Transcript

740: There. I Fixed It.

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

As long as he could remember, going back to when he was a child, Sam was scared of spiders. But not scared in the normal way, where lots of us don't feel great when we see a big spider, or a snake, or a big bug, or whatever.

Sam

It invaded all aspects of my life at all points in the year. I was thinking about spiders all the time. Any room I walked into, I looked in the corners. I looked under the table, crouched down. Every night before I went to bed, I fully unmade my bed.

Walking down the street, I wouldn't walk under anything that-- I would try to avoid right angles to the best I could, because that's where a spider is going to make its web.

Ira Glass

But you were scared that one would fall on you? Or just because that's where they are?

Sam

Whether or not it would fall on me was really irrelevant. Just seeing a spider, not moving, moving, large, small, it just created a feeling in my body that was just-- I would shake. I would throw up. I would faint. And of course, if you're constantly going through your life looking for spiders, you'll find one.

Ira Glass

As a kid, he didn't do sleepovers, didn't do summer camp. Other kids made fun of him. People did not understand. People pitied him.

And when he grew up, it did not go away. His fear ruined dates. He once found a spider the size of your thumbnail in his car and sold the car that day.

Sam

I had went to psychiatrists for exposure therapy. I had went to psychiatrists to talk about it. I couldn't watch an image of a spider on a TV screen.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you, does this name mean anything to you?

Sam

Hmm?

Ira Glass

Peter Parker.

Sam

No. Oh, oh, Spider Man.

Ira Glass

Yeah, could you watch those films?

Sam

No, absolutely not. I don't even know if Spider Man has anything to do with spiders, to be honest.

Ira Glass

And then, he was seeing a hypnotherapist, and it was going nowhere, when he read in The New York Times about this new treatment for phobias that can get full results in just one day. And he reached out to the doctor behind it, a psychologist, Dr. Merel Kindt in Amsterdam. And she invited him to be part of a study and get the treatment. He figured he had nothing to lose and flew to The Netherlands. A film crew captured what happened during his treatment for a documentary series called A Cure for Fear.

Merel Kindt

You're doing fine.

Sam

I'm so nervous.

Merel Kindt

Yeah, it's OK.

Ira Glass

Sam and Dr. Kindt stand outside the door of her room. She opens it. He looks in. There's an aquarium with a brown, furry tarantula, maybe 4 or 5 inches in size.

Merel Kindt

Yes, there's a spider in the tank. But let's not wait too long. So it would be very good if you can already walk in the room, and then I close the door. Very good, great. We're doing very well.

Sam

I think you can hear that I was breathing hard, and I'm feeling that there is adrenaline. I crouch down, my arms crossed.

Ira Glass

Dr. Kindt then opens the door of the tank.

Sam

Oh, whoa, god. No, no, no, you're not going to make me look in there, are you?

Merel Kindt

Yes, I'm going to ask you.

Sam

[HYPERVENTILATING]

Merel Kindt

So please come with me. So step in here, and then close it. Very good. And then, can you also--

Sam

Oh god!

Merel Kindt

Very good, very good. Yeah, come. And--

Sam

No! Don't make me go in there!

Ira Glass

Then, to get the spider to move around this tank, she sprays it with water. And every time she plays it with water, the spider waves its legs or moves around a little.

Sam

Yeah.

Merel Kindt

OK. How high is your distress right now?

Sam

It's like 100.

Merel Kindt

OK, but it's very important not to move away.

Sam

OK, I'm not moving away.

Merel Kindt

All right, spray it a bit so that--

Sam

(SCREAMING) Oh, god, no! [WAILS]

Merel Kindt

Yeah, that's very good. OK.

Sam

[HYPERVENTILATING] I gotta go!

Ira Glass

Sam, I'm wondering, like when you scream like this, I'm wondering what goes through your head.

Sam

That I feel like I can feel it on me, that I'm going to be attacked by it. None of this is rational, right?

Ira Glass

Mm-hmm.

Sam

I know it's not--

I know that the thing isn't going to jump out of the tank and move like 4 feet in the air and jump on me. I get that. But it doesn't matter, because I feel that the absolute worst things that can happen are going to happen and are, in fact, happening.

Ira Glass

The reason Dr. Kent wants him to max out on anxiety like this is that she wants to trigger the memories and feelings of fear of spiders that are stored in his brain. And then, when his brain goes to store this big new terrible experience with the old ones, it has to re-save the old memories. And she gives him a drug, a beta blocker called propranolol, that disrupts that process. And I know this sounds so simple. How can this be real? But by disrupting the way that the brain re-saves those memories, she neutralizes them.

The very next day, Sam returns to the same room. He walks right in. His breathing is normal.

Sam

There's fear in that-- well, I don't know that there's fear. I don't understand my feeling, because I've never been like this before.

Nothing physically, internally, was happening that used to happen to.

Ira Glass

You didn't feel the fear?

Sam

I didn't feel the fear. And when she said--

Ira Glass

No adrenaline?

Sam

No adrenaline at all. I felt, I guess, excitement that this was new.

Merel Kindt

You think you are able to touch it?

Sam

And she says, do you want to pet it?

Merel Kindt

Let's make a deal.

Sam

And I said, look, if you hold my hand, I'll pet the spider. And I did. And I petted it, and the thing started to move. And then she's like, do you want to pet it again? And I said, yes.

Merel Kindt

You touched the tarantula!

Ira Glass

That was over three years ago, and Sam says the effect of the treatment has only deepened as he's had more calm interactions with spiders. He doesn't look around for spiders anymore everywhere he goes. And remember he once sold a car when he found a spider in it? He told me that the day before I interviewed him, he was driving in the SUV that he owns today, flipped down the mirror, a spider dropped into his lap. He was going 60. He said if that had happened back in the day, before the treatment, he really might have crashed his car. But now, he rolled down the window, picked up the spider, threw it outside.

