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.
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.”
USA Today also reported that Benjamin Breit, Dart’s spokesperson, scoffed at the free ad system, calling it unsustainable, and commenting that it was “a predictable act of desperation” from a business with a failing model. Peter Zollman, the founding principal of Advanced Media Interactive Group, agreed that free posting can’t last forever, but he also added that “[i]n the meantime, maintaining an audience, and showing an ability to get around the sheriff’s edict, is important to them [Backpage].”
Dart is sheriff of the second largest county in the United States. He is also a prominent proponent of anti-sex worker policy. He filed a federal lawsuit against Craigslist’s Erotic Services section in 2009 which was later dismissed, but which added to the pressure that led Craigslist to ultimately take down the ad section a year later. But his command of global influence in the credit card companies’ decision this month still seems incredible.
Users can buy credits for posting via Bitcoin, or checks, money orders, or cash sent by mail to a post office box in Dallas. Sheriff Dart wrote to chief postal inspector Guy Cottrell on July 8th asking him to try to find a way to stop people from using the Postal Service to facilitate “sex trafficking” via Backpage, but it is not illegal to send payment for advertisement over the U.S. mail. There are other online workarounds through which one can still buy posting credits through Visa, Mastercard, and American Express cards, but we hesitate to list them publicly for fear of law enforcement taking these options away from sex workers once they are generally known.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island
In the wake of Visa and Mastercard’s decision, anti-Backpage hysteria ramped up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island:
On July 7th, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey echoed Sheriff Dart’s bellicose anti-trafficking posturing by making a public statement calling for Backpage to take down its adult services ad section.
This announcement came on the heels of 34-year-old escort and New York native Sanisha Johnson’s murder at the Extended Stay America hotel in Burlington, MA on July 2nd. Allegedly, 24-year-old Epshod Jeune and 21-year-old Derrel Fisher contacted Johnson through Backpage, and within a few minutes of their meeting shortly after midnight, they robbed her and shot her point blank through the chest. Authorities said they’d just robbed another escort in Woburn’s Red Roof Inn 20 minutes away. Both men were arraigned on July 6th for murder charges, both pleading not guilty.
Healey’s statement did not include an explanation of how removing Backpage as an option for independent sex workers to advertise, thus creating a larger niche for third party exploitation, would protect women like Johnson from violence. Predictably, though, the attorney general’s anti-sex worker stance drew applause from prohibitionist Massachusetts organization Demand Abolition. “Websites like this make an illegal industry more invisible,” stated Ziba Crammer, the organization’s executive director, though presumably Backpage and the transactional history it accumulates through credit card and mailed payments can only make the sex trade more transparent.
On February 15th, Healey filed an amicus curiae brief urging the U.S. District Court in Boston to allow a lawsuit brought by three underage trafficking survivors against Backpage to proceed. She argued that websites like Backpage should not be immune to liability under the federal Communications Decency Act, the Massachusetts Anti-Trafficking Act, and Chapter 93A of Massachusetts law against unfair and deceptive business practices, because, according to the plaintiffs’ suit, Backpage does more than allow posts on their site, but also intentionally promotes sex trafficking and knowingly allows the trafficking of minors. The suit, brought by three Jane Does, was dismissed in May, but the plaintiffs are appealing.
In Providence, Rhode Island, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, also jumped on the anti-Backpage bandwagon. On July 9th, he urged Congress to shut down Backpage’s adult ad section by amending a portion of the Communications Decency Act which protects online service providers from legal action based on postings by third parties. (The National Association of Attorneys General originally requested this amendment to the CDA in July 2013.)
Kilmartin’s office indicted 28-year-old Daniel Tejeda for first degree murder earlier that week, charging him with strangling a 24-year old single mother of three, Ashley Masi, whom he’d met on Backpage. (Masi’s own mother, Rhonda Bleeker, believes her daughter arranged to meet Tejeda on Backpage for a ride or to borrow a car, not for sex, but she did state that “whether she was on there as an escort, or wasn’t, she didn’t deserve to die.”) On July 13th, another man, James Adams, was found guilty in Providence Superior Court on a number of charges, including attacking one Backpage adult services poster, Jessica Dyer, as well as killing another, Mary Grier, in 2012.
Neither Healey nor Kilmartin made any statements promoting decriminalization, which would protect sex workers from such violence by allowing them to operate openly.
