At this point in the SESTApocalypse, as I finally emerge from the paralyzing fog of wtf-wtf-wtf around the death of our business model, we’re all sick of thinking and talking about it. We’re sick of wondering how the hell we’re going to manage, sick of watching high-end workers become paranoiac internet security experts, sick of low-end workers being driven back to the streets. We’re sick unto death of the media requests, media requests in our inboxes but no money, media requests just as blithely uncaring about outing us as always, media requests which cheerfully expect a response that night before the news cycle stops giving a shit about hookers. (Oh, but could you connect us to someone even more abjectly fucked than you? Could they talk to us in between dodging assault as they re-acclimate themselves to the shittiest and most dangerous sort of desperate street-based work? How do you feel about your imminent impoverishment, the obsolescence of your only survival mechanism, and your bleak and possibly nonexistent future?) And when we do accept these media requests and bravely strive to make ourselves understood—when they don’t just quote our snarky emails refusing the most ignorant ones without our permission—we’re sick of the coverage that results, always appearing underneath that sickeningly familiar synecdoche for us, those disembodied legs in thigh high boots leaning over a car under a streetlight.
We’re understandably sick of it all as we attempt to keep body and soul together in this new landscape, but I feel I have to write a eulogy for Backpage.
Alas, poor fucking Backpage. I’m not crying any crocodile tears on your grave—your owners can sit and stew in the hundred charges in their indictments and take that instead of true justice for cynically profiting off a criminalized population—but I will lament what you meant for us.
We’ve lived with you under threat for so long, your demise hardly feels real. From innumerable lawsuits to credit card companies cutting ties with you to Senate hearings to your flagrant strikes for free speech, it seems like something has always been promising to put an end to you. But you persisted.
Personally, I was with Backpage from its murky beginnings to the end of the line. I advertised in a print ad in the back of an alternative weekly back in the aughts when Backpage founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin’s company, Village Voice Media, owned a large swathe of those weeklies. I paid $200 every two weeks for that ad, $160 for a week if I couldn’t manage to put together that $200. $200 for 100 characters, briefer than a tweet—no pictures. I had to walk into that newspaper office personally to deliver the cash, forget any concerns about outing (oh, yes, kids, and I walked uphill in the snow, both ways).
It was this crude newspaper model, these back pages only a few escorts could advertise on, which would eventually become the much more accessible Backpage. (Larkin in an internal company document, as quoted in the unsealed Backpage indictments: “We have with the Village Voice probably the longest run of adult content advertising in the United States and it is, like it or not, in our DNA.”) In fact, Lacey and Larkin initially used Backpage’s revenue stream to keep those alternative weeklies alive in a newspaper industry that was failing even then, in the late aughts and early tens. Though, as anti-trafficking discourse intensified nationally, Village Voice Media came under new ownership which denied any connection, financial or otherwise, between their high-minded journalism and Backpage’s taint.
(Though now both independent print journalism and online escort advertisement are dying models, so we have something in common again.)
I paid $200 every two weeks for that ad, $160 for a week if I couldn’t manage to put together that $200. $200 for 100 characters, briefer than a tweet—no pictures.
I advertised in Backpage’s precursor, the Craigslist erotic services ads. When the company took those down in the wake of bad publicity around the Craigslist killer, I advertised in the rebranded fee-based Craigslist adult section, as site staff began to monitor and review ads using the same methods the Department of Justice condemned in its indictments this month. When the Craigslist adult section was taken down as well, I advertised on Backpage’s adult ads for years. When prohibitionist Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s threatening letters to major credit card companies made Backpage increasingly difficult to pay for and every escort had to become instantly familiar with cryptocurrency, my grandfathered Backpage account allowed me to run up a bill each month. When, last year, a fearful Backpage finally took down its adult ads after Lacey and Larkin pleaded the fifth in a Senate hearing, with bright red font crying “CENSORED” all over the url where they once were, I joined the escort migration to barely coded cooptation of Backpage’s dating section.
Over the years, you’ve read our commentary on this game of whack-a-mole for life or death stakes the government and abolitionist interests have been playing against us, which my own career as a low-end escort reflects. First the Craigslist adult ads in 2010, then Redbook, then Rentboy, and a few other sites along the way—every time an ad platform was seized or pressured into shuttering, you’ve seen me give the pep talk I give myself, the pep talk we all give ourselves: that sex workers are canny and resilient, that we will find the loopholes and continue to survive. Never mind that every time the hand of anti-trafficking lobbying by government fiat came down we lost scores more of the most vulnerable among us to homelessness and hopeless suicidality and greater exposure to violence. Never mind that with every crackdown, the space left to us to make our tenuous living became narrower and narrower.
