Trafficking

A recent Renboy.com screenshot, before the raid.

A recent Rentboy.com screenshot, before the raid.

Tuesday morning, Homeland Security and Brooklyn police raided the offices of Rentboy.com, arresting its CEO and several current and former workers, seizing six bank accounts, and freezing the website in what the U.S. Department of Justice’s press release bragged was a raid on the “largest online male escort service.”

Coming right on the heels of Amnesty International’s controversial and much talked about decriminalization policy, the raid was a shock to many in the sex work world. Law enforcement agencies appear to be turning their eyes on sex work advertising services in North America, from the crackdowns on Backpage and Redbook, to Canada’s new anti-sex work law—the Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act—which includes provisions banning the advertisement of sexual services.

According to the release, it took a crack team of detectives and the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Field Office to work out that despite Rentboy.com’s claim that the site only facilitated companionship, it was actually advertising sex. “As alleged, Rentboy.com profited from the promotion of prostitution despite their claim that their advertisements were not for sexual services,” said New York Police Commissioner Wiliam Bratton in the press release.

Reading the press release, I was immediately struck by its use of rhetoric. Unlike official statements around the crackdowns on Backpage and similar services that are known primarily for advertising cis women sex workers, no mention is made of Rentboy aiding the nefarious work of sex traffickers. As well, unlike in most sex work raids, no mention is made of anti-trafficking organizations reaching out to supposed “victims.” It is a loud and curious omission given that police find it impossible to talk about sex work at all these days without discussing trafficking.

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These people look very pleased with themselves. (Photo of Speaker of the House Joe Boehmer signing the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, via Boehmer's Flickr account)

Speaker of the House John Boehner signing the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. (Photo via Boehner’s Flickr account)

This year, Congress decided that the term “john sting” needed a rebrand. What, they wondered, would justify all the wasted resources and manpower under a veil of moral indignation? After they put their collective hive mind together, a new, shinier, more bureaucratic term emerged. John stings are now called federally funded anti-trafficking work.

The change came earlier this year when Congress further institutionalized End Demand-style tactics by expanding the definition of who can be charged with human trafficking to include those seeking services from sex workers. And the way that these practices are being implemented is moving anti-trafficking work even further from addressing victimization—moving away from victims all together, in fact.

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Anchorage, Alaska (via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

Anchorage, Alaska. (image via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

On April 4, 2014, Anchorage Police Department officers responded to a report of a “hysterical female.”  The woman reported that she had lost her purse and she believed her coworker had taken it.  In response, she’d threatened to tell the police about the “prostitution ring” they were involved in, and her coworker had threatened to assault her if she did.  Three months later, officers with the Alaska State Trooper’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with that “hysterical female.”  They did so by flying to the town where she was then working independently and booking an escort session with her.

“Oh baby,” an officer can be heard moaning in a recording of the encounter,“I’ve never had that before.”

Moments later, other members of the Special Crimes Investigative Unit can be heard entering the room and putting the woman in handcuffs.  Under Alaska state law, which has redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, the woman is a sex trafficking victim.  In the incident report, she is listed as a victim.  She called 911 and reported that she was, by their definition, a sex trafficking victim, and they chose to follow up on that by what sounded like having sexual contact of some sort with her during a prostitution sting operation. [READ MORE]

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The Society of the Spectacle: where a rich actress who once played a sex worker is more credible than sex workers themselves. (Photo by Flickr user Anthony Citrano)

The Society of the Spectacle: in which a rich actress who once played a sex worker is presumed to be more credible than sex workers themselves. (Photo by Flickr user Anthony Citrano)

With Amnesty International’s announcement that its membership will vote on a policy of decriminalization of prostitution this weekend and subsequent protests from celebrities, there’s been considerable verbal diarrhea spewed from the mouths of rich people on the topic of “privilege.” Sex workers like me—people who have the time and energy to advocate for human rights—have been dubbed, over and over, “a privileged minority” by vicious anti-sex work mouthpieces like Meghan Murphy. Of course, it’s a common tactic to delegitimize the very people who are most impacted by structural inequality—if real “prostituted women” are too busy being tied up in someone’s basement to speak for themselves, well, golly gee, they must need someone to speak for them. This is the Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim.

The Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim exists on a continuum of celebrity culture. Our cultural victim narrative and the spectacle it provides—from voyeuristic television shows like 8 Minutes to posters of young girls in bondage—exist only for themselves. This narrative neither reflects, engages, nor critiques reality, offering little more than momentary titillation. The complicated facts of sex work exist beyond the glittery veneer of the spectacle, a veneer that acts as a distraction from our white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. It’s why we’re more likely to hear public praise for Nicholas Kristoff and his tragedy porn about trafficked little girls in the Times than for the sex workers who provide actual, tangible support for women who have been victimized in the sex industry.

Sex workers who paint nuanced portraits of their own lives have the power to expose our self-referent culture’s take on sex industry victims for what it is: fraudulent. As such, people in the business of philanthropy have upped the anti (uh, sorry). Digging deep into their designer bag of tricks, women like Stella Marr and Somaly Mam give glowing performances as the victim, despite not actually having been victimized. Their performances are applauded by the masses, their sick, cultural desire for the spectacle overriding the actual, lived realities of the people these performances affect most. As a culture, we have come to see selfies as realer than the self; likewise, we understand the spectacle of the victim to be more real than the complex realities of sex work as told by sex workers themselves.

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(Screenshot of Backpage's July 10th email to users)

(Screenshot of Backpage’s July 10th e-mail to users)

Update: Backpage filed a federal suit today against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart for violating its free speech and equal protection rights after the Sheriff successfully pressured credit card companies to break with the company this month. In the suit, Backpage requests a preliminary injury, so that credit card processing will be restored to the site immediately; compensation for loss of revenue from credit card transactions this month; and punitive damages.

Free posting

Earlier this month, Backpage responded to American Express, Mastercard, and Visa’s disallowal of charges for adult services ads by offering free posting in that section. In an e-mail to users on July 10th, Backpage informed posters that they can move their ads to the top of the listings for free every 24 hours. Each additional posting within that 24 hours will cost a dollar. A good portion of the mainstream media is characterizing this move as reactionary. An example: “Backpage.com thumbs nose at sheriff [Tom Dart, the Illinois Cook County anti-trafficking zealot who wrote a letter to Mastercard and Visa this month prompting their actions],” as the USA Today headline put it, but many sex workers believe this is the least Backpage can do for them during this difficult time in return for earning $22 million dollars of revenue annually from our escort ads.

However, Katherine Koster of the Sex Worker Outreach Project noted that some sex workers are still having trouble with the new system. For one thing, it seems the free posting is only a privilege granted to those who’d posted a paid ad recently, before the Visa and Mastercard fiasco began. “Other people have shared issues around…not being able to post at all,” Koster told Tits and Sass via a Facebook message.

“Every single day, they [Backpage] keep changing shit, other shit randomly doesn’t work, and it is getting incredibly frustrating to use,” Australian escort Sarah summed up on her tumblr.

Backpage itself specified in its e-mail to users that:

Free and paid ads initially post into the same section and sort by date. After a grace period, free ads change position to the Additional Ads section below the paid ads.

Many adult services posters have found that their free ads become inaccessible to clients quickly after being shunted into the Additional Ads section, far from the top of the ad queue where postings garner the most notice. On July 9th, Sarah wrote that she’d “been having problems all day with some of my Backpage free ads disappearing into the ether, showing as live but not being visible in the category listings.”

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