When the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas announced it had seized another advertising website used by sex workers, QAnon followers loaded its Twitter feed down with patriotic congratulations and a predictable helping of conspiracy theories. (As one read: “Has anyone else been noticing all of the Human traffickers and Pedos getting busted in the last couple of weeks, while the news is showing us footage people throwing bricks thru windows and burning cop cars?”)
It’s a refrain the people formerly known as Pizzagate have heard through the whole of the Trump administration: Every day he is bringing down traffickers, while the news allegedly fails to report it. But no matter who is in the White House, newspapers do love a good “Feds Take Down Sex Trafficking” story, even if there are no sex traffickers actually taken down.
This recent seizure of an ad site was no exception. “A Bay Area man is in federal custody and awaiting extradition to Texas, where he is set to face federal charges that allege he set up sex trafficking websites on an international scale, raking in $21 million in proceeds within a two-year span,” according to The Mercury News. “The North Texas Trafficking Task Force conducted the investigation, which was led by the U.S. Secret Service, the Colleyville Police Department and the Homeland Security Investigations’ Dallas field office, with assistance from the El Paso and San Jose offices as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety,” reported The Dallas Morning News, in a direct quote from the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release.
The man in question, however, was not charged with being a sex trafficker himself. He is accused of operating a website called CityXguide, among several others, which ran advertisements for sex work. His unsealed criminal indictment describes the site as “a leading source of prostitution advertisements.” He faces up to 25 years in prison for offenses defined in the 2018 law—the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” also called Sesta/Fosta, which made websites liable for any content posted by their users that “facilitates” prostitution. The president congratulated himself for his toughness in signing the law, which, to date, has largely resulted in impoverishing sex workers and making anti-trafficking investigations more difficult, perhaps even leading to their decline.
In fact, with the prosecution announced last week in Texas, Sesta/Fosta has at last been used against the kind of website envisioned by Congress when it passed nearly unanimously in the Senate and with a wide majority in the House. It only took them two years. One of Sesta/Fosta’s architects, Republican Senator Rob Portman, put out his own press release about the CityXguide raid, echoing the allegations that a trafficker had been put behind bars. “Sex traffickers who sell women and children online must be held accountable for their actions,” Portman stated, “and I applaud today’s action by the Justice Department against CityXGuide.”
As has been the case all along in the war on human trafficking, and only more so under the current administration, a press release announcing victory with the passage of a new law or the unsealing of a criminal indictment will garner far more attention than how the law is used in court. What matters, seemingly over even doing right by people who are trafficked, is the optics. And since the consequences of these laws and crackdowns most harm sex workers, the damage is still largely overlooked by legislators and, certainly, by law enforcement.
It was also two years ago this month that sex worker rights advocates and allied human rights organizations took the government to court over the law that the Justice Department has finally seen fit to use. Their constitutional challenge to Sesta/Fosta drags on still. Meanwhile, one of the organizations that brought the suit, Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars, has been made the subject of an FBI “Situational Information Report,” after a woman was arrested on prostitution charges in 2019 and agents searching her phone found an email from the group. The report from the FBI’s Jacksonville division (and obtained by The New Republic), titled “Listserv Email Containing Screening Tips and Warning about Operation Cross Country for Sex Workers, as of July 2019,” goes on to quote the email alerting sex workers to the possible law enforcement operation. The email also referenced a safety planning sheet, as SWOP Behind Bars described it, “just in case you find yourself trapped in a sting.”
The FBI report goes on to quote SWOP Behind Bars’ other safety tips, like, “If you have a local bad date list, read it before heading out! Even if you don’t remember everything, something might make you double check before you head out with someone.” A “bad date list” is something sex workers have created themselves, in part because law enforcement does not take violence against sex workers seriously. Here, it receives their attention, but only insofar as it is perceived as a sign of criminal activity. (The New Republic asked the Jacksonville FBI division office to authenticate the document, but it did not respond by time of publication.)
Sex workers had feared that such lawful harm-reduction work could be criminalized, if not under Sesta/Fosta specifically, then as a result of the environment the law produced—one in which any online communications platform could be painted as “facilitating prostitution” if it was a venue for sex workers to talk about how to stay safe at work.
The reason groups like SWOP Behind Bars have to issue these safety alerts is because police continue to pose as sex workers or their customers in sting operations, like Operation Cross Country, the one SWOP Behind Bars sounded the alarm on in 2019. It’s been going on for more than a decade, with dramatic arrest numbers touted in FBI press releases each year. In truth, under the banner of this purported trafficking operation, the FBI is assisting in the arrests of sex workers.
Alex Andrews, co-founder of SWOP Behind Bars, says the FBI has continued to target sex workers, even as her organization has offered to assist law enforcement in helping people who are really being trafficked. “They’re trying to cast doubt on our work,” said Andrews in a statement to The New Republic this week. “That’s their whole game. They want to silence sex workers, and they refuse our assistance in identifying and assisting people who are being exploited and then try and turn their arrests into some kind of shocking exposé.”
What is genuinely troubling is that, in a moment when the country’s attention is on law enforcement abusing its power, the Justice Department would like us to greet this multijurisdictional operation with gratitude, whether that’s the occult version expressed by QAnon or a more qualified version—perhaps relieved that there is some “good cop” work still to be done. Human trafficking is already being used to create exceptions to recent reforms, like the law passed after police killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. In Louisville’s new prohibition on no-knock raids, there’s a carve-out for trafficking; all police need to say is they believed they were investigating sex trafficking to conduct these raids and avoid the law’s scrutiny themselves.