Some Las Vegas sex workers say anti-sex trafficking legislation has negative impact

USA Vegas News
Victoria Hartmann

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Victoria Hartmann, the director of the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, worries that federal law meant to curb sex trafficking on online personal sites could have a negative impact for Las Vegas sex workers. “Our sex free speech was attacked, for sex workers especially,” she said. “There’s nowhere to congregate online to talk about sex work safety and dangerous clients.” 

Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019 | 2 a.m.

Alice Little loves being a “luxury companion” and escort at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal, licensed brothel in Lyon County. The vivacious 29-year-old is passionate about sex work and sees the benefit it has on human intimacy — a basic need she feels often goes unmet.

She resents any misrepresentation that conflates consensual sex work with forced prostitution, or that sex work is degrading.

“I have a college degree. I’ve literally been offered six figures to leave my job and go to work in the marketing department of another company, and I said no and turned it down,” she said. “I choose to do this every single day because I love it and I see the benefit it has for society.”

But Little feels her career is under attack after a federal law meant to curb sex trafficking on online personal sites has instead unleashed negative residual effects on her livelihood.

President Donald Trump signed two bipartisan bills, the Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) into law in 2018, making it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate or support sex trafficking.

The acts weakened the Communications Decency Act, which ensured legal protection for websites like Reddit, Craigslist or Backpage — where many sex workers posted ads — if a user should post what could be perceived as unsavory or offensive content. The websites provided the medium, but weren’t responsible for the content posted by its users’ own accord. Until now.

Under the acts, websites are responsible for the content users post, including topics relating to prostitution, and are no longer subject to legal immunity.

But the law is broad, and doesn’t differentiate between forced prostitution and consensual sex work, said Mike Stabile, spokesman for the Free Speech Coalition, a nonprofit trade association of the adult entertainment industry. The sex industry isn’t limited to prostitution, and includes phone sex operations, exotic dancing, webcam modeling and pornographic filmmaking.

In an effort to avoid triggering violations, Craigslist took down its infamous personal ads section, and Reddit banned multiple subreddits relating to sex work to keep its company safe.

“People pre-emptively shut these things down,” Stabile said. “Because the law is so draconian, people are shying away from having these things up.”

This has had far-reaching implications on the industry as a whole, as independent sex workers are no longer able to have any sort of internet footprint and are being forced to find clients on the street, Little said. The legislation also prevents sex workers from screening clients, Little said.

“We’re kind of seeing that after the fact, with an increase in violence and (a decrease in) safety and support for sex workers,” Little said.

Some, like Victoria Hartmann, a sex educator and director of the Erotic Heritage Museum, worry that the acts will have a long-standing chilling effect on how sex is talked about on the internet.

“Our sex free speech was attacked, for sex workers especially,” she said. “There’s nowhere to congregate online to talk about sex work safety and dangerous clients.”

The change could open a window for sex traffickers and pimps to exploit sex workers who can no longer work independently, she said.

“The law has been a boon for sex traffickers and pimps,” she said. “It starts a cycle of abuse in the state, and the downward spiral continues. Then they have an arrest record, and there’s more abuse on the streets.”

Las Vegas-area criminal defense attorney Nicholas Wooldridge said prostitution in Nevada is broadly defined as anyone who engages in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee, and that any online post or resource meant to aid in sex work safety could be interpreted as encouraging prostitution under the law.

He’s represented clients who had content taken down online, even though they didn’t engage in sexual activity. One such client was a dominatrix who engaged in nonsexual activities with her clients.

“I think what’s happening here is you have major corporations who don’t want to touch it,” Wooldridge said. “If there’s something that messes with their algorithm that appears to be of a sexual nature, they don’t want this thing coming down on them and they shut it down.”

Little said she has seen more women applying to work at legal brothels who say they no longer feel safe working independently.

“It’s kind of created a situation in which ladies are almost becoming reliant on the brothels for that security and safety,” she said.

But Little said even legal sex workers have suffered the residual effects of the legislation. She’s found that the videos she uploads on YouTube, which cover a far range of topics that explore anywhere from sex work to life on the Bunny Ranch, get taken down or demonetized, a practice that already occurred before the acts but has recently been amplified, she said.

“Myself and my coworkers are constantly getting our accounts deleted on Twitter as well as Instagram,” she said. “There’s always this challenge in accessing the online space in really any capacity now.”

With fewer tools in their arsenal, sex workers are beginning to look at other ways to arm themselves in an industry they worry is being further pushed into the shadows.

Hartmann said the Erotic Heritage Museum occasionally hosts workshops with First Amendment attorneys to educate sex workers on how to continue working and keep themselves safe.

Lance Hart is worried about his own safety as an entrepreneur and adult film star, as well as the safety of his friends and colleagues in the industry. That’s why he’s started to host self-defense classes for sex workers to fend off against harassers, stalkers and violent clients in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He’s hosted two classes so far and hopes to put on more in the future.

“Is it going to solve problem? No,” he said. “But can get people thinking? I would love for all sex workers to put a little thought into keeping themselves a little safer.”

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