WTF, Backpage?

by Caty Simon on January 13, 2017 · 9 comments

in News, Politics

A screenshot of Backpage’s New York City escorting page as of 1/12/2017.

We all knew it was coming. With California Attorney General Kamala Harris filing a second set of multiple charges of pimping and money laundering last month against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and with Ferrer and his shareholders’ Senate hearing coming up last Tuesday before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, plus the trafficking hysteria-fueled media scrutiny Backpage had been under over the past couple of years—well, let’s just say that few of us were buying Backpage credits in bulk anymore. But most of us expected that the government would find some way to stop Backpage’s adult ads operation, however legally unlikely that might seem after years of efforts to do just that by law enforcement zealots. (After all, the California State Superior Court spanked Harris pretty hard verbally in last month’s decision on her first set of Backpage charges, reminding her that the Communications Decency Act specified that third party sites were not liable for their posters’ illegal content. And on Monday, the Supreme Court stated it would not hear an appeal on that case.)

But what actually ended up happening is that on Monday night, a few hours after the publication of a Senate report accusing Backpage of editing ads to minimize evidence of trafficking, Backpage execs decided to shutter their U.S. adult ads themselves as a free speech protest. Where the ads had once been, the site announces that they are “censored” by the government in a loud red font. Visitors are encouraged to speak out in support of the martyred site by using the hashtags #FREE SPEECH #BACKPAGE on social media.

That night, us sex workers collectively panicked, wondering how we would survive this month with no well-established national advertising site to garner low-end to middle-end escorting clients.

As usual, when powerful institutions decide to use the sex work debate for symbolic ammunition, it’s sex workers who suffer horrific real life consequences. Here, two competing neo-liberal agendas are clashing, indifferent to the material plight of the sex workers caught between them.

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Thandie Newton as Maeve, the badass robot Black sex working heroine who keeps us invested in this glossy Game of Thrones replacement wannabe.

by Clara and Caty

[Content warning: some discussion of rape. Also, spoiler warning.]

Clara: Westworld is a science fiction western thriller created and produced by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. JJ Abrams is also a producer, so think Jurassic Park meets Firefly with a dash of Lost. As with its predecessors—Blade Runner. Battlestar Galactica, etc—Westworld uses human-like robots to tell us a story about humanity. Questions like “How do you know you are human?” “What is consciousness?” “What are dreams?” “What are memories?” “How does does your past define you?” “What is free will?” “What is consent?” are asked but not always answered.

The titular Westworld is a Western theme park where life-life robots—”hosts”—act out stories called narratives in a controlled environment for guests of the park. The park is marketed as “life without limits.” The idea is that because the hosts are robots you can do anything you want with them and it doesn’t matter.

While not a show directly about sex work, Westworld in its over-all arc is about the push/pull of market forces between client and worker. It is also about the uprising of a group who is fed up with being used. Sex workers who have to constantly prove their humanity to society and deal with client entitlement every day might find the show reminiscent of their lives.

Caty: I would argue that this show is about sex work. It’s about a separate, disposable class of people who perform reproductive/emotional labor so that guests can enjoy their leisure. The hosts’ very lives are this labor, so they can’t even be compensated for it. And they literally have false consciousness.

As the show reminds us constantly, the hosts’ purpose is to be fucked or hurt, or at the very least to immerse the clients in a fantasy, which sounds like the sex worker job description to a T. In fact, the hosts are the ideal sex workers from a certain client perspective. They are the ultimate pro-subs, who can be beaten, stabbed, strangled, and shot, only to be refurbished, resurrected, and brought back as a clean slate in terms of both their memories and their bodies, ready to take those blows again. They are entirely “authentic,” programmed to believe that the role play they engage the guests in is what is actually happening. If the Westworld story that the guest is indulging in is that Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the damsel host, is in love with him, she actually is in love with him.

But what Westworld actually does best is reflect the client mentality—an Entertainment Weekly recapper quipped that the Man In Black (Ed Harris) sounds like “a dork playing Dungeons & Dragons who yells at other players for asking for a bathroom break” when he gets pissed off after some other guests refer to his work in the real world. But to me, he actually sounds like the BDSM client I used to have who would shriek “WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE MONEY” if I ever said anything which derailed his fantasy of being a scene elder teaching eager young acolyte (unpaid) me about kink.

