We Deserve Better: Reflections On The War On Backpage

by Cyd Nova on October 10, 2016 · 4 comments

in Cops, News, Prostitution, Trafficking

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

It’s happening again.

I remember the drop in my stomach as my browser opened on the homepage of MyRedBook in 2014 and I saw the emblems of the FBI, DOJ, and the IRS occupying a page which used to host an escort ad, review, and forum website used by thousands of providers across the West Coast. It was at that moment when I realized what the stakes in the war on sex trafficking truly were. Two years after Prop 35 passed in California, broadening the definition of trafficker to anyone “who is supported in part or in whole from the earnings of a prostitute”, and four years after the multi-year battle against Craigslist resulted in its Adult section being taken down, it was clear: sex workers’ ability to advertise online was going to be taken out from under us.

At the time, I worked at St. James Infirmary providing healthcare services to current and former sex workers. Over the next several months, I witnessed people being flung into economic turmoil. A lot of the community talked to me about going back into the street or going there for the first time. Others tried to pack into strip clubs, where their money was split by management, or focus on porn—also under attack by the state through Prop 60. Some people successfully moved their business onto other more costly or exclusive advertising platforms. And some people left the business altogether, either to new forms of income or to try to exist on the scraps of government support available to the unemployed.

I saw the closure of MyRedBook increase stratification within the industry, widening the gap between those sex workers able to appeal to the more elite clientele of other websites and those who had to move onto the street and deal with the violence of being outside.

Eventually, Backpage, relatively unused in the Bay Area prior to the RedBook seizure, garnered enough web traffic that it became the website for those of us who want to work independently and inside, but don’t have the body, gender, or class presentation desired by the majority of clients looking at websites such as Eros, Slixa, and Seeking Arrangements. It is especially utilized by folks living outside urban metropolises, where other advertising platforms, if they exist, are largely unused. TS Blair, a friend of mine who works in the South, says:

As a transgender woman working in a small city, BackPage is the only resource for sex work outside of the street for so many bodies. You go on Eros, it’s exclusively white cis women on there. If BackPage shuts down, so many of us will have nowhere else to go.

And now, in the wake of Backpage’s CEO Carl Ferrer being arrested Thursday on felony pimping charges, what does the future hold for sex workers dependent on Backpage for survival? While some are already established on other sites and venues or are able to float on their savings for a while, many are left waiting to see if their only source of income will disappear, eliminated by law enforcement hell bent on “rescuing” them.

The specifics of if, when, and how Backpage will be stripped of its erotic services section are unclear. Unlike MyRedBook and, more recently, Rentboy, Backpage has not been seized as a company. The company that owns the website, Atlantische Bedrijven CV, is based in Denmark, where prostitution is legalized. Civil liberties experts agree that in the US, the Communications Decency Act protects online service providers from being held liable for third party posts, and Backpage’s legal counsel told the Guardian that the site intends to fight what it calls “frivolous prosecution.”

Still, there is currently no substantial information available on the future of the website, so all there is to do is wait. The political landscape seems unfavorable, especially considering this week’s news about Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. Many of us question what comes next.

(Photo by PJ Starr, 2014)

(Photo by PJ Starr, 2014)

Danny Germaine, an FTM escort in Portland, says:

My clients are typically folks travelling in and Backpage has served as my primary means of advertising to them. Now, I have very real concerns about where I’m going to connect with prospective clients because many paid sites are either not welcoming to trans folks or exclude folks who aren’t women. I’m also not keen to the idea of invading spaces created for women to advertise, so I’m not really sure what my next step should be. My options are limited as an FTM escort.

Witnessing the sex worker social media response to the Backpage arrests (CEO Ferrer is in custody, but warrants have been issued for the two main Backpage shareholders as well) I am struck by how rehearsed our response to this feels this time. Most of us in the industry are aware of the fleeting nature of these kinds of websites. Our lives are constantly upturned in service of the spectacle of grand government gestures against sex trafficking. Backpage had been attacked for years. Just last year, under law enforcement pressure, Visa and Mastercard removed themselves as Backpage payment options, leaving us to all figure out how to use Bitcoin—an alternative currency that few ever really mastered.