Ira Glass

Can you talk about just, like, how extreme the treatment was?

Sam

I thought at one point I was going to have a heart attack and die in that room. [LAUGHS] Yeah.

Ira Glass

Does it seem right somehow that you would have to go through something so extreme to get over something so extreme?

Sam

It's what had to be done, fighting fire with fire.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Radiation therapy, it's your last resort option that you have to deal with a problem that can't be solved in any other way. This is the nuclear option.

Ira Glass

Well, today, our program, the nuclear option. We have stories where there's a problem, somebody decides to throw the book at it, go big, do everything they can think of. And we see what happens as a result to the people that the flying book is aimed at, but also the people it is not aimed at who get hit with it anyway. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm your friendly neighborhood radio host, Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Catching Deer When You Wanted Lions

Ira Glass

Act 1, "Catching Deer, When You Wanted Lions." So we begin with an example of the United States Congress seeing a problem and then using all its powers, doing everything it can, moving decisively to eliminate the problem forever. The problem they were solving in this case? Well, prostitution is illegal in America, but there were millions of ads for it online, some of them advertising women and children who were held by sex traffickers. Congress wanted to stop the sex traffickers' ads.

So that's a goal I think most people would agree with. A law passes with overwhelming majorities, House and Senate. One of our producers, Lina Misitzis has been looking into how things played out from that point-- with the people that the law is supposed to help, victims of sex trafficking, but also with other people who are not the official target of the law.

We're going to hear the story of one woman who was trafficked, and then you're going to hear the story of the law, and then, after that, the story of how the law actually affected her. Warning to listeners-- there is no explicit content in this story at all, but it does talk about sex and sex trafficking. Here's Lina.

Lina Misitzis

When people hear the phrase "sex trafficking," I think a lot of the time, a kind of cartoonish version of it pops up in their heads. Let me tell you what it meant in Kara's case. We'll start in 2006 when she was 17, a runaway in Orlando working at a pizza place. She decided to try becoming a stripper, figuring it would be better money, but she really didn't know anything about it. She had no idea what she was doing.

To prepare for her first shift she went dress shopping, found a prom dress she liked.

Kara

Yeah, it was a purple dress. I got it from Macy's.

Lina Misitzis

Was it like floor length?

Kara

Yeah, it was floor length, and it came right over my knees. It was a halter top. And I'm just looking, and I see all these girls, and they're in fishnets and clear heels. And this was about the time there was a song. It's called "Apple-Bottom Jeans," [LAUGHS] the boots with the fur. So I kind of just did what I could and jumped on a pole, and I slid down. But it wasn't like a sexy stripper slide. It was like holding on for dear life and kind of bouncing down. [LAUGHS]

Lina Misitzis

Kara found her footing soon enough. Actually, she really liked the job. The tips were good, she made more money than she'd ever made, and she liked the attention she got doing it. A few months later, another stripper at the club told her about a job in New York that paid even better. All she had to do was go out on dates with men.

Kara understood the job was something called escorting. She did not understand that escorting meant having sex. In any case, she got on a plane-- her very first-- and flew to White Plains, New York. A guy I'll call Larry paid for her ticket. The next morning, he took her on a drive down to Brooklyn.

Kara

We went to Junior's Cheesecake. I'll never forget it. He was trying to explain what escorting was, and I was so, I call it, green, like oblivious, naive to the fact of what it was, that I remember, like, well, how do we get our nails done? You know, how much tips do we get to keep, or like, how much money do we get to keep? And he just laughed. [LAUGHS]

Lina Misitzis

Because you're asking the kinds of questions that were relevant like at, like, the strip club, but not necessarily in this.

Kara

Yeah, like a tip-out, like what's the tip-out? And he just laughed. He knew, no matter what, you know, I was gonna do it. I was 18.

Lina Misitzis

Next, Larry took Kara back to a La Quinta Inn. He had her pose in her underwear, took pictures he'd later post online in an escorting ad, and then, Larry said, it was time for her first date.

Lina Misitzis

What was he telling you the work would actually be?

Kara

That, basically, I would just be hanging out with people, like I said. He told me that I was going to have a date. This is, I'm 18 years old. I'm going to have a date. So I don't know what it is. I had just smoked some weed, and he left the room.

A guy knocks on the door, and I let him in. And when I let him in, he pretty much coaches me through this whole-- like this whole day. And so the money was exchanged. He basically told me where to put the money.

Lina Misitzis

They had sex. Later, Kara told me that once it was happening, the first feeling she had was, oh, of course escorting means sex. And she felt shame, like what had she gotten herself into? When Kara was a kid, she was sexually abused by a family member and had the courage to come forward about it. She was in middle school. Here at the La Quinta Inn, six years later, she didn't even know who she'd report this to or how to describe what was happening, so she detached.

The one thing she remembers clearly is a piece of advice the client gave her that night, which, Kara says, she'd recite in her head whenever seeing any client from then on.

Kara

He was getting ready to leave. And I told him, all right, I'll see you later. And when I said that, he was like, no. You never just let somebody walk out on their own. You always walk them to the door, and you shut the door behind them. You never just let somebody just walk out, because anybody could come in after them. You know, they could be holding a door for somebody, whatever.

So I walked him to the door, and I shut the door. And when I shut the door, I broke down. Later on, I had found out that he was actually one of his homeboys. He was one of his friends.

Lina Misitzis

One of Larry's friends.

Kara

And he had basically sent his friend in to have sex with me and to teach me what to do.