Escorts found a nasty surprise awaited them if they decided to post on Eros instead of Backpage: Bee, an American escort, wrote in a Tumblr message to Tits and Sass:
I might move to Eros if I get desperate enough. The problem with Eros is that they now require an ID scan for every new ad, which I find to be a huge violation of privacy and discretion. This is why I have always preferred [Backpage]; I don’t have to give them any personal info so I feel safe.
In a Tumblr post on the topic, sex worker sexapro20mg elaborated:
This is a problem for workers who are undocumented, for workers advertising or living as a different gender than the one on the ID, and for those of us who don’t feel comfortable with handing over our personal info: face photo, driver’s license/ID number, and address where our families live. Some of us have stalkers or abusive exes, and if their system got hacked (not at all impossible) it’s literally a matter of life or death if our info is leaked. I’m really disappointed because EROS has always been my backup if backpage were to go under.
Eros expanded on this new policy in a post on their July online newsletter, attempting to appease anti-trafficking efforts while also displaying implicit snobbery towards other escort ad sites:
…As the legal climate around the industry continues to ramp-up the efforts to stop human trafficking and underage advertising, many sites are now starting to follow the example set by Eros to require ID submissions for their younger advertisers.
Eros applauds these efforts, and only wishes that these other sites realized the obvious importance of requiring ID’s for young entertainers before the political or legal pressure forced it upon them. Long before there were any human trafficking task forces or nationwide efforts to police adult advertising websites, Eros had strict policies in place to verify the age of our adult entertainers. Since the day our doors opened for business in 1997, we have recognized the importance of providing a safe and secure advertising platform for our entertainers, and have strongly believed that our high standards have helped create an online community that both advertisers and viewers can be proud to be a part of.
By submitting your ID to Eros, you are helping continue this tradition of safety and security.
What Eros failed to mention in this post is that the ID scan policy for all new posts was only introduced in November 2014, after the FBI closed Redbook in June that year. Eros used to only require such verification for those who wanted to market themselves as young, in the 18-22 year old range; those who wanted the dubious status of being a “verified” provider; or people who didn’t want to include face pics in their ads. Even after the company regulation requiring IDs was instituted, many escorts found that the site only selectively enforced it until recently. This new protocol is obviously a calculated appeal to law enforcement, asking them to think of the site as somehow trafficking safe; the kinder, gentler, classier alternative to low-end advertising venues.
“Looks like Eros is trying to preemptively brand itself as a Safe Responsible Adult Ad Site, so it’ll be harder to tar and feather them and run them out of town the way their competitors, Redbook and Backpage, were,” wanderingwhore remarked in her Tumblr. “And this move in particular is playing respectability politics like a gosh-darned fiddle, which bodes well for, uh, my continued ability to support myself in the only country where I’m a citizen. The field of options is thinning. If, hypothetically, the Eros goes down like so many others have before… what’s left?”
One option left to escorts and other ad posting sex workers is to buy credits on Backpage via Bitcoin. As soon as the Mastercard and Visa announcements were made, escorts started posting how-to-guides to teach each other the use of the cryptocurrency, and private Skype tutorials within the sex worker community are still being scheduled as of this writing. But as the guides pointed out, Bitcoin as currency can be troublesome for sex workers in a number of ways.
In order to use Bitcoin, you need to have a “wallet” for the currency and two sets of private key codes to access it. You can keep these keys on a drive. But if your computer’s hard drive crashes or your phone’s memory card is destroyed, you may lose these keys, and with them, access to your Bitcoin value. The other choice is to have a cloud company host your wallet on their network, finding a secure space online to store your keys. But care is needed with this option as well, as hackers have been known to tap into online hosting accounts trying to steal both sets of people’s keys. And if you do this, the cloud company ultimately controls your wallet, and you must trust that they won’t steal your Bitcoins or freeze your account if you violate some user condition. Also, as one guide explains, “If a government tells the cloud provider to freeze your account or to give your Bitcoins to the government instead of to you, your Bitcoins are lost.”
And as Backpage users discovered, Bitcoin hosting wallet services can be even more aggressively whorephobic than we know Paypal, Greendot, and other financial services to be. For example, Coincafe posted a “special message” to Backpage users warning them that if they attempted to use their wallets to pay for adult services ads in Bitcoin, they would halt the transaction, close their wallets, and “collect and submit [their] personally identifiable information to state and federal authorities.” The message also implied that sex workers were sending Coincafe “scary” “threatening messages.” The wallet hosting service averred in the message that “[t]his is nothing personal, or anything against sex workers. It’s just that we’re regulated under the same rules as all of the other financial institutions in this country.” But according to Cryptocoin News, this policy seems to be the company’s independent decision, not their response to any government regulations or law enforcement scrutiny. Coinbase and other hosted services have made no public comments on Backpage at this time, but many of these companies are known to work with the U.S. government, so sex workers should be wary. After the Silk Road convictions, Bitcoin wallet services seem to be spooked, attempting to rewrite Bitcoin’s long history of use in black market transactions.
