, an unchecked platform like Backpage heightens the risk of violence at the hands of sex buyers. Rarely do sex trafficking survivors have choices in their exploitation, no less sufficient autonomy to use Backpage as a tool to protect themselves from their trafficker or their buyers. Thus, providing perpetrators with an easy, anonymous and relatively unmonitored means to sell and purchase survivors for sex creates more opportunities for them to face the risk of violence.
We look forward to a changed landscape that not only holds websites like Backpage accountable, but shifts our national dialogue about the exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Indeed, recognizing the harm caused by online platforms as facilitators of trafficking and exploitation is a critical step in shifting the broader narrative to recognize the scope of exploitation that occurs in the commercial sex industry. Through these efforts, the perception of online platforms as benign, passive tools for connecting consenting adults is a veil that has been lifted to expose the violent reality of the commercial sex industry. Lifting this veil should also shift the focus of anti-prostitution efforts from the most vulnerable and marginalized—those selling sexual services, often to survive—to focus instead on the perpetrators and drivers of this exploitative industry—the sex buyers, facilitators and pimps who exploit and profit from the vulnerability of those whose lack of choice traps them in the commercial sex industry.
 Michael Shively et al., ABT Assoc., Inc., Developing a National Action Plan for Eliminating Sex Trafficking 5–6 (2010) (discussing research showing that 95% percent of trafficked women and girls internationally are physically abused, 59% are sexually abused and prostituted persons have mortality rates 200% higher than their peers) available at http://multco.us/sites/default/files/documents/developing_a_final_action_plan_to_eliminate_sex_trafficking.pdf.
 Melissa Farley et al., Online Prostitution and Trafficking, 77 Albany Law Rev., 104 (2014).
 Id. at 104 (“You are not safer because you work indoors. Craigslist is just the “internet streets,” where the same predators and hustlers are meeting you with the same intentions except they look like straight people who go to medical school and have Blackberrys. I consider myself in the same risk and danger zones as a street worker. I am an upper working class anonymous client worker.”) (quoting Marikopassion, An Outlaw’s Insurance Policy, Bound, not Gagged (Mar. 7, 2010), http://deepthroated.wordpress.com/2010/03/07/an-outlaws-insurance-policy/.).
 Alisa Bernard, The Smoke Screen That’s Obscuring the Voices of Survivors—Why We Must Amend the CDA (“In reality, a result of the now internet facilitated sex trade is the intentional disappearing of both victims and traffickers….Identification of victims and perpetrators has become practically impossible.”) available at: https://sharedhope.org/2017/10/smoke-screen/.