Lina Misitzis

In the next few weeks, she says, she realized Larry was part of a gang. When I asked her, how did you figure that out, she laughed, explained, it's not like some big cinematic reveal. Just after that night, the camera started to zoom out. She met lots of Karas assigned to lots of Larrys. She was just one piece of the assembly line.

Kara

I wanted to go home, but I had-- at that point, I couldn't call my family. I couldn't call anybody. I was stuck, and it was basically, all right, you've got to do what you have to do to eventually make it back home. I wasn't tied up to a bed. I wasn't drugged. I was just shamed, and I was scared, and I was terrified. And when I found out what I had actually been introduced to, into a whole gang, like the intimidation-- if you go home, then we're going to do this and that-- it just, it stuck me there. And that was the beginning of just a whirlwind in my life.

Lina Misitzis

From then on, Larry was in charge of what Kara ate, who she had sex with, and where she went. She and Larry traveled around the country, strategically targeting places that attract a crowd.

Lina Misitzis

Were you making pennies on a dollar? Like were you making any percentage? Like you weren't getting to pocket any of this money?

Kara

No, no. And if you get caught stashing money, oh my gosh, you're getting your ass beat. I don't care if it's $20, no.

Lina Misitzis

So if you needed something--

Kara

He would let you go to the store, and he would get it for you, or whatever. But what did you really need, other than own food or condoms? You know, you get clothes. You know, they take you-- you all go as a group, get your nails done, get your hair done.

Lina Misitzis

Did you have friends?

Kara

Yeah, you have friends, but they're called your wife-in-laws. They're other girls that are working. You don't have normal friends. You completely withdraw and isolate from anything and everybody that you knew.

So break it down in layman's terms. You're being raped all day, and you're not getting nothing out of it but some nails, or your hair done, or whatever it is to look good for the nice John, client, trick, whatever you want to call him.

Lina Misitzis

I asked Kara a lot of what-if questions, naively, about a lot of different scenarios. What if you try just getting up and leaving, taking a day off, getting a boyfriend? Then what? And her answer was always the same-- you'd get beat up.

She'd never heard the term "sex trafficking." At that time, a lot of people hadn't, but that's what this was. Kara was being sex trafficked. She would be for another seven years.

Sex trafficking is any time someone is forced or coerced into a sex act where money is exchanged. They could be brought across state lines or international borders, but that doesn't have to be a part of it. While she was being trafficked, Kara had a quota, an amount of money she was supposed to bring in for the gang.

Kara

I had a $1,000 a day quota. You had to make $1,000 each day before you could go to sleep.

Lina Misitzis

She could bring in $1,000 by saying three clients in a day, each for an hour, or six a day, each for half an hour. The traffickers found clients for Kara by advertising online on Craigslist, and later on a website called Backpage. Whenever arriving anywhere new, they'd post a local ad for Kara. It would include photos of her and a short description. Guys would see the ads and book appointments. If the online ads didn't attract enough business, her trafficker would take her to truck stops or bars and have her try picking up clients there.

Kara

Don't get it twisted. If you make $1,000 and it's only 12:00 PM, you're not off for the day. You're going to continuously be forced to make more money. But the $1,000 was just like, OK, you have to have this every day. I don't care if it's slow on the lines, go get it. Go find it.

Lina Misitzis

Kara said she was traded between gangs three times, which, while she was explaining that, she actually gestured at a tattoo on her chest.

Kara

That's the brand on my chest.

Lina Misitzis

What is it?

Kara

The brand on my chest. This is-- you see the blood dripping, and it's for the Blood gang. It's Sex, Money, Murder.

Lina Misitzis

It's a red heart with a spike through it, and the tip of the heart is bleeding. In the center of the heart, there is a person's name.

Kara

That was his actual government name. I don't want to say that on record.

Lina Misitzis

On either side of those dots?

Kara

Snake eyes.

Lina Misitzis

Snake eyes. The name written across the heart belongs to the guy I've been calling Larry, and just below the heart, there's a date.

Kara

December 23, 2007 is when I was brought to him.

Lina Misitzis

Why haven't you gotten that removed?

Kara

I actually-- it's hard for me to answer that question. It is a part of me that, when I look at it, it reminds me, at the end of the day, this past that I'm speaking of will always be a part of me. So I don't know if it's due to my lack of healing, or it's like a part that I haven't let go yet. I haven't moved on from it.

It's not like because I like looking at it, because I miss it, or-- I guess it's a reminder that it was real. But if you look in the tattoos, I have razor marks. I would try and cut them out of my own skin.

Lina Misitzis

Right there?

Kara

Yeah. I tried to take a razor and cut his name off of me.

Lina Misitzis

The whole time Kara was being trafficked by these gangs, she kept getting into trouble with the police. She says no cop ever asked her if she needed help. They didn't see her as a victim. They saw her as a criminal. She says nowadays, the police might ask her if she was being trafficked, but nobody asked her that back then. Kara says they'd just charge her with solicitation and tell her, that's what you got for being a prostitute. She'd get a ticket, have to pay a fine. Sometimes she went to jail.

The first time she got in trouble was in 2008, just six months after her 18th birthday. And then, again, in 2010, and again, and so on. Altogether, she was charged at least eight times in three different states-- Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.

In 2014, she and her trafficker at the time-- I'll call him Adam-- were on a long drive, headed to North Dakota for an oil boom. By then, they'd spent enough time together that he trusted her, let her have a phone. He'd actually rely on her for help planning their destinations. He'd be driving. She'd be in the front seat, scanning the news for parts of the country with sudden influxes of people.

