The Current

Canadian sex worker says new U.S. trafficking laws are a risk to her safety

Two new laws to combat sex trafficking are having unintended consequences for Canadian sex workers, but advocates say the safety of children must take priority.
Jelena Vermilion, a sex worker in Ontario, has seen her livelihood suffer after the shut down of the website Backpage. (Submitted by Jelena Vermilion)

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Two new anti-sex trafficking laws in the U.S. are having an unintended impact on Canadian sex workers, and raising fears for their safety.

Under the new laws, websites will be held accountable for any sex trafficking that is facilitated on their pages, even through advertisements. They coincide with the seizure of popular classifieds site Backpage, which was shut down by the FBI earlier this month after its CEO pleaded guilty to several charges, including facilitating prostitution.

Sections of the site were used to advertise consensual sex work, but officials say they were also being used for trafficking.

Jelena Vermilion, an Ontario-based sex worker, says her livelihood has suffered since the closure. She told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch that 90 per cent of her income came from Backpage. The site also allowed her to screen her clients.

"It gives us the ability and autonomy to screen our clients," she said. "It gives us a filter between meeting a client and deciding whether that's safe for us."

When you have something as overt, that deals with the sale of children and youth, it needs to be addressed.- Signy Arnason

"I know that as a sex worker for the last five years, I have been able to seek safety from Backpage," she said.

She added that she's heard from sex workers in her network who are now "considering walking the streets."

The U.S. Senate voted to pass the two bills last month: the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). In response, the classified website Craigslist shut down the personals section of its U.S. site.

The new laws will hold websites accountable for any sex trafficking that is facilitated on their pages, even through advertisements. (Shutterstock)

Anti-sex trafficking groups welcomed the new laws.

Signy Arnason, the associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said that the safety and wellbeing of young people should be the priority.

Her organization's tipline has received 1,700 confirmed reports of online sex trafficking over the last 10 years.

Political leaders in the U.S. have long accused the website of aiding in sex trafficking and child exploitation.

She said that trafficking in Canada is a huge problem, and sites like Backpage were being used to "normalize the idea that youth are sexually available."

The void left for sex workers can be addressed, she said, and "there can be mechanisms and ways by which you can keep sex workers safer."

"When you have something as overt [as Backpage] that deals with the sale of children and youth, it needs to be addressed."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, including a conversation with Elliot Harmon, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about how the new laws could do more harm than good.

This segment was produced by The Current's Geoff Turner and Bethlehem Mariam. With files from CBC News.


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