This week, after an informal request from a law enforcement officer, Visa and MasterCard announced that they would no longer let their cards be used to process payments to Backpage.com, the most widely used site for adult advertising in the United States. American Express had already pulled out earlier in the year. This leaves Bitcoin and prepaid Vanilla Visa gift cards as the only ways to pay for advertising on the site.
Like many ostensible anti-trafficking efforts, this will do very little to actually affect human trafficking. It will, however, impact free speech, and serve to make many sex workers’ lives more difficult.
Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Illinois, has focused hard on fighting “sex trafficking” during his time in office. He and his department, working closely with anti-sex work organizations such as Demand Abolition, have spearheaded initiatives such as the National Day of Johns Arrests, making hundreds of prostitution-related arrests over a period of years. In 2009, Dart sued Craigslist in an effort to have that site remove its adult ads. Although the suit was unsuccessful, the site ultimately submitted to the pressure, voluntarily shutting down its erotic services section in 2010.
The last several years have been good to anti-sex work interests, who have successfully reframed their crusade from being against prostitution to being against “sexual slavery.” The political climate has shifted from the now unpopular War on Drugs to the War on Sex Trafficking, with harsh laws such as C-36 in Canada and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in the United States funding increased policing in the name of “protecting children” and “ending exploitation.” These laws and their advocates conflate consensual sex work with human trafficking, and in practice mainly target adult sex workers and their clients, making it harder for them to do business and stay safe. Nor do these policies actually aid survivors of trafficking in the sex industry. Instead they often lead to survivors deported, detained, or struggling with open criminal records.
But Dart and his allies hadn’t been having much luck targeting Backpage, where many workers migrated after they could no longer advertise on Craigslist. Public shaming didn’t work, and attempts to shut down the site failed both legislatively and in the court system. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects websites from being held responsible for outside content published by its users; attempts to amend or strike down this part of the law in Congress were fought as attacks on free speech, and the law remained unchanged. Multiple lawsuits against Backpage were also dismissed on constitutional grounds.
Not to be deterred by small things like the Constitution, Dart decided to attempt an outside the box tactic. He wrote letters to the top executives of Visa and MasterCard, asking them to suspend payment processing to Backpage for “moral, social and legal reasons…to help protect vulnerable and victimized women and children.”
This tactic worked, faster than even Dart could have dared to dream. MasterCard pulled out the following day, with a statement that said “MasterCard has rules that prohibit our cards from being used for illegal or brand-damaging activities.” Visa followed suit a day later, with a statement saying “Visa’s rules prohibit our network from being used for illegal activity.”
In fact, their actions went far beyond the reach of law. Backpage is used in over 80 countries; because credit card companies’ reach is global, their cutting off service to the site affects sex workers worldwide, including those whose work is legal in their jurisdictions. And what the site itself was doing was legally protected, as courts had found time and time again.
But who’s counting? Anti-sex work advocates were thrilled with the response, hailing the circumvention of due process as a “progressive” way of going after the site since everything else they had tried had failed to stand up to scrutiny. Dart himself declared it “a great day for all who are engaged in the anti-sex trafficking struggle,” since the companies pulling out would “make the average trafficker or pimp’s life much more difficult.”
If anything, the new restrictions will make it easier for the few traffickers or pimps on Backpage to hide, by making it so that people can only pay for advertising via anonymous means instead of traceable ones with their names and information attached. But efforts to combat sex work under the guise of trafficking are often counterproductive to their stated purpose. What is new, and alarming, is the precedent this sets. One cop can shut down a site’s ability to do business simply because it engages in speech he doesn’t like, even if that speech is legally protected. All he has to do is ask!
What constitutes “brand-damaging” is a matter of opinion. Visa and MasterCard are fine with doing business with the KKK, for example. Given recent events, it seems plausible that many cops may not have a problem with that, but it’s easy to imagine other kinds of speech they might not like. Political or community groups that might be critical of them? Art or sexualities that might offend someone? Independent news media? Us?
Sex workers shouldn’t be the only ones who are concerned about this, even if few people seem to be concerned about sex workers. Innocent children, however fictional, are easier to drum up sympathy for than poor people finding ways to survive in a world that wants us to quietly die.
It’s really hard to see the campaign against online sex work ads as anything other than an extension of the criminalization of poverty.
— Charlotte Shane (@CharoShane) July 1, 2015
In the end, the most affected by this will be the most marginalized among us. Many of the higher echelons of sex workers in the US don’t advertise on Backpage at all, and those who do are more likely to have the resources to learn how to use Bitcoin, pay high fees for prepaid cards, or move on to more expensive, less accessible sites.
Backpage has never had pretensions of being “high-end” or “upscale.” The cost and barrier to entry to advertise on the site are low, and the workers who use it are numerically more likely to be poorer, browner, and less gender-conforming than the smaller and more homogeneous populations of higher-end sites—those with fewer resources, who have fewer options. Preventing these workers from being able to advertise makes it more likely for them to be driven onto the streets, into the hands of pimps or managers, or simply into more desperate poverty.
Politicians may not see this as an issue, but all of us should. As conservative Canadian senator Donald Plett put it in reference to End Demand bill C-36, “Of course, we don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes; we want to do away with prostitution. That’s the intent.”
The human effect is just collateral damage—if we’re even considered human at all.
Sex work is criminalized in the US, but not all sex workers are criminalized equally. The war against sex workers mirrors the war on the poor more generally, and those who are members of more criminalized populations get targeted more harshly. It’s not a coincidence that Backpage got targeted first, but it would be a mistake for more privileged workers to assume that they aren’t up next. Real solidarity is needed, especially from those at the higher end to those at the lower ones. We need to help each other out and lift each other up, with action, not lip service.
They don’t give a fuck about us. We have to give a fuck about each other.