Nfld. & Labrador

American sex trafficking law makes sex workers here less safe, says activist

Heather Jarvis says a shutdown of U.S. websites used by sex workers affects Canadians as well.

Heather Jarvis says a shutdown of U.S. websites affects Canadians as well

Heather Jarvis of SHOP says laws enacted in the United States are shutting down websites used by sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paula Gale/CBC)

A change in American law intended to reduce sex trafficking is affecting the incomes and safety of sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to one local activist.

FOSTA-SESTA, passed in the United States in April, is a package of laws that supporters and some politicians say will reduce sex trafficking and child sex exploitation by making it more difficult to find victims online.

The laws have two main effects, both of which target the internet, said Heather Jarvis, the program co-ordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, or SHOP, which supports sex workers in the St. John's area.

"They make internet websites criminally responsible and legally liable for the content posted on them," Jarvis told the St. John's Morning Show.

"They also have stopped sex workers from sharing information online."

But these laws aimed at American websites are affecting sex workers in this province in ways that reduce their ability to safely and effectively make a living, she said.

American sites, Canadian impacts

One of the short-term effects of FOSTA-SESTA — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) — is that sections of several websites sex workers often use to advertise have been shut down.

"When laws impact the internet — the internet is often borderless — it often expands across different countries," Jarvis said.

"So although these are laws in the United States, what we've seen is they've been shutting down websites in Canada and other countries as well."

The loss of online options to advertise and screen clients could drive some sex workers to street work, which can reduce their safety, activists say. (CBC)

As a result of the laws, the sections sex workers use to advertise to potential clients on sites like Craigslist have been shut down, which affects users in Canada as well as the United States.

As well, Twitter has tightened up some of its rules and regulations regarding how sex workers have used the site in the past.

And the site, which is similar to Craigslist or Kijiji and has long had an adult section, was seized in the United States, which also led to the shut down of, which local sex workers had used.

The U.S. law is billed as a way to combat sexual trafficking and exploitation, but some sex workers have spoken out about the dangers of pushing things underground. (Reuters)

The situation is in flux. People in the sex industry, and those who work with them, aren't sure which websites will be affected next. In the meantime, two local sites — NL Adult and Hard on the Rock — are seeing an increase in users.

"It's actually day by day we're watching what is next, what is changing," Jarvis said.

'They're not doing the work that they need to do'

Instead of improving the safety of victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation, the website shutdowns are actually making everyone less safe, Jarvis said.

"What we know is that the vast majority of sex workers, including a lot of survivors of sexual trafficking, a lot of survivors of sexual exploitation, have spoken out very, very critically about these laws," she said.

"They're not doing the work that they need to do. Instead, they're sacrificing a lot of people along the way."

Sex workers use the websites to advertise their services, but also to clarify what they are and are not willing to do, to screen potential clients, to warn other sex workers about bad or dangerous clients, and to otherwise share information that can help keep themselves safe, Jarvis said.

Losing options to do all those things is a direct risk to their safety and lives, she said.

"Not only is this directly impacting their income, but it's directly impacting their ability to work safely. And it is further pushing the entire industry underground, including the real victims of human trafficking."

"What we know is when things go underground it is a lot harder for people to be safe, access resources, and access any kind of enforcement options."

SHOP is hearing from sex workers in St. John's who are losing business, and therefore income, forcing some of them to rely on food banks and emergency shelters.

Jarvis invites anybody with concerns about being safer to reach out to SHOP, which has contact information available online and on Facebook.

"That's a big part of our work, to make sure people are not in isolation, to make sure people are not in fear alone and can share information and resources."