SESTA & SATANIC PANIC: DEVILISH SOLUTIONS AND STUPID SCAPEGOATS
Ostensible US President Donald Trump has a preoccupation with “witch hunts” but went ahead with one himself this week by signing SESTA.
SESTA—the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act”—is supposed to crackdown on human trafficking. In practice it’ll probably just put people doing consensual sex work in danger. Whether backers consider that a bug or a feature remains unclear.
And once again I see ripples from America’s most recent actual witch hunt: The Satanic Panic of the 1980s. That was also supposed to be all about rescuing the exploited. Didn’t work out.
Moral guardians love a good witch burning, but then as now there’s just no upside to playing with fire.
Congress wrote SESTA to poke holes in the rules that protect Internet companies. Normally, websites and ISPs aren’t legally responsible for user-generated content.
But SESTA adds a loophole that makes sites liable specifically when it comes to sex work. Consequently, many popular sites used by workers and clients have shut down.
SESTA backers claim this drives pimps and traffickers out of business. The same way blowing up your house technically makes it easier to solve your termite problem, I guess.
Writing for the Huffington Post, Ty Mitchell predicts that rather than busting up supposed sex rings, “the much greater likelihood is that [SESTA will push] trafficked persons into streets and makeshift brothels, along with sex workers not being trafficked.”
After all, that’s where they had to go before the Internet. And that’s dangerous; a Baylor University study from 2017 found that each time Craigslist introduced its Erotic Services listings in a new city between 2002 and 2010, violent crime against women declined 17.4 percent on average.
“Analysis suggests this reduction was the result of prostitutes moving indoors and matching with safer clients,” the researchers write.
Because fucking duh.
Writing about past sex work persecution drives, Kristin DiAngelo of the Sex Worker Outreach Project testifies “those who were trafficked were pushed deeper into the shadows, making us more marginalized.”
Anti-trafficking group Freedom Network USA says SESTA “puts sex workers at risk of prosecution for the very strategies that keep them safe.”
And the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Women predicts “while these bills purport to protect trafficking victims, in practice they will subject sex workers to further criminalization.”
So not only does SESTA not solve the problem, it puts everyone in danger. Because a turd sandwich is never complete without a serving of “Fuck You” on the side.
For Satanists, this all has a familiar flavor. Anxiety on behalf of the sexually exploited was grist for the “Satanic Ritual Abuse” scare in the 1980s too. As reporter Debbie Nathan wrote in her 1994 book Satan’s Silence:
“Professionals and the government fomented panic-laden images of children as helpless prey for evildoers. Urban legends [became] the focus of intense grassroots organizing.”
The problem, as Nathan’s book reveals, is those myths weren’t true. And, like SESTA, the SRA scare put the heat mostly on innocent people. In his 1992 report largely debunking SRA allegations, FBI profiler Kenneth Lanning complained that outlandish myths about devil worship actually hurt cases against real sexual predators.
So when confronted with an uncomfortable problem—say, child abuse, or trafficking—inertia favors passing the burden onto a scapegoat. Say, Satanists, or sex workers.
Guardian writer Madeline Miller notices that historical prejudices about Satanists (“witches”) suspiciously resemble sex work stigma:
“[The best] parallel to ‘witch’ is the word ‘whore.’ Both are tools for policing women. A whore transgresses norms of female sexuality; a witch transgresses norms of female power.”
In his 1977 book Devil, historian Jeffrey Burton Russell even writes that the most prominent demon in the world’s oldest devil myth other than the devil Ahriman himself was Jeh, whose name actually means “whore.”
The desire to pin problems on easy targets—women, queer people, foreigners, subversives, artists, “witches,”—is the essence of the Satan myth. And the alienation that happens in its wake is the essence of Satanism.
Problem is, the scapegoat is never really the guilty party. And piling your cares onto it doesn’t actually solve them. It just makes life shitty for the goat.