Kate Zen, one of the presenters in a sex worker community Bitcoin training, warned us over e-mail about another wallet hosting service:
There are also many companies with extremely predatory practices, aggressively pursuing sex workers after the BP incident to not only use their exchange but also to store our money on their wallets. These wallets are not proven to be safe or trusted, and it is not recommended that any sex workers use these wallets. There are way too many scams by bitcoin companies, and we have reason to suspect that Paxful, which has been aggressively pursuing sex workers, may be one of them. DO NOT TRUST PAXFUL.
Zen added that a trustworthy wallet hosting service will record only one set of your keys. But scam hosting websites will deceptively save both sets of your keys when you use their wallet, enabling them to access your Bitcoin value and steal your money.
A research paper by Southern Methodist University computer scientists Marie Vasek and Tyler Moore, presented at the Financial Cryptography and Data Security Conference in Puerto Rico in January, estimated that swindlers took at least $11 million in Bitcoins from 13,000 victims in 192 different types of scams since 2011. But the paper’s authors believe that, in fact, the real amount of funds cheated out of Bitcoin users over this period must have been higher, as there were many fraudulent schemes operating during that time which they couldn’t verify. Sex workers must be careful not to be deceived in this perilous financial environment.
Finally, all Bitcoin transactions are recorded on what is called a blockchain every night, visible to the entire Bitcoin network. Thus, in order to maintain anonymity, it is important for sex workers to use as many different Bitcoin addresses for their transactions as possible so no one Bitcoin address can ever be associated with their offline identities.
Emy Fem, a Berlin worker, told us about her difficulties working in the U.S. for two weeks via Facebook message, “I didn’t manadge [sic] this bitcoin shit cause it was [too] complicated for me and my english [skills] are not proper enough to understand…maybe this is the situation of many old [sex workers] who are not so deep in the computer tech and for migrant sexworkers without english speaking support.” Indeed, most Bitcoin resources are in English or other European languages. And Bitcoin does require a level of tech-savviness that some middle aged and elderly sex workers may find difficult to achieve, as opposed to the few click throughs that were necessary to post on Backpage before the credit company bans.
Some sex workers may be tempted to go after the nerd demographic by accepting Bitcoin as payment for their services as well, not simply using it as a means to pay for Backpage ads. One anonymous North American sex worker e-mailed to share her experience with taking Bitcoins for sessions:
I received the equivalent of $300 from a client one morning, which became $265 in my wallet at the end of the day due to some blip in the price, which was upsetting to me. Bitcoin ATMs are also hard to access – there are only a few in every city, and there are high transaction costs involved, higher than a normal ATM. So it can be a hassle to convert your bitcoin to cash for, say, paying your rent.
Kate Zen stated,
[I]if the U.S. government and banking system decided suddenly to change their attitude and policies towards Bitcoin, they could potentially create laws that would greatly undermine the value of Bitcoin, by simply scaring people away from it, which would cause the value to drop as people sell their Bitcoin. There is no safety net to put a stop to inflation if that should happen…bitcoin may not be a safe long-term investment.
And then there’s the problem of dealing with a population rife with misogynist geeks as clients. On a Bitcoin subreddit this week, sex worker Tegan Lin posted an arch, hilarious rejoinder to the wave of condescending mansplaining of the currency to sex workers by Milton Friedman wannabe Bitcoin champions on the site. She later deleted the post, but not before it had been copy pasted and gleefully passed around by appreciative fellow sex workers:
I’d say the number one factor against Bitcoin is – attracting a bunch of damn libertarians as your regulars.
I mean, seriously, what can be less sexy than a guy who has his monocle on backwards telling you:
“The philosophical Chicago School of Economics is most correct.” hahaha go bust a monocle, libertarian.
…My feeling is that a lot of Bitcoin enthusiasts (mostly lonely white dudes) are getting their panties into knots about the prospect of increasing the value of their magic bean reserves with real, hard-earned sex worker money. They tend to have little respect for the intelligence of sex workers, and see sex workers (and women, in general) as stupid creatures, easy prey. That’s a dangerous set of starting conditions for a speculation bubble.
