Making Dating Straight and White Again?

New federal legislation has led to personal-ad sites shutting down.

Posted Mar 23, 2018

Source: Pixabay

This week, the United States Senate voted to pass the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, legislation intended to restrict and punish online advertisements of sex which might be used to promote sex trafficking. First, while human trafficking is a serious problem in the United States, it is predominantly a problem in the area of domestic labor. Sex trafficking is a documented, complex problem in Asia and the Middle East, with, for instance, young girls kidnapped to be sex slaves, or refugees forced into sexual labor. However, in the United States, sex trafficking has a complex, highly politicized aspect. Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown has covered this issue for several years, exposing the ways in which sex trafficking claims are being used by communities to contain and restrict longstanding issues of sexwork, and to increase the punishment and condemnation of commercial sex. Claims of sex trafficking are commonly applied to pornography and strip clubs, though there is limited, questionable evidence of sex trafficking in these areas, within the regulated US sex industry.

In New Orleans, claims of sex trafficking in strip clubs were used to support and justify a recent crackdown on the "sleaze" of Bourbon Street. The crackdown found little evidence of sex trafficking, and disturbing evidence of harassment and exploitation of the dancers by police officers has now emerged.

Sex trafficking is a sensational aspect of human trafficking. Human trafficking of any kind is a tragic, awful practice, involving economic exploitation of vulnerable people, just like the history of American slavery. But in the United States, there's a growing trend of sex trafficking claims used to justify policing of sex by moral forces.

SESTA was initially opposed by sexworkers, who protested that the law would make their lives more dangerous, putting them at greater risk of violence and exploitation. Many sexworkers who enter this practice consensually, use Internet advertising as a way to operate independently, without "pimps," and with greater autonomous ability to choose how and when they work, and with whom they exchange sex and money.

When SESTA was passed, no one really knew what the ripple effects would be, across the electronic frontiers of the sexual Internet. Today, we know. Craigslist has shut down the "Personals" pages of their site, an area long used by sexworkers to advertise. Risk of legal exposure to prosecution led Craigslist to decide it was simply too problematic to continue allowing online ads by users. Craigslist apologized, and offered congratulations and best wishes to the many users of their site who had successfully found love, relationships, and intimacy through their site. Though there have been no reported changes to apps or sites like Tindr, Grindr or OkCupid, commercial sex advertisements have been an underground element on these sites for a long time. How these sites will adjust their operations to protect the business from the risk of SESTA prosecution remains unclear.

Source: Pixabay

Internet dating has been a part of our social sexual revolution, leading to greater acceptance of sexual diversity. The plethora of niche dating sites, where you can find people interested in your desired sex and relationship, has contributed to greater self-acceptance of sexual desires that have long been stigmatized and suppressed. Finding that there are so many other people who share your sexual interests, increases the degree to which sexual minority groups are willing to express and disclose their sexual interests.  

The rise of Internet dating is also tied to an increased acceptance of interracial relationships. Research from the UK last year found that there was a significant increase in interracial marriages amongst people who date using electronic sites. Essentially, they suggested that electronic dating allows people to interact and connect with higher numbers of people who are outside their niche social network. (In fact, a great deal of sexual research is conducted using Craigslist personal ads for recruitment . My first book was written using couples recruited by this method . This current action stands to affect sex research about nd science as well!) 

It is, in essence, the "user-generated" or "user-contributed" aspects of the Internet which create both the risk under SESTA, and the beneficial (depending upon your perspective) changes in socio-sexual dynamics. The ability to post your own information on a site, visible to many others, allows people to connect with other people in ways they cannot in a more restricted social system. But, the fact that this material is not "vetted" or approved by the website operator allows material to be posted which might be illegal. Prior law protected the website operator from prosecution, unless the operator knew the illegal material existed and was negligent in addressing it.

But now, SESTA increases the risk and liability for the website. As a result, they must now censor, restrict, or review and approve all sexual or relationship material posted on their site. How do they do that? How do they decide what is acceptable? What is legal today, might be illegal tomorrow, in the conservative and moral social shifts we are seeing. So, what we will likely see is sites shifting towards the safest, most conservative aspects of relationship, love, dating and sex, simply to reduce their risk of legal attack.

TrumpSingles is a new personals website, intended to allow Trump supporters to find each other, only allows heterosexual relationship configurations. The site's images are predominantly of white couples, leading to lots of recent criticism. But you know what, this website is likely one of the safest personals sites out there, at least from a SESTA perspective. This might be the constricted, homogenized future of electronic dating, as long as we allow fear and moral panic to drive legislation.