And who does William (Jimmi Simpson) remind us of most but a stalker regular when he turns (even more) murderous and rapacious after realizing that Dolores doesn’t remember him—that he isn’t special enough to her to override the programming that forces her to forget him after each go-round? At first, he’s a Nice Guy—that trusted reg, the one who believes Dolores is sapient and Not Like All The Other Hosts. He’s Captain-Save-A-Host! But later, after his embittered violence runs roughshod over the park for 30 years, after he assaults Dolores over and over, and then grows “tired” of her like the most jaded hobbyist, Dolores tells him, “I thought you were different, but you’re just like all the rest.”

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Caty’s picks:

Media Coverage of Sex Workers Erases Our Voices by Lily Fury
Tits and Sass contributor Lily Fury’s Establishment piece confronts a problem which we’ve devoted thousands of words to on this site: the flattening, sanitizing, and sensationalizing of sex workers’ stories by the mainstream media. The quotes she elicits from interview subjects like Shagasyia Diamond and Akynos Shekara on their misrepresentation and erasure by journalists in favor of whiter, more well-heeled, and respectable representatives of our profession are searing: “The white victim is always the victim people feel sorry for,” Shekara observes. And Fury turns the endless debate about listening to sex workers on its head, asking: “Should non-sex-workers be allowed to speak for us? Is there a way for journalists who haven’t worked in the sex industry to write about it responsibly?”

I’m A Sex Worker Who Was Raped, Here’s Why I Didn’t Fight Back by Holiday Black
[Content warning: graphic description of sexual assault] This was the piece I saw linked most often this year within my sex worker peer group. I wish we all didn’t identify with it so much, but Black excels in depicting the profoundly fucked up reality we live in.

My Hopes & Fears About Becoming A Mother After Being A Sex Worker by Melissa Petro
Petro delves into intimate territory with testimonies on the often fraught relationships sex workers have with their mothers and reflections on how this shapes us if we become parents ourselves. I couldn’t get this quote from Meg Valee Munoz out of my head: “There’s this painful thing that happens when you’re a sex worker and become a mother. You start to realize how incredibly intense a mother’s love is, yet start to question why your own mother’s love was not strong enough to reject stigma and accept you.”

#Black SexWorkersLivesMatter: White-Washed “Anti-Slavery” And The Appropriation of Black Suffering by Robin Maynard
Feminist Wire posted this stunning manifesto in 2015, but since we didn’t point it out last year, I’m taking the chance now. Maynard’s piece explains why the prohibitionist lobby’s use of the term “slavery” drowns out the concerns of Black sex workers. In the process, she creates an information-packed primer on Black feminist and sex worker movements against the prison industrial complex.

The Peculiar Political Economics of Pro-Domming by Lori Adorable
Adorable is at her brilliant best here inquiring why pro-dommes confuse the paid performance of control with material power: “I…don’t see how a half dozen or so fin-dommes have transformed ‘fuck you, pay me’ dirty talk into a semi-coherent rhetoric of wealth redistribution on certain strains of social justice Twitter.”

The Tedium of Trans Sex Work by Sarah
In a wryly funny and insightful piece, Sarah tells us about the extra heaping of objectification that comes with being a sex working trans woman: “[Clients] want some kind of once-in-a-lifetime bucket list sexual experience, have no idea what that is, and expect that you’ll be able to provide it—because that’s what they think trans women are there for.”

Porno-Enlightenment: How Pornography Propagates A Liberal Worldview by Angel Archer
Angel Archer/Rebeka Refuse stands out among sex worker writers in her sharp command of Marxist analysis. In this piece, she examines porn as part of the political ideology of liberalism, tracing the connection from the Marquis de Sade, to the Cold War, and on to Pornhub.

What Trump Means For Sex Workers by Juniper Fitzgerald
In impassioned but incisive prose, Fitzgerald explains why Trump’s election should make us think about guiding the sex workers’ rights movement away from my-body-my-choice libertarianism into a collectivism which defies what the President-Elect stands for.

As A Sex Worker, I’m Terrified For The Next Four Years by Hennessy Williams
On a more personal note, a couple of weeks after the election, Williams gave voice to the the way we all fear for our safety under Trump, especially those of us who are people of color and LGBTQ.  She also spoke to the cognitive dissonance of seeing clients who rejoiced in the new regime: “Already, I’ve heard my clients who work in the pharmaceutical and finance industries express excitement about how their industries will flourish under Trump, giddy with the results many Americans took as bad news.”