Which brings us to SESTA/FOSTA (the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act in the Senate, the Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act in the House of Representatives—the reconciled bill the President signed into law is now known simply as “SESTA”). It was the crowning blow which made that ominous multiyear tide of ad site closures we tried to outrun an inescapable fate for all of us. Once SESTA passed last month—in two near unanimous votes in an otherwise embattled Congress where the phrase “anti-trafficking” is bipartisan catnip—we knew that eventually there would be no place left to go. No U.S. ad site would risk taking on civil and criminal liability for all its sex worker users.
And the hammer started coming down even sooner than we expected, before the ink on the bill had even dried. Sites began to self-police and interpret the legislation in a broad manner. In the days after, in the week after, we watched numbly as the Craigslist personals, Reddit’s sex work-related subreddits, Cityvibe, The Erotic Review’s U.S. boards and eventually all U.S. access to the site, Nightshift, Men4Rent.com, Eccie, and too many others to name—all of these avenues were lost to us. VerifyHim taking its boards down was an especially ominous sign, confirming that life-saving blacklists and verification sites as well as ad platforms were at risk. Some of us had the disquieting experience of deciding to post on a site one night and seeing the URL replaced with an error message or a liability-conscious note about the site going down for the time being the very next morning. We watched as payment processors and website hosting companies changed their terms of service or pointed at old clauses in them they’d never enforced so diligently before and refused us further service. Even legal and gray market sex workers were affected as cam sites cracked down also.
And the blows kept coming; they keep coming. Just last Wednesday, as I write this belatedly, Switter, the weeks-old substitute for the escort Twitter accounts being shadowbanned en masse post-SESTA, lost its service provider and had to find another one. Small sites can’t risk the liability, and this is just the sort of control over our content that big-name players like Google and Microsoft were waiting for—they’re happy to take the opportunity to delete sexually explicit material from people’s files. (Because although legislators didn’t take trafficking survivor input into account, they were happy to take their cues from Google and Facebook and adjust the legislation’s wording to their liking—hence Silicon Valley’s about-face on the law months before its passage.)
But Backpage was the harshest blow of all, lending bitter truth to our plea as ubiquitous anti-SESTA hashtag—#LetUsSurvive.
Maybe some of my more marginalized friends are right when they say that in some ways the SESTApocalypse we’re experiencing now is still a middle-class phenomenon, as Tits and Sass contributor Jay St James points out. Look, St James and others say, sure, this will definitely affect some low-income indoor workers. And before Backpage, I saw even street workers feel the chill of the post-SESTA freeze—any access to indoor work makes one safer, leaves one free to decline at least one dodgy street client, and many of the workers I know kept up a Craigslist personals or Cityvibe side hustle alongside their walking.
But, they go on, a lot of the more expensive ad sites were already excluding Black workers and sex working trans women, and especially sex working Black trans women. Jay St James herself had been told outright by ad platforms that “we already have enough Black providers.” She also related to me that she had to wait three months and have several white friends email on her behalf before TNA finally stopped ignoring her application and allowed her to advertise. Meanwhile, many ad sites refused to host trans escort ads altogether, ghettoizing them in their own smaller ad platforms.
But that’s where Backpage differed, why it was so vital, and why its seizure is such a disaster.
For most of the site’s existence, anyone regardless of identity with $5 to rub together could put up a Backpage ad. There was a ts section for trans women, and there were no lengthy application processes to navigate, no hobbyist or faux-ally site managers to sweet talk. Handily for undocumented migrants or poor workers who’d lost their documentation, there were no ID checks. It was as low-barrier and accessible compared to the rest of the online escort ad world as sex work is to straight jobs. Paycheck to paycheck workers could always rely on the site—strippers and camgirls would post an ad occasionally if they didn’t make enough at their main gig that week. Despite the way some higher-end escorts would sneer at Backpage and the screening methods and rates of those of us who worked on it, it even served as a last resort for them occasionally. Following secret sex worker Facebook groups over the years, I can’t remember how many times I saw one mid-to-higher end escort advise another to make a lower-priced persona on Backpage to tide them over during dry periods when no one would pay their high rates, which still left their higher-end Eros or independent website based brand unmarred for when business there picked up again.
For most of the site’s existence, anyone regardless of identity with $5 to rub together could put up a Backpage ad.
