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We Deserve Better: Reflections On The War On Backpage

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 the Netherlands, 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.

Assault, Consent, and Silence

It is nearly impossible to find a non-eroticized spanking picture.

Here’s the story: A well-to-do Virginian businessman takes needy women under his financial wing on the condition that they follow the rules of his “scholarship plan.” If they break these rules, which consist of limits on alcohol and drug intake, and requirements to stay in contact with their benefactor, they receive a spanking. (He’s inspired by “The Spencer Plan,” a system of domestic “discipline” intended to be used by a husband and wife.) All of the women involved are of legal age. Many of them work together at the restaurant he owns.

One day, the man accuses one of these women of stealing from him and fires her (as an employee and, presumably, as a “scholarship” recipient.) A week later, six of these women file charges of sexual assault. A scandal is born.

Diversion Programs Are For Cops

(Photo by Flickr user Javier Morales)

There is significant debate within our sex worker community about whether LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) programming, a pre-booking diversion program for low-level drug and sex work related offenses, is a good or bad thing. The first LEAD program launched in Seattle, Washington in 2011, with private funding from the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Vital Projects Fund, and several others. This pilot program has been championed by law enforcement and drug reform advocates alike and has since launched in several other cities, with slight regional variations—just this Monday, the Baltimore Sun ran a story about the launch of a three-year pilot LEAD program in that city which Police Commissioner Kevin Davis framed as a response to Baltimore’s proposed police reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. A recent evaluation of LEAD programs, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, yields seemingly impressive outcomes for the communities they allegedly serve. Indeed, LEAD programming even names “sex workers” and “drug users” as their “consumers”—a rather misleading label for those in state custody, implying agency where there is none. In truth, LEAD programming does not serve sex workers or drug users, or those profiled as such. Rather, LEAD can be understood as a diversionary program for law enforcement officers and should be analyzed under this lens.

Diversionary programs like LEAD represent the co-optation of harm reduction lingo in the service of criminalization masquerading as social services. While we may rejoice at terms like “sex worker” and “people who use drugs” being used by institutions who typically use other, nastier language to describe these populations, the population they are actually talking about is people living in poverty. Programs like LEAD, which claim to provide case management, public housing, and job training, don’t target drug users and sex workers, as most people who do drugs or trade sex have those needs met. Many, if not most, sex workers and drug users have the social and economic capital to get high or make money in private homes, apartments, or rented rooms in areas that are not under constant police surveillance.

So why do poor people, many of whom lack economic capital because of deliberate, targeted U.S. policies, need a diversionary program? They don’t. Cops do.

Many sex workers I have talked with about LEAD think it is a good way to get desperately needed housing or medication or other necessities, things which traditionally fall under the category of “fundamental human rights.” But we must consider what is gained and what is lost when private funders like Open Society Foundation and other progressive grant-makers support programs in which individuals achieve access to fundamental human rights as a consequence of crimes they may or may not have committed.

LEAD reinforces the logic that people who are trading sex or using drugs need intervention from law enforcement, even if that intervention is a “softer” redirect towards social services. Do we? Increasingly, the answer, as supported by research, is a resounding no.

As prohibitive policies against drug use and sex work are repealed and replaced, law enforcement workers are looking for ways to stay relevant in the lives of those they have hunted, abused, and marginalized for the past few decades. The LEAD National Support Bureau, made up largely of law enforcement, publicly acknowledges an “urgent crisis of mass criminalization and incarceration,” and yet advocates for, well, more police. The logic of LEAD is not much different from that of “community policing,” which made strategies like “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” household names, and redirected billions of tax payer dollars to the justice department and away from education, infrastructure, and health care. Advocates of these policies fail to realize that the issues they want to address, like drug use, are hardly a matter of police and community relationships. Rather, the root of these issues lies in the systematic disenfranchisement of targeted communities.

The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft

Sonya, a representative from the MinKwon Center for Community Action, holds a memorial sign for Yang Song, a migrant parlor worker driven to jump out a window during a brutal police raid in 2017, after being pressured by the cops to serve as an informant. (Photo by Emma Whitford)

As we gathered on the busy street corner in front of the Queens Public Library in Flushing on Friday March 29th, over one hundred community members heard our cry: “性工作是真工作!” Sex work is work!

The police had blockaded Red Canary Song members from the library steps, protecting the carceral narratives that were being pushed inside by City Council Member Peter Koo and the NYPD—CM Koo, the NYPD, and a slew of other City initiatives were hosting a “How to Spot and Combat Human Trafficking” seminar inside the library behind us. Regardless of the heavy police presence, we continued our teach-in, passing out Know-Your-Rights trainings in English, Spanish and Mandarin to community members and passerby. Direct services providers and advocates spoke, dispelling myths and misconceptions that surround migrant massage and sex work. One of the main myths that we sought to challenge is the perspective both the police and Polaris favor: that all Asian massage workers are perpetrators or victims of sex trafficking. Many speakers and some community members referenced the recent case of Robert Kraft directly. Through the almost three hour long teach-in, we distributed upwards of one thousand pieces of print materials to participants and passersby.

The public is fed the racist myth that all Chinese massage parlors are involved in human trafficking. In fact, most Chinese workers do this work because it is the most sensible work for them to do, especially when they are new immigrants to the country and do not have access to other opportunities or employment training. For many, it is simply the fastest way to send money home, and it makes the most practical sense at this time of their lives.

“The massage parlor is a platform for our survival [here] when there are not [a lot] of other services to help immigrants transition into the country,” explains Elle, a veteran Flushing massage parlor worker.

(Im)migration, as it relates to Asian and specifically Chinese women, as well as feminine and gender non-conforming sex workers, is far more complicated than most people realize.

The Chinese hukou system, which restricts people to living in the rural area where they are born, making workers illegal in their own country, is a huge driver of internal “migrant sex workers” with no working rights in China. It is also a huge driver of migration out of China under Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which actively promoted rural migration out of China rather than overcrowding Chinese cities. These migrant sex workers often end up in Hong Kong, where our comrade Elene Lam met them as Director of Zi Teng, a sex worker rights organization in Hong Kong. By way of Hong Kong, these same workers often end up in Flushing or Toronto.

It’s an incredibly global network, connected through newly possible digital networks. Elene has literally met the same workers she has done outreach with in Canton, then Hong Kong, and then Toronto. This sequence of migration is driven by government policies that restrict the labor rights of Chinese workers who are made illegal in their own country, due to an internal caste system of rural vs. urban workers. Yet these migrant sex workers also do much to support Chinese economic development by sending a large portion of their money home.

It’s ironic and laughable in the darkest sense when Christian charities in “international development” work travel to countries like Cambodia and Thailand to convert sex workers into garment workers. Do they recognize how much “international development” these sex workers are already doing? Much more than a charity promoting the sale of handmade trinkets could ever manage.

What the hell is going on with Backpage?

Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)
Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)

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.