Kara

I mean, that's how you'd figure out what city is going to hit, because--

Lina Misitzis

Wait, so the trafficker or what have you basically, like, project manage the trafficking?

Kara

[LAUGHS] So I am-- [LAUGHS] I'm very versatile. Yeah.

Lina Misitzis

There was plenty of time to fill. While she was with Adam, she read the Divergent series on her phone, and The Hunger Games. She watched Law and Order, and she read the news. It was on this particular drive that Kara read an article about a woman who had been sex trafficked. Her name was Windie Lazenko. This was the first time Kara had ever seen that term, "sex trafficking," anywhere. And suddenly, the last seven years of her life, they weren't different, but her framework for them was.

By the time Kara and Adam got to the North Dakota boomtown, they'd posted ads on Backpage. It was a Tuesday night, There was a pile of snow outside, and their ads weren't getting any bites. But she still had to make quota, so Adam sent Kara downstairs to the hotel bar so she could try picking up men the old-fashioned way. But something had changed, and she just didn't. She couldn't shake the article she'd read, so she sat at the bar drinking.

Kara

I just wanted to go. I didn't care if, you know, what happened. I just knew that I had to find a way to get him away from me, because I couldn't get away from him.

Lina Misitzis

Kara came up with a plan. There at the bar, she called a friend in Florida, said she needed help. She was about to go upstairs, back to her room, to tell Adam that she hadn't made quota. She'd leave her phone on with her friend in Florida still listening in. And not if, but when things turned violent, Kara's friend was to call the local police, pretend to be in the room next door, call in a noise complaint.

Kara's entire forecast was spot on. She went upstairs, told Adam there was no money. He made her strip down naked to prove she wasn't hiding bills anywhere. He got violent. He was yelling and hitting her.

Kara

And all of a sudden, there's a knock at the door. And I just looked at him. I said, it sounds like the cops. Let me open the door and tell him I just got out of the shower. Because they weren't going to stop knocking, and he knew that.

Lina Misitzis

Kara opened the door. Adam was arrested on the spot, and the cops booked him for domestic abuse. For once, a run-in with the cops didn't result in a ticket or a fine for Kara. And whatever that felt like for her-- overwhelming, relieving, confusing-- was immediately wiped away by another cop telling Kara that because she was staying in a room that was under Adam's name, she had to leave, on a very cold night in North Dakota with nowhere to go.

Kara

Then I remembered her. I remembered Windie Lazenko.

Lina Misitzis

Windie was the trafficking victim that Kara had read about in the car. She lived in North Dakota, the same state that Kara was in.

Kara

And I got on the computer in the lobby, and I asked use the hotel phone, and I called her.

Lina Misitzis

After that, everything changed, starting with basics. Windie found Kara a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear, food to eat, and a job bartending so she could make a bit of cash. Adam pled guilty to domestic abuse, spent a short time in jail. Later, they charged him with promoting prostitution. Then, Kara says, she could have testified against him in court, but she feared for her safety, and so she didn't. The case was eventually dismissed. No one from his gang ever bothered her again.

And as soon as she saved up enough money, Kara drove back home to Florida. It was 2015.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So this is the part of the story where I explain the law that Congress enacted, what they wanted it to do, and what, in fact, it ended up doing, especially to Kara. Most people call this law SESTA-FOSTA. SESTA is short for Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, and its goal was to stop sex trafficking by focusing on something really specific. The law would go after sex ads on the internet, like the kinds of ads Kara's traffickers posted. The lawmakers figured, get rid of all the ads, and you'll cut off a whole part of this market.

Victims of trafficking had already tried to go after Backpage and sites like it for facilitating sex trafficking and prostitution even while Kara was still being trafficked, but most of those efforts failed because of something called Section 230. Section 230 basically says online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Craigslist, anywhere users post or leave comments, the companies that operate those platforms, they're generally not responsible for what users say. So if someone posts something defamatory or something that results in harm-- like if an exchange on a dating app leads to harassment in real life-- the social media platforms can't be sued.

Congress established this back in the early days of the web in the mid-'90s. It's a provision of the Communications Decency Act. But by 2018, celebrities like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers were doing anti-trafficking PSAs, calling for a change to Section 230. Attorneys general from nearly every state signed a letter to Congress. And finally, Congress took action.

Richard Blumenthal

This bill is completely bipartisan from beginning to end.

Lina Misitzis

This is Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, the day of the SESTA-FOSTA vote.

Richard Blumenthal

This bill essentially would clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that was never intended to give website a free pass to aid and abet sex trafficking.

Lina Misitzis

Lots of the outrage in the floor debate and several years of hearings that led to it was about children being trafficked.

Richard Blumenthal

There are thousands of children out there who are waiting for our help.

Politician 1

Children are being forced into sex slavery.

Politician 2

We cannot allow our children to be lured into this kind of hell.

Lina Misitzis

Just a word about that. Roughly 1/2 the federal prosecutions for sex trafficking in the US are for people younger than 18. The year of this vote, it was nearly 750 teens and children. And there have been cases of minors being advertised on websites like Backpage. 97 senators voted yes on the bill-- almost unanimous, Republicans and Democrats on the same page, which never happens. But SESTA-FOSTA didn't just ban ads for minors being trafficked, or sex trafficking in general. It banned ads for all paid sex, whether or not trafficking was involved, just to make sure that every possible case that could be prevented would be.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And websites would now be responsible, not just for ads, but for any content anyone posted that enabled sex trafficking. That mandate was so broad that websites radically changed their rules to eliminate any possible posts that they could be sued for. Entire swaths of social media platforms, subreddits, Craigslist message boards, Instagram hashtags, and Twitter communities were suddenly gone. Tumblr, long known as the place for DIY alt porn, banned sexual content across their site.

