But then again, maybe they did have an accurate understanding of how laws work: by generating a media and political moment in which they could elevate Backpage into a bogeyman, they very likely made the passage of SESTA/FOSTA easier, even if one—in terms of the mechanics of the actual prosecution—had little to do with the other. The anti-sex work groups in particular who pushed SESTA/FOSTA saw it as part of their broader political project of eradicating sex work altogether, even as they insisted—and continue to insist—that sex workers were not the targets of the law.
This is why the GAO report could go down as just more dubious fuel in the stubbornly fact-resistant anti-sex work wars. First, the report might end up pretty much ignored in Congress, even if they commissioned it as a provision of SESTA/FOSTA, as it invalidates their own arguments in favor of the law. Second, if I were an anti-sex work group who wanted to further gaslight sex workers about these laws, I can see why “It was only used once, and it wasn’t even used against a sex worker, directly” might seem like an accurate read of the GAO report, too.
Perhaps the GAO report will give some momentum to a bill calling for a comprehensive study of SESTA/FOSTA, introduced in 2019 by two Democrats, Representative Ro Khanna California and Senator Elizabeth Warren—who herself voted for SESTA/FOSTA in 2018—with support from Representatives Barbara Lee, Ayanna Pressley, and others, and which did not pass. “It’s not even like we had a debate in Congress and said, ‘OK, this is going to drive sex workers out onto the streets and increase violence, but the benefits outweigh the risks,’” as Khanna described the passage of SESTA/FOSTA to MTV News. “There wasn’t even a consideration of the impact.”
Yet sex workers and trafficking survivors—who are also sometimes the same people—tried to inform Congress and the public, before the law had passed, that as a result of SESTA/FOSTA, they would face increased marginalization while it also failed to protect them from exploitation. Congress just failed to listen.