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.
Last week in Cleveland, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry escaped from Ariel Castro’s “house of horrors” where he imprisoned the women in a nightmare of rape and torture for almost a decade. Castro has been arraigned on four charges of kidnapping and three charges of rape. The courageous women escaped with the help of Charles Ramsey, a neighbor who broke into the home after hearing Berry’s screams. A charismatic man, Ramsey became an instant celebrity after declaring he knew “something was wrong” when he saw that a “pretty little white girl ran into the arms of a black man.”
Everything about the Cleveland kidnapping case—from Ramsey’s critique of race to the captive women’s histories of abuse—has stirred important conversations about domestic abuse, sexual abuse, police incompetence, and race. Unsurprisingly, for those of us who follow trafficking hysteria, it’s also inspired a lot of talk about sex trafficking.
Earlier this year, I taped a radio segment for the Judith Reagan show with Susie Bright and Sarah White. Both are intelligent, open-minded, and progressive women. But when Judith Regan read my provided bio (“Charlotte is a prostitute,”) each turned to me with raised eyebrows and smiles. There may have even been giggles. I had the impression they were offering me their support in the face of Judith calling me something rude. After all, “prostitute” still strikes most people as a dirty word.
Part of their reactions, in this circumstance, may have been inspired by Judith’s resonant, provocative delivery. (There’s a reason the woman’s given a microphone for three hours straight.) But part of it was probably the nakedness of the term. With “prostitute,” there’s no euphemistic softening of the reality as there is with “escort” or “companion” or “callgirl,” no prettying up of the transaction taking place. The difference between these terms is not fundamental; it’s all about presentation. If you do an image search for escort or callgirl, you’ll see a lot of pictures of traditionally attractive women in lingerie, posing against a bland background or somewhere indoors. If you image search “prostitute,” you’re going to see a lot of seedy settings and red light ambiance.
The Geisha Diaries published a great post this week on how to avoid trouble with law enforcement. Every escort should take a look at this piece in particular, and the site is also a great resource in general for sex workers.
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.”