Five days before SESTA-FOSTA was signed into law, Backpage was seized by the FBI. The site had long been the focus of a federal criminal investigation, and what SESTA-FOSTA did, as soon as it was enacted, was prevent a new hub from popping up in its place. By then, 2018, Kara had been out of being trafficked for three years. But it made me wonder--

Lina Misitzis

Had SESTA-FOSTA passed in 2008 instead of in 2018, do you think it would have gotten you out of being trafficked?

Kara

Absolutely not.

Lina Misitzis

Tell me why.

Kara

Because there's other ways to be trafficked. Not everybody's trafficked on the internet. People act like that's the only way that there is to get money, and it's not just the internet. I would have still been trafficked. It probably would have been worse.

Lina Misitzis

Worse because she knew very well what it was like to do the job without customers from ads. On days when Craigslist or Backpage didn't work, Kara had to go find customers herself.

Kara

You'd go to casino bars, truck stops, anywhere-- walk the streets. So yeah, I firmly believe if that bill would have been passed, it would have been worse. It's not going to help you out of being trafficked.

Lina Misitzis

I tried figuring out if Kara's take is right, if the law really didn't have much of an effect on the trafficking business. Lawmakers definitely hoped it would reduce the number of people being trafficked. So did it?

The best answer I could find is nobody knows. We don't know how to accurately count the number of people being sex trafficked, much less whether it's rising or falling. But we do know one effect of the law-- it's made policing sex trafficking harder.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Since Backpage was seized, sex ads have scattered to lots of different sites where gathering evidence is more difficult. I spoke with a senior analyst at Uncharted-- that's a software company that helps law enforcement track sex ads on the internet-- and she said at least half of the sex ads that had been on websites in the US are now hosted by websites offshore, meaning the servers are in other countries, so whoever owns those servers is not obligated to comply with law enforcement or respond to subpoenas. Federal prosecutions of traffickers have actually fallen since SESTA-FOSTA passed.

I called one of the legislators who spent years going after Backpage and online sex ads, former Senator Claire McCaskill. She helped run a Senate investigation into the site, and she was one of SESTA-FOSTA's original co-sponsors. I wanted to talk to her about the law's intentions and how it's actually panned out.

Lina Misitzis

If the aim is to curb trafficking, so far as I can tell, there's no evidence that trafficking has decreased as a result of the law.

Claire Mccaskill

Well, you can't prove a negative. And this is one of the oldest problems in crime prevention. When you're successful at crime prevention, it's very hard to prove how you were successful. So there is no evidence to say that this bill didn't do its job. And so we don't know, and it's irritating to me that there seems to be this narrative that the sex workers are putting out there, well, it didn't do any good.

Well, they don't-- I believe that it does have an impact when people can't easily sell children online. I believe it in my bones, as somebody who prosecuted sex crimes for many years, that the ease of advertising children for sex, that going away is a positive in this country. That's not a negative.

Lina Misitzis

When I asked her about SESTA-FOSTA making it harder to actually find and prosecute sex traffickers, she said law enforcement should, quote, "up their game." After SESTA-FOSTA passed, sex on the internet-- this won't come as a shock; there's a ton of it-- it all seemed suddenly radioactive. Not just advertisements for sex, it was true of all kinds of sex work, including people whose jobs are perfectly legal, like porn performers, camgirls, strippers.

After SESTA-FOSTA, tons of them said that they were getting kicked off of Instagram and Facebook. Many of these were not explicit accounts, no nudity. Like one porn performer who posted a picture of herself on Instagram on Valentine's Day. She was wearing a tank top and mid-length red skirt, sitting on her bed, which she'd covered in rose petals. The photo was captioned, Happy Valentine's Day. By the next morning, her account had been removed by Instagram.

The president of an adult performers' union told me she's documented more than 3,600 banned accounts. I reached out to Facebook, which also owns Instagram, and a company spokesperson responded, quote, "We understand that people sometimes disagree with what we do and don't allow on Instagram. We'll continue listening and responding to the concerns of our community."

Even though Kara wasn't being trafficked anymore, SESTA-FOSTA had an effect on her life-- a huge effect. I'll pick up her story in 2015, when she first returned to Florida. She'd been away for seven years, so she had no idea what to do, who to call, where to live. She tried finding a job, applied to lots and lots of them, but no one would hire her. She thinks it's because she had so many prostitution charges on her record.

Kara

Not even the Family Dollar would give me a job. Like nobody would give me a job.

Lina Misitzis

You're saying if you would apply for a job, they would run a background check on you. And even though it's not a felony, the minute prostitution enters the picture, they're like, no.

Kara

Yeah, even Wawa. [LAUGHS] Those are the two jobs I was mad at the most-- Wawa, Walmart. Nobody would give me a job because of these charges. And it was mind-blowing to me, because I'm like, literally, it's a ticket in places. You don't even to go to jail, and you would not-- but because it was so frowned upon, because it was looked at as the nastiest, just immoral thing, these people would not give me a job.

I'm trying to do everything that I can to just live a normal life, just be normal, and it wasn't working. So my next option was to do what I knew how to do. That's why I jumped into the industry I knew how to survive on.

Lina Misitzis

So in 2015, a couple of years before the law passed, Kara went back to trading sex for money, except this time, for the first time ever, she got to keep the money. There's an important distinction I want to make. At this point in her life, what Kara was doing was sex work, which means performing any sex act in exchange for money. Lots of things make it different from being trafficked, but the biggest one is Kara chose to do it. She wasn't being forced or coerced.

