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.
On one hand, you have the Senate and Harris, who know that calling up the specter of trafficking can always be counted on to earn them bipartisan PR points. Never mind the fact that a centralized site like Backpage makes it easier to help trafficking survivors, and shutting it down and driving the industry further underground only makes workers more vulnerable to exploitation. Think of the children—and the re-election prospects stoked by pathos-filled rhetoric about saving them. It’s certainly less messy than filing foreclosure violations charges against a big bank—something Harris failed to do despite ample evidence in 2013.
On the other hand, you have Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin invoking the American sacrament of free speech. It’s true that these men have been persecuted constantly for the crime of providing us with a safe space to advertise, and that I don’t think they’ve truly broken any laws. But what they are essentially arguing for is the First Amendment right to profit off a criminalized group of people. Whatever the merits of their cries of censorship, it’s difficult for us to worry about our free expression when we’re thinking about how the hell we’re going to put food on the table. And Backpage execs have proven themselves to be perfectly capable of asking sex worker rights activists for testimony on how the site makes their lives safer one month, and then cutting off our livelihood the next. Their grandstanding gesture is just that. After all, the adult ads have run for years, and allowing them to continue to do so at this point could not incriminate Ferrer and company further.
But we sex workers are good sports. Many of us called the Senate committee and our Senators on Monday night and Tuesday morning, pleading Backpage’s case. (Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin ended up pleading the Fifth Amendment after appearing at the hearing.) And no doubt, many of us will continue to support Backpage’s free speech rights, though it’s become clear now that we can’t expect that support to be reciprocated.
Over and over again, we sex worker learn the bitter lesson that we cannot expect substantial political backing from any quarter—not from feminists, from the left or center, from free speech advocates, not from our clients or third parties, certainly not from the government. Though sex workers have a decades-long history of activism in many other movements, even non-sex worker grassroots activists seem to have been much more concerned with posting about Trump’s supposed penchant for water sports than speaking up for us in our hour of need this week. Now, in the wake of the financial devastation following the closure of Backpage’s adult ads, all we can hope for is for more privileged sex workers to help those of us who aren’t so lucky. We need to help each other, because it’s become obvious that nobody else is going to.