On Dec. 20 the Senate passed Senate Resolution 439: “A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC should eliminate the ‘adult entertainment’ section of the classified advertising website Backpage.com.”
I am clearly weeks late responding to this. This happened in the flurry of holidays, travel, and the Sandy Hook shooting media storm. It was also on the heels of December 17 so most of the sex work activist community was burned out and exhausted. Though not necessarily intentional, the highly unfortunate timeline of events is important to note.
In immediate practical terms, this doesn’t mean much. A simple resolution only expresses nonbinding positions of the Senate. No one is required to do anything is response. But the implications are disturbing.
The growing campaign against Backpage is a continuation of the same work that successfully shut down the Adult Services section of Craigslist. The same bad logic, false data, flawed principles, ineffective solutions and racist bullshit apply.
The Village Voice, which up until recently was part of the same subsidiary group as Backpage, declared in 2011 that “the Craigslist beat-down was absurdist theater.” Remember the debacle when Ashton Kutcher declared himself a spokesman for the anti-trafficking movement? If you don’t – here are some reminders. It was a perfect illustration of the absurdist theater that the Voice pinpointed.
But they have responded very differently to the campaign to shut down Backpage.
On December 19, the day before the Senate resolution passed, the Voice published an appalling piece from Will Bourne, their new editor in chief, titled “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” In his authorial debut at the publication, Bourne explains that the Voice has ended their affiliation with Backpage.com and outlines the new requirements to advertise in the adult sections of the Voice.
This article is a cowardly, misinformed, self-righteous, and poorly articulated jumble of ideas that will ultimately prove ineffective. Bourne illustrates his complete lack of understanding of either the sex industries or the “human trafficking” he claims to be addressing. Co-opting the title of a seminal feminist text about health and sexuality was only the beginning of bad decisions in this piece.
Besides quoting Nicholas Kristof as a credible source on human trafficking, Bourne uses the case of Somad Enterprises to back up the decision. Somad was an advertising group that placed ads for escort agencies on Backpage. They have been charged with “enterprise corruption, money laundering, falsifying business records, narcotics sales and prostitution.” Most of the publicity around this bust is centered on the “business school” angle as journalists, including Will Bourne, are hung up on the fact that the advertising company that placed ads primarily on the internet hired a SEO specialist. Law enforcement claims to have rescued two victims of human trafficking from an agency advertising with Somad, but neither explains what they mean by “rescue” which is often problematic to say the least nor how advertisement placement was related to the coercion.
The connection in this case between trafficking and Backpage is shaky at best. Especially as Backpage has repeatedly proven themselves willing and eager to assist in police investigations of underaged prostitution, abuse, or forced labor regarding their adult advertising section.
Bourne’s lack of verifiable facts and acceptance of the larger scheme of misinformation from the anti-trafficking movement is especially galling when contrasted with the article that the Voice ran in June of 2011: Real Men Get Their Facts Straight. This article is a scathing overview of the skewed figures, poor research methods, and harmful consequences of unreliable data in anti-trafficking efforts. The authors emphasize the need to form policies based on real information, and is especially critical of the millions of dollars spent “raising awareness” based on false data.
In fact, the piece highlights stark contrast between the hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding towards raising awareness and running 42 task forces on human trafficking and child prostitution (which are frequently conflated) with the complete lack of funds for shelters or services for youth in the sex trades. They ultimately claim that “the lack of shelter and counseling for underage prostitutes—while prohibitionists take in millions in government funding—is only one indication of the worldwide campaign of hostility directed at working women.” The call to redirect funding to actual services is echoed by sex workers organizations. In a an open letter to the New York City Council SWOP-NYC asks the city to 1) fund emergency shelter resources for homeless and housing unstable youth and 2) de-prioritize prostitution and prostitution related arrests as tactics to help youth in the sex trades.
The funding discrepancy of federal and corporate dollars to anti-sex-trafficking groups that often have evangelical or hyper-conservative positions also leaves out resources for forced labor, sexual abuse, and child labor in other industries. Trafficking and sexual abuse of migrant workers also occurs in domestic labor, manufacturing, and agriculture. Genuine anti-trafficking efforts would not focus exclusively on the sex trades, but listen to the needs and struggles of affected communities. Yet for all Bourne’s pontification on the horrors of trafficking there are seemingly no efforts made to look into the legitimacy of other services advertised in the Voice. And there are no Senate Resolutions to stop the advertisement of food grown in slave conditions or products manufactured by underage workers.
There is nothing to suggest that the Voice’s new policies will have any impact on coerced labor. In fact, the restriction that adult ads feature “Headshots only” dismisses the very real consequences of being outed as a sex worker, along with assuming headshots cannot be taken of victims of forced labor or abuse. Bourne is quick to emphasize that these new measures will come “at no small cost to the bottom line of our young enterprise” in an attempt to position the Voice as self-sacrificing for the sake of morality. One would think that such dedication would include a resolution not to carry the advertisements of companies with known use of sweatshop labor.
But it seems that this December the Voice and the Senate were both more invested in publicly denouncing Backpage than actually taking a stand against either sexual abuse or in favor of labor rights. Sadly, none of this has come as a surprise. Sex workers have been watching this campaign grow with trepidation for some time. We have been protesting both online and on the street. And we will continue to do so.
The Senate and the Voice have made their positions clear: they stand firmly against adult advertising. In the meantime, sex workers and our allies continue to fight against exploitation and for effective and concrete steps to be taken to improve living and working conditions in ALL industries.