Josephine’s picks:

Why Prince Was a Hero to Strippers by Lily Burana and Naked Music Monday: Prince by Bubbles (Susan Elizabeth Shepard)
Because Prince was uniquely important to strippers.

Support Hos: Deadpool by Maggie McMuffin
A Marvel superhero film whose romantic lead is a kick-ass sex worker: what could be better? McMuffin’s review is a delightful read even if you’re not a comic book geek.

“Junkie Whore”—What Life is Really Like for Sex Workers on Heroin by Caty Simon
The writer draws from her personal life and the lives of other opioid-using sex workers to illustrate how inaccurate the junkie whore trope truly is.

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Murder in the Bayou, by Ethan Brown
Eight murdered woman from Jefferson Davis parish in Louisiana had two things in common: a background in drugs and/or sex work. The police blamed a serial killer. But Brown discovered something else the victims had in common: they had all worked as informants for law enforcement of some kind. The rampant police misconduct Brown uncovers in his careful reporting illustrates that the people who should have protected those women are partially responsible for their deaths.

Badge of Dishonor: Top Oakland Police Officials Looked Away as East Bay Cops Sexually Exploited and Trafficked a Teenager, by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston
Two reporters expose one of the most extreme examples of law enforcement exploitation when their investigation reveals that an alarming number of police officers slept with the same sex working youth in Oakland, California.

“We Can Help One Another”: Drug Use, Survival Sex, And Hope Among Afghanistan’s Marginalized Women, by Michelle Tolson
Michelle Tolson manages to obtain raw, poignant interviews with a mostly invisible population, illustrating why gender-specific support is even more vital for sex working and/or drug using women in Afghanistan in light of problems like the strictures of short-term marriage contracts, the lack of legitimate income sources for women, and heightened stigma and victim-blaming.

The Truth About the Biggest Sex Trafficking Story of the Year, by Elizabeth Nolan Brown
Innocent men are criminalized while migrant workers are called victims. Spoiler: the police exaggerated—when they weren’t outright lying.

Daniel Holtzclaw: Lawsuit Claims Police “Covered Up” Sexual Assault Complaint, by Molly Redden [Content warning: descriptions of sexual assault]
The Guardian details how the lawsuit filed by Oklahoma cop rapist Holtzclaw’s victim Jamie Ligons maintains that the Oklahoma City Police Department was well aware of Holtzclaw’s assaults. They’d received complaints from many of his Black, low-income, sex-working and/or drug-using victims as early as 8 to 10 months before his suspension from the force. But it was only after Ligons, a woman with no record who had a “familial relationship” with the department, made her complaint that the department finally took decisive action.

The Throwaways: How Detroit is becoming a flashpoint for violence against transwomen, by Allie Gross
A spate of deadly violence in Detroit forces us to examine exactly how hard trans women of color have to work to survive.

The NYPD Arrests Women for Who They Are and Where They Go — Now They’re Fighting Back, by Melissa Gira Grant
New York’s Loitering for the Purpose of Engaging in Prostitution law gives the NYPD clearance to surveil, stereotype, target, and arrest women as possible sex workers—most of whom are low-income, black, and gender nonconforming.

The Audition, by Sydney Brownstone [Content warning: descriptions of sexual assault]
Brownstone painstakingly traces the roots of an elaborate and long-running faux porn recruitment scheme, in which a photographer invented a friendly adult film agent woman persona to scam vulnerable young women into sleeping with him. His rapes led one victim to attempt suicide.

Threadbareby Anne Elizabeth Moore
A vital condemnation of the global garment industry that illustrates (literally! it’s a comic!) its questionable relationship with anti-trafficking NGOs.

The Disturbing Trend of Vigilante Attacks On Sex Workers, by Frankie Mullin
All of Mullin’s sex work reporting in Vice this year, from her examination of an anti-sex work charity misrepresenting their research on a small sample group of survival workers to portray all sex workers as poorly paid and desperate to her piece on October’s Operation Lanhydrock and the history of raids on migrant massage parlor workers in London’s Soho and Chinatown over the past few years, has been uniformly excellent. But perhaps her best this year was this article on the under-reported phenomenon of vigilante attacks against sex workers cropping up throughout the UK and Ireland. To follow this story, Mullin spoke to outreach centers as well as individual sex workers and gathered the few statistics that were available. She even spoke to a man who started a Facebook thread online in support of a menacing brothel protest in Belfast’s Donegal Pass, in which people posted comments advocating “ethnic cleansing” and “a night of the long knives.” The author ties all this reportage together by considering the utility of extending the Merseyside Model, in which crimes against sex workers are counted as hate crimes, as well as pointing out the connection between the violent rhetoric of criminalization and these vigilantes acts.