Once Backpage was seized, I saw workers in my area who’d only recently clawed their way up from street-based work and homelessness into the lowest rung of indoor work and unstable housing night by night in overpriced, shady motel rooms get flung back into what they’d just escaped. St. James Infirmary reported four times as many street-based workers as before in the Mission district. The sex worker community online started to hear about workers going back out on the street and missing their check-in calls—as of April 14th, just based on anecdotal data passed between us, 13 workers have gone missing and two have been confirmed dead. Two workers have been assaulted at gunpoint, and I can’t even count how many other stories of rape and assault I’ve heard from people returning to or just learning the streets for the first time. One person has already taken their life because of this legislation.
The loss of Backpage revealed SESTA as the trafficker’s wet dream it was. Within hours of the seizure, there were reports of pimps messaging workers, hoping to capitalize on our desperate need to find alternative ways to reach clients. (If you’ve been approached by a someone who wants to “help” you through this, consider sending screenshots to SWOP-USA at firstname.lastname@example.org—they are collecting information on predators targeting sex workers during this difficult time.) And of course, as workers flooded the streets, they exposed themselves to the population of pimps who victimize street-based sex workers.
Alas, poor fucking Backpage. Poor us.
Was Backpage a bad actor? Does it even fucking matter? Just as there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical for-profit escort ad platform under criminalization, especially without sex worker and trafficking survivor input. But until we can create the sex worker-run offshore cooperative ad site of our dreams, what this moral and legal judgment against Backpage means in practice is a phenomenon we’re intimately familiar with—having the best of a few bad options wrenched away from us.
We knew already that Backpage was no friend of ours. We learned that even more definitively last year in January under the shadow of Lacey and Larkin’s Senate hearing, when it proved itself capable of asking sex worker activists for testimony championing the site one week and then caving to pressure and shutting down the adult ads the next week as a “free speech” protest, leaving sex workers wondering how they were going to feed their kids. (They had the same attitude then we’re seeing from other third party platforms now—through the grapevine we’re hearing that The Erotic Review is looking for an escort plaintiff to be a face for their case against SESTA. The damaging salacious scrutiny that would result there wouldn’t be falling on the men who run TER.)
Many of us were left with little to read and think about during whatever post-SESTA depressive episodes we could afford to indulge besides the unsealed indictments against Lacey, Larkin, and five Backpage employees, made up mostly of testimony from company CEO Carl Ferrer, who plead guilty and flipped on the others.
It seems that it’s true that Backpage was just plain dumb, many times over. They might have been fine just clinging stoically to the Safe Harbor Act—section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the legal clause which exempted third party platforms for liability for user postings, the very law which SESTA/FOSTA punched a big hole into when it came to “facilitating prostitution.” But no, as a Washington Post investigation discovered last year and the indictment noted, Backpage went so far as to hire a Filipino call center company to solicit escorts to post on the site and write ad copy for them, so that its repeated claims that it had nothing to do with ad content were proven false.
The indictments also reveal Backpage to be inexplicably and idiotically tone deaf.
Sure, it’s hard for me to understand the federal and state rationale behind the site’s culpability for editing incriminating ads rather than deleting them entirely. I agree with Lacey’s quoted statement in the indictments, framed damningly in the document as “bragging” about promoting prostitution: “Backpage is part of the solution. Eliminating adult advertising will in no way eliminate or even reduce the incidence of prostitution in this country. For the very first time, the oldest profession in the world has transparency, record keeping, and safeguards.”
While Lacey goes overboard in his claim to have invented the wheel here—Craigslist and sex workers ourselves did it first—it is absurd to assume deleting these ads would stop the activity rather than drive it further underground. That’s a particularly important consideration when it comes to trafficking. Nacole S., the mother of a 15-year-old Washington state girl allegedly trafficked on Backpage for three months, testified in Congress in support of SESTA. (Though, curiously, among all the charges in the Backpage indictments, there was not one count of child trafficking after all the abolitionist hype to the contrary.) It was horrifying for her to find her daughter on Backpage—but she found her daughter. Would she have been as likely to find her if the girl had been on the streets?
Still, you’d think Backpage would’ve realized what an optics nightmare it was to delay acting on a mother’s request to delete her underage daughter’s ad. You’d have thought they’d know better than to flirt with the potential PR clusterfuck of stalling when asked by a grieving father to take down his dead daughter’s post after she was murdered by a client. You’d think the Backpage head honchos would’ve been more wary of the decade-old hate boner law enforcement had for them; that they’d avoid sending inter-company memos saying things like “this is a good idea but it is not visible to AGs so it has little PR value…it is low priority” in response to an anti-trafficking organization’s suggestion that the site put up automatic warning messages whenever a would-be client searched for terms associated with underage workers.