For the second half of her 20s, Kara's life totally changed. Not in some Disney rags-to-riches way-- though she was in Orlando-- but overall, she was happy. She knew it was illegal and that she was risking more criminal charges, but no one would hire her anyway, and by doing sex work, she was able to get her own car, her own house. Kara was putting herself through school. She got her GED, start going to classes. She wanted to be a medical technician. She was working towards certification. After that, she'd stop doing sex work. She had a plan.

Kara

Nobody was in control of my life but me. I was empowered, man. That's the biggest word. I had the money to do and provide for myself.

Lina Misitzis

The way she made her money, the way she found her clients, it was all on Backpage. And you can probably see where this is going. When Backpage shut down, all of a sudden, everything that was working for her disappeared. Kara kept doing sex work, only it was more dangerous, she says. Backpage and sites like it made it possible for sex workers to share information about clients before agreeing to meet them in person. They could warn one another about predatory clients who, for instance, won't wear condoms, or refuse to pay, or try making sex workers include some service that they didn't originally agree to. It was a lifeline.

Now, to get by, Kara started doing what her trafficker had her do on the nights that she hadn't made quota-- go outside, try picking clients up in bars. And when she would pick up a guy, she'd go into those dates totally blind. She says nothing violent happened to her, but she had less power. Clients started haggling and wanted to pay her less money. And over time, it got too hard. She couldn't post ads. She couldn't find clients. She wasn't making any money.

Kara

I ended up completely losing the house, then, a couple weeks later, my car. So I was barely making it-- making enough money to even get by, let alone feed myself.

Lina Misitzis

After she lost her house, Karen moved into a hotel, one of those extended stay places. And to pay for it, now that so much of her work had dried up, she did find another job, as a cashier at 7-Eleven. She made $300 a week-- not enough to cover her room.

For a short time, she tried sticking to her school schedule, going to class.

Kara

But I ended up dropping out, because I just-- it was just too much. Like it was either survive or go to school. So it literally changed everything.

Lina Misitzis

When I spoke with Senator McCaskill, I told her about Kara, about how she had been trafficked for so long, finally escaped, and got on her feet by doing sex work, largely through Backpage, and how SESTA-FOSTA made her job harder, more dangerous.

Lina Misitzis

The bill had this kind of big negative effect on her life, even though she's not a sex trafficker. And the law is supposed to be targeting traffickers. And so I'm wondering if this is a law that hits the wrong target.

Claire Mccaskill

Well, I guess I would say that if you were sitting in the shoes of the Senate in those years, you would have seen websites that were helping people traffick children for sex. And they were being protected by a law, and they didn't deserve that protection. So the intent of the law was to stop trafficking of children for sex.

One of the byproducts of that is that for adult consensual sex workers, they have to find other ways to find customers. I'm not sure that any of the complaints about the difficulty of finding clients to pay you for sex is a fair trade-off for stopping a website like Backpage that was facilitating the trafficking of children across this country. And that's the weighing balance that we were looking at.

Lina Misitzis

I asked her about all the sex workers whose jobs are not criminalized-- porn, camming, stripping-- who say they've been thrown off of social media because of SESTA-FOSTA and now find it harder to make a living. She said that since they're doing nothing illegal, and nothing banned by SESTA-FOSTA, they should sue the social media companies. And she repeated her point about the law's intent.

Claire Mccaskill

Honestly, I'm more worried about sex trafficking than I am how much money they're making stripping.

Lina Misitzis

Which, maybe that's the point. Congress cared about trafficking victims. They weren't focused on all the other people who'd get caught up in this law, including someone like Kara who actually was a trafficking victim. Just, she isn't anymore. Kara is not doing sex work anymore. She's getting by, but she's struggling. I told her the fact that she quit sex work, that the law made it so difficult for her to find clients, I think the lawmakers behind SESTA-FOSTA could see that as a victory.

Lina Misitzis

Like the law worked. You are a success story.

Kara

I highly doubt that they could use me as a success story. Let me make it very clear, I was still an independent sex worker for a while after SESTA-FOSTA, so it didn't work. SESTA-FOSTA didn't stop me. It hindered me a few times.

It got less safer. I wasn't able to be able to screen my calls the way that I should have. It became a headache, but it never stopped me.

Lina Misitzis

It's funny-- it was always Kara's plan to stop doing sex work. She wanted to finish school, get a different job, try starting a family. But when the law passed, it threw a wrench in her plan. She made a lot less money at sex work, which slowed down her progress and her ability to reach her goals. So the law didn't push her out of sex work, she says. If anything, it kept her in it for longer.

Ira Glass

Lina Misitzis is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, new rules come down, and you think, I don't know, maybe I should just quit my job and get out of here. A very extreme example of that, that's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: The Lonely Island

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, "There, I Fixed It." Stories of what happens when somebody throws the book at some problem. We hang out with the people who get bonked on the head with that book. In Act 1, it was the US Congress throwing the book. In Act 2, which we have arrived at now, it's the government of China. This is Act Two, "The Lonely Island."

So it's been a year and a few days now since China cracked down on Hong Kong with something called the National Security Law, which basically was Beijing saying to the people of Hong Kong, OK, game's over. Stop the nonsense. We're tired of your mess, the protests, the calls for free elections, criticism of China. The National Security Law lets China wipe all that away.

And as a result, thousands of people have fled. The UK has extended a new kind of visa for Hong Kong residents that gives 70% of the population the ability to come live in the UK and apply for citizenship. When I was reporting in Hong Kong back in 2019, I met this writer named Karen Cheung. She spent the last year, since July 2020, when the law was enacted, watching Hong Kong change under the new law, in small ways and big ones and wondering if she's going to have to leave herself. Here's Karen.

