Sex trafficking law protects the vulnerable, holds exploiters accountable

Critics aren’t listening to the victims of the modern sex trade

Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, center, watches in April 2018 as President Donald Trump signs anti-sex trafficking legislation she helped author. Other members of Congress and victims and family members of victims of online sex trafficking are also pictured.  (Chris Kleponis/Getty Images file photo)
Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, center, watches in April 2018 as President Donald Trump signs anti-sex trafficking legislation she helped author. Other members of Congress and victims and family members of victims of online sex trafficking are also pictured. (Chris Kleponis/Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 2, 2021 at 3:00pm

In November 2019, a 13-year-old girl in North Texas was rescued by law enforcement after being trafficked through a popular prostitution website.

A 13-year-old.

Most kids at that age spend their days happily playing with friends, begrudgingly doing their schoolwork or spending time with their family. This 13-year-old was being advertised and sold online into sex slavery.

Roughly a year and a half earlier, my legislation to fight online sex trafficking was enacted into law as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA-SESTA. The aim of the law was clear: Hold accountable the websites that facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking.

In addition to amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to allow state prosecutors to enforce their own sex trafficking laws and give victims the ability to sue websites that facilitated their exploitation, a new criminal statute was created. This statute was specifically tailored to prosecute the owners of these websites that prey upon young girls and boys.

In a recent CQ Roll Call article, critics of FOSTA-SESTA put forth two false claims: one, that the law endangers those who engage in consensual sex work and two, that it does little to curb sex trafficking.

First off, “sex work” is illegal. With the exception of seven counties in Nevada, prostitution is strictly prohibited throughout the United States. Even within those seven counties, prostitution is highly regulated by the state government. Across the nation, states — both red and blue — have banned the sex trade because it is known to be abusive and exploitative, and harms the most vulnerable in our society.

Second, FOSTA-SESTA has had a profound impact on the illegal, online sex trade. In April 2018, when it was signed into law, the U.S. Department of Justice seized Backpage.com, the most prolific offender of online sex trafficking, and nine of the most visited prostitution websites shut down out of fear of prosecution. These websites, including Escorts.com, MassageTroll, the Erotic Review and Rubmaps, all went dark because they knew that their days of exploiting the vulnerable without consequence were finally finished. A year after FOSTA-SESTA, demand for the online sex trade plummeted by over 50 percent. In fact, just last month, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed that the law specifically ensures that websites participating “in the evil of online human trafficking” are held accountable.

On June 17, 2020, federal agents arrested and charged a 46-year-old man under the criminal statue created by FOSTA-SESTA. This man made over $21 million operating a website that users described as “taking over from where Backpage left off.” The Department of Homeland Security seized the website and identified “numerous minor victims.”

Among those underage victims was that 13-year-old girl.

Those who advocate for the legalization of prostitution are not listening to the victims of this modern slave trade, and I will not stand idly by as these false attacks are regurgitated as “vindication.”

Rep. Ann Wagner is a Republican representing Missouri’s 2nd District. She serves as vice ranking member on the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs committees and is a member of the Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus.