Why Libertarians Should Care About the War On Sex

By Cathy Reisenwitz
Originally published in LPNews, 2022 Spring Edition


As the War on Drugs begins to ramp down after 50 years of failure and devastation, authoritarians are hardly going quietly into that good night. The nanny state never sleeps, and the new moral panic is the scourge of sex work and pornography. Lawmakers are hard at work eroding free speech online in the name of “moral decency.”

The War on Porn

Evangelical organizations like Exodus Cry/Trafficking Hub are falsely linking pornography with sex trafficking in an effort to boost support for banning porn outright. They’re joined by wealthy agribusiness barons, accused of human trafficking themselves, who are currently funding disinformation campaigns to implicate porn in human trafficking. 

These groups greatly exaggerate the prevalence of and demand for sex trafficking, stating for instance that sex trafficking is a $150 billion industry. In reality, $150 billion is the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate for human trafficking as a whole, not sex trafficking. Only 19% of human trafficking victims are trafficked for sex. Industries like farming, fishing, and domestic labor make up the majority of trafficking. There’s no credible evidence of a boom in commercial sex trafficking in the United States or to suggest more American men are going abroad to partake in commercial sex trafficking. 

Rates of sex trafficking in the US aren’t rising. The wider availability of online porn has actually coincided with a massive decrease in sexual violence against women and teen pregnancy rates.

Despite this, 16 states have declared pornography a “public health crisis,” a first step toward banning porn. Many conservative commentators are calling for porn bans and further erosion of Section 230. In 2021, the Utah legislature passed HB72, which requires manufacturers to add porn filters to all cell phones and tablets sold to Utah customers. 

The War on Sex Workers

The moral panic around commercial sex trafficking in the United States is also eroding Americans’ civil liberties and increasing violence against sex workers. Again, many of the same conservative and Evangelical groups are funding disinformation campaigns in order to increase support for laws which further criminalize and stigmatize all non-mongamous, hetreosexual sex while censoring sex-related information online. 

These groups pushed for 2018’s “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” more commonly known as SESTA/FOSTA, which purported to stop sex trafficking but actually just chilled online speech and made sex work more dangerous while doing absolutely nothing to stop sex trafficking. SESTA/FOSTA pushed websites like Craigslist and Backpage offline. Sex workers used these sites to avoid police violence, share lists of dangerous clients, positively identify clients, and negotiate rates and boundaries at a safe distance and without the need for pimps. In many cities where Craigslist Erotic Services debuted, all female homicide dropped by as much as 17% within a few years.

SESTA/FOSTA makes online platforms like reddit and Craigslist criminally liable for their users’ “sex trafficking” activity. But the US government conflates adult, voluntary sex work with trafficking. Fearing bankrupting lawsuits and possible criminal charges, platforms started deleting vast swaths of sex-related content before the law had even been signed. Google and other sites even started scanning users’ private files for sex-related content and deleting it without warning or permission.

In 2021 Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the EARN IT Act in March supposedly to help fight online child sexual abuse material (CSAM). This bill would do nothing to solve the problem but would threaten online speech and privacy. It would carve out another exception to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230), which the ACLU describes as “foundational to modern online communications.” And it threatens encryption. 

You don’t need to like or use drugs to understand that the War on Drugs has caused far more, and far more lasting, harm than drugs alone ever could. The war on sex workers and porn creators is the same story, being written all over again in real-time. While sex workers and porn creators are disproportionately hurt in this conflict, the damages are impacting everyone who cares about encryption, free speech, and civil liberties. It’s time once again for libertarians to mobilize in the fight against big government intrusion into people’s bodies, homes, computers, and lives. 

Cathy Reisenwitz is a writer with bylines in TechCrunch, The Week, VICE, Daily Beast, etc. Her writing can be found at Sex and the State. Follow her on Twitter: @cathyreisenwitz.