Karen Cheung

Everyone I know in Hong Kong has a point of no return, a point when the situation deteriorates so irrevocably that leaving is the only option A friend from university says her point of no return is the day when Hong Kong is forced to write in the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China instead of the traditional characters we use here. Another friend said that her point of no return is the day the police shot a protester. That happened in 2019.

For a long time, my point of no return was when the National Security Law would be enacted in Hong Kong. I chose that because I thought it would be a long time before that day would arrive. Then, suddenly, last June, the law became reality. My point of no return was here.

The National Security Law is vague and broad, but what it comes down to is this. Every other day, we learn about something new that is now potentially illegal. The eight-word slogan we all chanted at protests two years ago, apparently, you can't say that anymore. Want to put up pro-democracy decorations in your shop? The police could show up. Even films that are about protests could be banned under new censorship guidelines. These acts could be considered endangering national security or trying to subvert mainland China. The maximum prison sentence for, quote, "grave offenses" is life.

As soon as the law went into effect last June, we heard stories of people leaving. I thought I would be one of them. I'd always thought that when the day came, it would be an easy flip of a switch from Stay to Go. I'm only 28, and I have my whole life in front of me. It wasn't too late to start fresh in a new place.

But I didn't leave. The seasons pass, and I keep looking for reasons to stay a bit longer.

Summer, July 1, the day after the National Security Law was enacted is the anniversary of the handover when Hong Kong was handed from Britain to China, and it's an annual tradition to march in the streets. By noon, the police held up a brand new purple flag that actually read, verbatim, "This is a police warning. You are displaying flags or banners, chanting slogans, or conducting yourself with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offenses under the HKSAR National Security Law. You may be arrested and prosecuted."

Usually I'm out on the streets on July 1. Protests have been such a staple in Hong Kong for the past two decades. For me and everyone I grew up with, that's essentially our whole lives.

But this year, I don't go to the march. Instead, my partner and I anxiously watch the news with friends, all of us too nervous to head out. It already feels like a different world.

There's a mass panic on social media. People worry they're going to be jailed for things they've said. They've started deleting their social media accounts, erasing their posts, changing their usernames. I want to yell at these people, the Communist Party doesn't even know who you are. Don't play into their hands. Don't obey in advance.

But the person I'm really saying this to is myself. I like to think that I'm at the far back of the line of people who will get arrested, because I'm a nobody. It's too early to know how and when the Security Law will be used on us, how bad it will be. Still, we take small steps so we can leave if we need to.

My partner and I get married a month later. We do this so that if we decide to leave Hong Kong, we can leave together. I only have a Hong Kong passport, but my partner has citizenship in an English-speaking country. We contact a lawyer, sign a piece of paper, and get married. I tell myself that this doesn't mean we're leaving; it's just in case.

This may sound weird, but I don't know what my partner thinks about leaving. He doesn't bring it up, and I'm too scared to ask. When he does let something slip, it seems to change every few weeks or months. One day he says we could leave for 10 years and then come back when the crackdown has slowed. Other times, he vows to stick it out here. Sometimes, when my partner takes a bath, I slide into the bathroom, and splash some water on his face, and say, by the way, I don't want to leave, OK?

Late at night, before we turn the lights off, I remind him that I really fucking hate the cold and that I have seasonal affective disorder. So if we ever move to a place above a certain latitude, we'd have to get a light lamp, and even then, I'd probably still be crying, and depressed, and resentful. Hong Kong is the only place I've ever called home.

Our generation grew up after the British left Hong Kong in 1997, and Hong Kong felt like it belonged to us. Our grandparents and great grandparents came to Hong Kong fleeing the war against the Japanese, or communist oppression. They thought about survival and nothing else. Some of them got rich along the way.

But my friends and I, we had dreams. We slept on couches and made zines about neighborhoods we love. We wanted to build community spaces, and live on farms, and play shows at industrial buildings, and protest till our bodies were spent. We weren't going to see this place as transitory. We would make this place our own.

Even after the law, my day-to-day life hasn't changed much. I feel angry when I read the news. More than 10,000 people have been arrested for protesting in 2019, and every week, protesters are sentenced to many years in jail. But the messed up thing is, if I wanted to, I can still put on a swimsuit and go to the beach, or bitch about life with my friends at cafes, or sit for hours at my favorite bookstores like nothing has changed. The doom and gloom space in my head where people I've met or known have been arrested exists alongside the sunny, humid streets and country parks of Hong Kong. The storm hasn't hit us yet, and that's why we're still here.

Winter. The months pass. 12 Hong Kongers trying to flee to Taiwan on a boat are caught and detained in China. The founder of our biggest pro-democracy paper is jailed. A teenage protester who was shot by the police in 2019 has to go into exile. A journalist is arrested for doing investigative work.

In early January, my partner and I have dinner at our friend's, who I'll call Beth. Beth's small, bright studio has a beautiful balcony with lemon trees and other potted creatures. Beth says she helped a group of her elderly relatives get their documents in order to leave. They tried convincing her to leave too, said they had fled to Hong Kong from China during the Cultural Revolution, and they were grateful to not have had to live through that.

People in our parents' generation were always fleeing for stability, for better lives. But Beth and her partner have no plans to go. A few days later, I'm still in bed when, through the door, I hear my partner crack open a beer. It's only 10:00 in the morning, and he's already drinking, which means there must be another devastating development in the news. And I already know it will be a long day, week, month, year, eternity.

That morning, the police had arrested dozens of pro-democracy activists. Their offense? They ran in a primary for an election that the government keeps postponing. It's the biggest single-day arrest so far. Weeks later, in my day job, I read about their trial. An activist on trial tells his pregnant wife that he loves her as he's facing an indeterminate number of years in prison.