And then there were Backpage’s free speech arguments. Perhaps those were a dumb move as well. While liberal sanctification of the First Amendment has always been reductive and tiresome at best, even concern for that sacred cow is muted by the blare of the 24/7 Trump Russia show now. Maybe I should actually be writing a eulogy for free speech on the internet. History will no doubt record this period as the point that it died with that proverbial whimper, as SESTA swiftly followed the end of net neutrality and the passage of the Cloud Act. (And pathetically enough, internet freedom died at the hands of baby boomer legislators who don’t quite know what the internet is and probably drive their IT guys to distraction—as we saw in Mike Zuckerberg’s recent Congressional hearings, in which senators struggled to grasp how Facebook worked.)
Just as there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical for-profit escort ad platform under criminalization.
But the week SESTA passed, when one would’ve expected a hue and cry about the free speech rights of sex workers and anyone who’s ever looked up anything sexually explicit online, the only sex worker in the news was Stormy Daniels. She was suddenly the temporary heroine of the Resistance, if only because they were overjoyed to attach the stigma she bore to Trump. Who cares about free speech on the internet, or policy in general, when every morning brings fresh revelations about Michael Cohen? Save that First Amendment rhetoric for when it’s time to defend fascist hate speech.
Then again, an abstract free speech defense of Backpage was at least more effective than a materialist one, since all the interviews we’ve done since the SESTApocalypse emphasizing the fact that we are literally dying seem to have accomplished nothing.
Because it doesn’t really matter whether Lacey, Larkin, et. all will be remembered as First Amendment martyrs or evil traffickers when we may or may not even live to see how history reckons with them.
The only line in the indictments that truly resonated with me was a woman’s complaint to Backpage customer service about her ad editing privileges being removed: “I am being deprived of income I sorely need,” she wrote. And reading that, I was flooded with nostalgia for the days when all you had to do was email Backpage customer service to solve that problem.
I have no pep talk for you now.
What we’ve been telling the media over and over again is plainly true: many of us will die, some of us have already died because of the damage SESTA’s done, and especially because of the loss of Backpage. And the victims will more often be trans workers, disabled workers, workers of color, and trafficking survivors—those of us who never had many options to begin with. We are without allies. Feminists and labor rights activists would rather spout anti-trafficking discourse, and even civil rights organizations like the ACLU and EFF, who were happy enough to join us urging people to call their senators to vote against SESTA, are nowhere to be found now that sex workers need material support. The few collective funds helping community members hardest hit by these developments report that they are receiving many more requests for help than donations, and the donations are mostly coming from…us.
The fact that some of us will survive (guess which ones are most likely to?) and that sex work itself will carry on—oldest profession and all that—for future sex workers to be screwed over in new and exciting ways by the forces of future societal disapprobation is obviously no comfort right now.
For now, many of us have found alternative ways to advertise—clinging to the stalwart sites still left (TNA and a few others have vowed to attempt to stay up, citing their offshore hosting) or moving to marginal or new sites happy to take the business the vacuum that Backpage and all its fallen counterparts have left behind, the few sites heedless of the fact that SESTA will apply retroactively.
But that plan B will only be viable for a few months until SESTA actually becomes law. All the alternative models aren’t viable or are too small scale. There is no way to safely work the streets in this overpoliced America, no way to keep “dodging the Cadillac squad” like the street workers that the jazz singers of the 20s and 30s memorialized. That’s not even going into the rape, pimping, and neighborhood ire street workers draw already and which will only intensify the more of us are forced out there. We aren’t all going to be able to join the private party circuit. Nor are we all tech-savvy enough to surveillance-proof all the business we conduct online, and even if we all were, our clients certainly are not.
The future is not only dismal but impossible to conceive of right now. Already there are more overreaching state and federal bills on the horizon. SB1204 in California was originally an expansion of the definition of pandering which would have threatened the distribution of harm reduction materials to street workers. Thankfully, it was revised and gutted recently in committee into an extension of the penalty for “supervising prostitution”, but the appearance of the bill’s original language was disturbing enough. [Update: After I posted this today even the revised version of the bill failed passage, thanks to the advocacy of CA sex worker activists.] And there is the End Banking For Human Traffickers Act, passing the House with only two no votes last week, which would require the dreaded State Department TIP (Trafficking In Persons) report to include a write-up on how each foreign country prevents financial transactions from people accused or suspected of trafficking. The TIP has long been used to pressure other nations into more prohibitive prostitution policies. This addition might eliminate many offshore financial service options for sex workers.
The future is fucked and fuzzy, and the present is chaos. So we might as well pour out a few for Backpage, and mourn the bad times posting there before the arrival of the worse times we’re living through now.
For additional reading on the importance of Backpage, also see:
What the hell is going on with Backpage?
What the hell is going on with Backpage? Part II
In Defense of Backpage
We Deserve Better: Reflections on the War on Backpage