How Canada’s Immigration Laws Make Migrant Sex Workers’ Jobs More Dangerous, by Brigitte Noel
Pulling together telling quotes from interviews with representatives of Immigration and Citizenship Canada and Canada’s Border Services Agency, as well as with Asian migrant sex worker advocacy organization Butterfly’s president Elene Lam, Brigitte Noel outlines how Bill C-36 and immigration policies combine to persecute and deport immigrant sex workers.

Pizzagate Rumors Falsely Link Death Of Sex-Worker Advocate To Nonexistent Clinton Probe, by Glenn Kessler
This Washington Post writer employs the paper’s penchant for rigorous fact-checking in service of sex worker rights advocate Monica Petersen’s memory. Petersen was a brilliant researcher who traveled to Haiti for her work critiquing the trafficking narrative. But after Pizzagate blew up, a fresh spate of fake news painted her suicide death there as retaliatory murder by the Clinton Foundation for an anti-trafficking investigation against them—an investigation Petersen never conducted.

Impunity Has Consequences: The Women Lost To Mexico’s Drug War, by Nina Lakhani
Lakhani’s reporting reveals that many sex workers contracted for political events and private parties with cartel members and government officials have gone missing along with thousands of other women in Mexico. The theory is that these drug war victims were disappeared because they knew too much about the connection between high-level drug dealers and corrupt politicians. These women are vulnerable to both abduction and femicide by the cartels and illegal imprisonment and torture by the security forces.

Why Are Strippers More Heavily Vetted Than Uber Drivers?, by Susan Elizabeth Shepard
Same labor model, vastly different regulations. An explanation.

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The new normal: why television has chosen to humanize sex workers
The headline says it all, folks. And yet, when the author attempts to answer her own question, it gets worse: “Sex sells, and it always has. But now being woke sells, too. By humanizing these characters, by providing them with a rich inner life – and, therefore, a backstory to and a reason for all the fucking – we can justify watching them fuck.”

How Sex Workers Are Fighting Back Against Trump
Intrepid reporter digs deep to discover that, golly gee, sex workers are just like other normal people organizing against the President-elect.

I applied for a job at Nevada’s most famous brothel
This set up just won’t die, no matter how much we want it to—every six months or so, like clockwork, we’re treated to yet another undercover journalist’s shocking revelations on the scant time she did sex work in order to write an article. We have Gloria Steinem’s original 1963 Show Magazine sex work tourist account of being a Playboy Bunny for eleven days to blame for all the examples of this genre we’ve endured since. But even Steinem managed to make it through the application process…which this author failed to do. Oh, but she did inform the madam that she has a stripper friend! I don’t know if that counted for or against her.

Near impossible to stop cops bribing sex workers, Parliament told
In uniquely honest headlines. Read “rape and blackmail” for “bribe,” btw.

Judge orders client of teenage prostitute to buy her books on women’s dignity
The hapless client was required to buy the young woman works by Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Anne Frank. I read Mrs Dalloway as a teenager and still ended up becoming an escort, so maybe there’s something tragically wrong with my reading comprehension.

Webcamming: the sex work revolution that no one is willing to talk about
No one is willing to talk about it, except the authors of a gazillion salacious pieces on camming that preceded this one! Columbusing sex work seems alive and well as a source of countless pitches moving into 2017.

My roommate, the prostitute
This affectless recollection of what a huge inconvenience his Backpaging roommate’s overdose death was for the author might just be able to claim the title of the year’s most dehumanizing writing on sex workers. We don’t know—there’s a lot of competition there.

Sex robots could over-exert their human lovers, academics warn
The ubiquity of pieces hand-wringing over the ethics of sexbot lurv has become a problem over the past two years, but the trend may have reached its apotheosis in the charming image this article evokes of robots literally fucking us to death.

The porn star who went to Iran for a nose job
That’s it, guys, that’s the story.

Why is Pokémon Go like prostitution?
Pokémon Go as an analogy for sex trafficking? Nailed it.

Daniel Holtzclaw raped at least 13 women, many of whom were sex workers, as an Oklahoma city police officer. SB Nation’s profile of him was so horrendous that the website took the unorthodox measure of pulling it the same day.

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