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On SESTA, the COVID-19 Pandemic and Disability





In 2018, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) was the harbinger of death for sex workers all over the US. The bill was signed into law in April of 2018 and essentially amended the 1996 Communications Decency Act to make websites responsible for third party content. This may initially sound like a good idea, but the law was enacted to address sex trafficking and has hardly done its job. The problem is, SESTA conflates adult, consensual sex work with sex trafficking and creates an online environment in which website moderators have to be hypervigilant about content. This results in a lot of self-imposed censuring of content, in anticipation of a potential lawsuit.


SESTA has affected every sex worker in the United States, but one group of people has been particularly hard-hit. People living with disabilities have run into a number of difficulties since SESTA and the COVID-19 pandemic, including but not limited to, inability to submit documents, inability to contact SSA, moving of hearings to Zoom, decline in income, lack of income stability and more. COVID-19 has obviously compounded these issues and served to only make every one of them more insurmountable.


For all of the early pandemic, the Social Security Administration offices were closed. While there was supposed to be a 1-800 number to call for assistance, many people were dismayed to find it was a round robin loop to nowhere in which people had their calls dropped and could not get through. The closure of the SSA offices also meant that people had significant difficulties submitting the proper documents needed to process their claims.


After SESTA, many sex workers lost their incomes overnight. This impact was no less severe for people on disability, whose payments are always meager. Many sex workers depend on sex work to supplement their incomes, and in the blink of an eye this went away. Even worse, people waiting for their disability claims - who cannot work during this time and have yet to establish income through SSDI - were left between a rock and a hard place; no income yet from SSDI, no ability to work a regular job, no ability to do sex work. The brutality of this system that keeps the state’s interests over any others is what serves to sign the death warrants of many disabled sex workers.


Additionally, with the onset of the pandemic we saw our whole world's move to the now ubiquitous platform known as Zoom. This may be convenient for the average, work-a-day American, but these systems leave out many who can’t afford and don't have access to certain technologies, such as internet and computers. If one doesn’t have income because they’re awaiting approval of a disability claim, and that individual also cannot work, then how are they supposed to access their (Zoom) hearing with no access?


Sex workers have incurred not just a double, but a triple bind in the past three years. First there was the closure of Backpage dot com, then mere days later the passage of SESTA. While the community had not even partially recovered from the death trap that was SESTA and then a mere two years later, we were introduced to the pandemic of a lifetime that knocked everybody for a loop - not just sex workers. The pandemic acted as an accordion effect - those with less privilege - BIPOC, LGBTQ, womxn, and people with disabilities fell to the proverbial bottom of the heap, while white, more privileged sex workers stayed wealthy and privileged, with little effect reported. There was a kind of bifurcation of the industry in this way that we still have not recovered from. Inequities have been sorely exacerbated, and seem to only keep getting worse and worse with the state of our country.


There are no easy answers for addressing the institutional ableism that permeates the lives of individual sex workers with disabilities. Decriminalization - yes. But decrim is not a silver bullet. It is a good first step in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of sex workers, for sure. But sometimes in the sex workers rights movement we forget that decrim does not eliminate institutional oppression. It does not inherently address the systemic and historical issues of racial oppression, generational wealth and poverty. It does not address transphobia or homophobia, sexism, and of course - ableism. These kinds of oppression exist deeply embedded in every facet of American culture, society and history - like a tick on a hound dog. So decrim - YES. But let’s not forget ALL of the work we have to do to make sure sex workers with disabilities, and all sex workers in general are free of oppression.


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