TS Blair and I spoke on the phone about how the community’s shock and outrage seems tempered this time around. We concluded that it’s hard to be outraged when you’re continually settling for less and less. While Backpage had always come with its own special flavor of phone masturbators and flakes, over the past couple of years, the site has become more and more difficult to use. It’s become harder and harder to be clear about who you are and the kind of work you’re available for in posts. Crying for Backpage means mourning something even less ideal than the avenues that were available to us less than a decade ago.

We wondered where we would go from here. Was our imminent future one of advertising on the Darknet? Would the majority of our clients—plain, unthreatening men with a taste for trans people—follow us, or would only those willing to see themselves as shady criminals meet us on the other side of this war on advertising platforms?

What California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Demand Abolition, Californians Against Slavery and so many other law enforcement officials, non-profits, and other do-gooders are doing is actually molding the world of prostitution to mirror the one they envision we live in. It’s a world of extreme economic disparity with few options to work safely, filled with the fear of providing each other with resources, where we are all pushed further into the margins away from access to respectful clients.

So how do we respond to this as a community? Pray for new worker-friendly ad platforms less vulnerable to showy legal takedowns ? Hide ourselves on Tindr, OkCupid, and other relatively “respectable” platforms less susceptible to accusations of pimping children? Accept this criminalization throwing our lives into disarray with ever increasing frequency as part of the cost of doing business?

What we can do is resist by having each others’ backs and continuing to imagine something better. Those who are financially stable can extend their money to those who aren’t. We can share information on how to negotiate marketing in this constantly changing landscape. We can continue building alliances with other movements and within our own, ensuring racial and economic justice. We can make sure that we never stop talking back. We can interrupt and correct those rewriting our narrative to support the growth of the not-for-profit and prison industrial complexes.

In these moments of chaos and collective panic, we can remember that we deserve better than this, and the only way to get there is through collaboration.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kagehi October 10, 2016 at 10:43 am

In the end, public outrage may be necessary to stop this, and that means – statistics. Showing how this vendetta is causing people harm, making things more dangerous, and creating the very situation they claim to be fighting against. But.. given the secrecy involved, and the fact that it is already being driven even further into hiding, I am hard pressed to see how the truth can ever become visible. Another consequence of such crusades, no matter what is being pursued, with some vague intent to “save” people.


Norma Jean Almodovar October 10, 2016 at 12:31 pm

We have the stats- and they are directly from the government.
Here’s the links to the 2015 Human Trafficking ‘cases and cases closed’

And how many arrests for prostitution in 2015? (FBI Bureau of Justice table #69) https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/table-69
of which 457 were minors.
Where are the thousands of victims? How can anyone claim that these hundreds of thousands of victims exist when the government itself cannot show that this is a crisis?

Yes, we need to send this information to every pontificating politician and ask them WHERE’S THE BEEF (Victims)?????


Kagehi October 11, 2016 at 10:55 am

Problem is.. while we might have “some” statistics, they are the “wrong” statistics. For example – 457 minors? Only… other evidence suggests that a lot of these, if not possibly most of them, are a) just dumped back on the street, and b) not actually rescued at all. Worse, the evidence also suggests they are inflating some of these numbers, when they talk about those “rescued”, by using social service lists, instead of arrests. Basically lumping kids taken into custody by those agencies for abuse by relatives, and other issues, which do not even have anything to do with sex at all, never mind prostitution.

They are misusing what statistics they do have to “manufacture” outrage, when some of them are not, as you say, just flat out making shit up. Mean while… what isn’t out there is statistics on how many people are doing this stuff just to pay rent, how many are independent operators, who get lumped in with trafficking, how many of the arrests are of people providing not “pimping”, but what I suppose you could call communication/safety venues, to help make things safer. In short, how much of the effort being made isn’t just dry statistics on arrests, and a fundamental disconnect between those and the claimed number of imaginary victims, but the actual real world cost its having to everyone involved.

Even with the numbers just flat not adding up, at all, its not something people will pay attention to, because the only number of the equation most of them, and the people pushing this BS are making sure of it, is those 457 minors (while also doing their best to hide the fact that who knows how many of those are never actually “saved” at all). I am kind of reminded of the damning facts, still ignored to this day, by the so called 12 step programs, which where caught padding their lists with active members, and saying, “We have no way of actually knowing what happens to any of the people that leave the program.” Pretty easy to have an amazing success rate, when you don’t actually give a damn what the outcome actually is, just the process itself, and the perceived successes.

No, the outrage needed has to come from all the shit that “isn’t” being officially reported.


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