The New Virtual Crackdown on Sex Workers’ Rights: Perspectives from the United States


  • Meghan Peterson
  • Bella Robinson
  • Elena Shih



On 11 April 2018, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was signed into law in the United States. FOSTA introduced new provisions to amend the Communications Act of 1934 so that websites can be prosecuted if they engage ‘in the promotion or facilitation of prostitution’ or ‘facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.’ While supporters of the law claim that its aim is to target human traffickers, its text makes no effort to differentiate between trafficking and consensual sex work and it functionally includes websites where workers advertise services or share information, including safety tips.[3] Following the law’s passage—and even before its full implementation—sex workers felt its impact as websites began to eliminate platforms previously used to advertise services. Backpage, an adult advertising website, was pre-emptively seized by the FBI. Other platforms began to censor or remove content related to sex work, including Google, Craigslist, and many online advertising networks. Sex workers in the United States have denounced the passage of FOSTA for reducing workers’ ability to screen clients and ensure safety practices. This paper provides an overview of the findings of a recent survey with sex workers in the United States, details the advent of similar initiatives in other countries, and explores how the legislation conflates trafficking with consensual sex work.


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Author Biographies

Meghan Peterson

Meghan Peterson is a public health researcher at Brown University’s School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. Her work focuses on the impacts of incarceration on public health outcomes. She is also a sex worker rights advocate and serves on the board of COYOTE Rhode Island. Email:

Bella Robinson

Bella Robinson is the Executive Director of COYOTE-RI and a sex worker rights activist who has worked in the sex industry for over thirty years. As the director of COYOTE-RI, builds and strengthens support networks for sex workers in Rhode Island and works in close collaboration with activists nationwide. Her personal experiences with the criminal justice system over the past four decades give her exceptional expertise in the areas of sex worker rights and human trafficking. Email:

Elena Shih

Elena Shih is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University in Rhode Island. Shih’s current book project, Manufacturing Freedom: Rescue, Rehabilitation, and the Slave Free Good, is a global ethnography of the transnational social movement to combat human trafficking through ethical consumption, and market-based vocational training and rehabilitation schemes. Email:




How to Cite

Peterson, M., Robinson, B., & Shih, E. (2019). The New Virtual Crackdown on Sex Workers’ Rights: Perspectives from the United States. Anti-Trafficking Review, (12), 189–193.