I realize I have to compartmentalize and stop reading the news at work unless I want to start bawling in the office in front of a dozen coworkers. Sometimes, the reason you want to leave isn't related to danger. It isn't that you give up. It isn't that you think being somewhere else will bring you a better life. It's that your heart can't take it anymore. Maybe what will get me to leave is not fear, but fatigue.

After the mass arrests, that's when people around me start actively discussing leaving. Soon, at dinner gatherings, the only thing my friends and I talk about is whether to go or stay. Some sign up for language classes and join Facebook groups to learn about life in foreign countries.

When I see Beth again, her plans have changed. She and her partner have volunteered during the election and done work with international non-profits. They start getting worried about their safety, too. Beth is leaving soon for school overseas, and she's trying not to think about whether she'll come back. I ask them what they are going to do with their plants, which they care for like their babies, and they groan.

Every time someone tells me they're leaving, I picture them fading into the background one by one around a rosy dinner table, until there is only me left, staring at my plate. I try to imagine living in the Hong Kong where they're gone and all hanging out at a bookstore together in London, discussing Hong Kong news without fear that someone will eavesdrop. It makes me want to throw myself into Victoria Harbor.

I don't tell them any of this. The public conversation around leaving has become so fraught. People judge you if you're going on about your new life abroad or see you as a deserter. Some people left without saying goodbye, not out of fear, but shame. I don't want my friends to think I'm judging their decisions, but it also means I never say out loud how much I can't bear to see them go.

Whenever my friends press me on my plans, all I can say is, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know-- which is true. After coming home from gatherings which increasingly feel like farewells, my partner and I still don't talk about our plans. Talking about it makes it feel real and imminent-- too soon, like we're going to leave tomorrow.

When we talk about who gets to leave, that discussion is inevitably tied to class and upward mobility, and therefore privilege. New visa policies mean that a lot more people get to leave now, but some still can't afford it. And for people whose arrests are imminent, they don't have the luxury of discussing what their points of no return are. The fact that I am having this internal debate, that I am neither in exile or in jail, is a privilege.

Spring-- in April, I'm scrolling through the news feed and see that the government has come up with something truly out of this world. It's called the National Security Education Day. Photos show little children holding fake guns and all sorts of weapons-- kids barely old enough to have pocket money, but already training to be cops. Schools are introducing patriotic education, and teachers can lose their teaching license for having views that are deemed politically incorrect. I close the browser and think, there is no fucking way I ever send a kid of mine to a school in Hong Kong.

Recently, I sat on the back of a motorbike as a friend drove us through Hong Kong Island. The honey-hued streets at night are quiet. All I can hear is the wind roaring by us and the metronomic hum of the traffic lights. We pass by a rubbish truck tainting the air sour, and I noticed paint clumsily smeared on the side of the road to cover up graffiti of now-illegal slogans. We meander through the stench of bitter Chinese herbs in Sheung Wan and one we're on Victoria Road, all we can smell is the damp soil.

We stop at a stretch of waterfront, so far away from the light pollution that I can look up and see the stars. I feel a flood of existential dread. I had never seen the city on the back of a bike before. How many more ways are there to experience the city I thought I already knew, and how can you possibly tell me to leave before I have checked off all of them?

We often speak of Hong Kong disappearing as the doomsday scenario, as though the city would submerge underwater like Atlantis. It is much more likely that one day in the near future, the Hong Kong cityscape will not look unlike how it had in 2020, but there will be nobody here who remembers the place that once existed. This is what I fear most-- that the skyscrapers will remain intact, the countryside hikes still beautiful, and the harbor rippling with nightlights. That you can still go to work and have afternoon tea at hotels, and outwardly, you can't tell anything is wrong, but the only ones left here are those who believe this is the best version of Hong Kong there could ever be.

I don't know what will happen in the next few years or even weeks, but I know that when it feels stupid to stay, like it does now, suddenly, something as small as a discreet box on a minibus stenciled with the words, "gaa yau," "I support you, keep holding on," could be enough to make our day seem less bleak. We talk about the question of staying or leaving like there is a right or wrong answer, a clever or irrational choice. But there's really only one question-- whether or not you're ready to say goodbye. And I know I'm not ready yet. For now, I choose limbo.

Ira Glass

Karen Cheung. Just in the last few weeks, as Karen was recording her story, things have gotten worse in Hong Kong. Journalists have been arrested. The big pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily closed. Three activist groups disbanded. Karen says some of her friends who weren't planning to leave are now reconsidering.

[MUSIC - T.A.T.U. - "NOT GONNA GET US"]

With this week's show, producing has gone through so many hands. Lina Misitzis, Laura Starecheski, Nadia Reiman, Aviva DeKornfeld, and Bim Adwunmi. Other people who put together today's show, Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Damien Graef, Beth Lake, Rudy Lee, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Ari Saperstein, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Courtney, Lana Wilson, Alan Yu, Clara Ma, Alex Andrews, Blair Hopkins, The Sex Worker Outreach Project, Behind Bars, Keith Chu, Bella Robinson, Ramona Flour, Lorelei Lee, Scott Cunningham, Greg DeAngelo, Aaron Sankin, Gustavo Turner, Julia Robertson, and Congressman Ro Khanna, Alex Levy Yelderman, EJ Dickson, Alice Aster, Kevin Schowengerdt and Emily Wyatt. Our website, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He recently misplaced a tooth that he was hoping to get tooth fairy money for-- just lost it. Drove him crazy.

Sam

It invaded all aspects of my life. Any room I walked into, I looked in the corners. I looked under the table, crouched down.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.