However, Lin added, using Bitcoin sparingly to pay for Backpage or in sideline internet sex work transactions can help you understand the tech guy niche market, if you’re interested in branding yourself to appeal to them:
Tech guys are mostly pretty gentle dudes, stereotypically lonelier/more awkward than your average joe, and thus better customers – requiring more gender-affirming validation, while less willing to leave their keyboards to find said validation…
…Also, some libertarians are known to be rather generous on the internet to chicks who validate their political agenda. But treat this validation the same way as you would treat any backhanded compliment from your clients – 1) Smile graciously and accept the cash – that is the only compliment worth banking on; 2) Act smart enough to flatter their self-importance with validating chatter in their limited subject areas of interest, but don’t act too smart, in case you deflate their egos or destroy their fragile worldview, which so often involves getting pleasure out of thinking they are smarter/better than you; 3)…ignore the patronizing comments about your wildly unexpected intelligence; and go ahead, let them see you through their rosy monocle, so long as you’re getting properly paid for the role play.
Responses from the community
Earlier this month when Visa and Mastercard announced their break with Backpage, the international sex worker community responded with panic and rage, especially those of us in the criminalized United States. One American worker, Charlotte, wrote to Tits and Sass via Tumblr message saying:
As far as the visa Mastercard situation I know myself and a few friends in the same line of work feel pretty screwed over. Probably will have to turn to more free styling, dealing in cash, and working on the streets. Definitely not what I want to be doing, and a lot more unsafe. Nobody is happy here.
The situation looked particularly bleak for male escorts and trans women escorts, especially if they didn’t have the means and class capital to market themselves on independent web sites as “high-end,” because there are fewer spaces for these populations to advertise in lower to middle end escort markets. “For low income guys backpage is really the only safe way to advertise,” Silas X told Tits and Sass on Facebook chat. “…Now I have to rely on turning tricks in bars and the occasional craigslist massage job…There’s grindr too but like [Craigslist] they block you if they find out you’re working.”
Sarah, the Australian trans woman escort who pointed out the problem with Backpage’s free post filtering, wrote a Tumblr message explaining,
It’s really frustrating here because trans women have nowhere else to go–our equivalents of EROS don’t have trans categories, so don’t show up in trans search terms, and have no trans advertisers…
There were many reasons people turned to Backpage’s adult services ads for safety and anonymity, and thus many different people now had different causes for worry. Raisa, a Canadian escort, told Tits and Sass over Tumblr,
im with an agency but have been doing indie stuff on the dl (agencies out here will boot you or fuck you up if you work on the side while youre with them) and backpage is the only site i could get enough attention on for shitty pics that my agency would not recognize as me.
Ironically, Visa and Mastercard’s decision increased the control Raisa’s agency had over her, as well as the control other third parties had over escorts, though Sheriff Dart’s justification in asking them to drop Backpage was to prevent trafficking and exploitation.
In many small town and rural areas, Backpage was the only major advertising venue available for independent sex work. “…people outside cities need backpage bad,” as Silas X succinctly put it.
“…in more rural areas I have no idea what the girls are going to do,” Raisa told us. “a lot of them have already been considering moving to cities where the industry is bigger like toronto, and dont have other advertising options for where they live.”
As the first two weeks of July moved along, many escorts, massage workers, and fetish workers found their own solutions to the Backpage problem—whether that meant learning Bitcoin, finding other loopholes that allowed them to buy Backpage credits, advertising on other lesser-known low-end sites or moving to high-end sites like Eros, or turning to other forms of sex work in the interim.
But the unease the incident ushered in remained. “I get anxious that any site can just change policies and payment options whenever they please (or else disappear like MyRedbook did), so I feel super vulnerable and insecure about how I’ll be able to make $ in the future,” Bee stated.
On Tumblr, sexapro20mg confided, “Now that backpage is on shaky ground (I mean it still works with bitcoin but clients are already talking about abandoning it – I’ve been reading forums and message boards on this) honestly I’m pretty scared.”
Many sex workers are still mystified by how a mere county sheriff like Dart had so much sway over huge international corporations like Visa and Mastercard. DT, an East Coast American escort, asked us over Facebook, “…the asshole sheriff, why does he have so much power anyway?? Is he friends with people in high places?”