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What the hell is going on with Backpage? Part II

(Screenshot of Backpage's July 10th email to users)
(Screenshot of Backpage’s July 10th e-mail to users)

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.

Free posting

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.”

It Happened To Me: I’m An Escort Who Thought She Had Gonorrhea

World War II military propaganda poster, circa 1940 (Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)
1940 World War II military propaganda poster (Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

I was in the midst of a pretty good day when I received a phone call from one of my non-client lovers. The poor boy had come down with a case of throat gonorrhea, which I didn’t even know was a thing.  He was just calling to let me know I had been exposed the last time we had sex, since we had made out with great vigor and he had also gone downtown, like the sweetheart he is. I thanked him for letting me know, told him to feel better, hung up and began to evaluate the situation in the calm and rational fashion that any sex-positive, non-monogamous person might try to evaluate a situation such as this.

Gonorrhea. No big deal, right? I have always expected to contract an STI at some point in my life, and as far as STIs go that’s not such a bad one. I was feeling a little funny in the junk, which I figured was probably due to a yeast infection. It seemed likely to me that I might, in fact, have gonorrhea, and I should probably get tested ASAP either way.

Then I remembered what I do for a living. I remembered that there weren’t just lovers whom I may have exposed, albeit unwittingly, but possibly about three clients as well. Even worse, I remembered that I desperately needed to make the money I was planning on making over the coming weekend— or else I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent.

Mother. Fucker.

In my work as a full-service escort, STIs had always been a sort of intellectual, if abstract, concern. It is something I knew could be a really detrimental thing to have happen to my business, but it hadn’t happened yet, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Now here I was, in the exact situation I had only considered in the abstract. The one where I need to make money but can’t really figure out an ethical way to do so without exposing myself as every client’s worst nightmare: the poxy whore.

Former Escort Refreshingly Less Calculating Than Former Housewife

Haters can't handle it; she's a cutie pie.

I doubt anyone who reads this site needs my condensed Wikipedia version of who exactly Ashley Dupre is, but here it goes: After her outing as Eliot Spitzer’s—one time! Though every media outlet started calling her his “favorite”—escort, she became a national joke for her music aspirations. Because everyone knows prostitutes can’t sing, or whatever. And no internet post about her was complete without a slew of comments making rude remarks about her asking price with relation to her looks. (Once again, civilians are complete dunces when it comes to the sex industry. Is there some national ranking system of attractive women that should cap rates of escorts? It was New York pre-recession, Dummies. Any twenty-something girl with decent teeth who wasn’t asking $1,000/hour was missing the opportunity of a lifetime.)

All of that didn’t stop certain jackasses from claiming that Ashley’s forced outing made her “a big winner,” as though the only reason she was escorting in the first place was in the hope of getting famous for having sex with a married governor. Even Barbara Walters had the audacity to imply that having her life ruined was worth it since she got an advice column in the NY Post. You figured us out, Media! All prostitutes are secretly dying to be nationally outed in a political scandal, which can only make our miserable lives better than they already are. What gave it away, the fact that we work under our full legal names and offer discounts to public figures?

So now Ashley is back in the public eye, sort of, if being on VH1 counts. She’s one of the semi-recognizable people on “Famous Food,” a show that claims to be about completely unqualified folks competing to join a restaurant group formed by two former reality TV stars. More accurately, it’s a show “about” people yelling at each other and coming up with bad ideas while they sit in an ugly room around a coffee stained conference table. It’s pretty hard to watch, but Ashley Dupre is the only element keeping it from being impossible to watch.

“Getting Away” With Hating It: Consent in the Context of Sex Work

doorwaydogI’ve been selling sex in one form or another for nine years, which is a long time. Most people in the sex trade pop in and out as their financial situation warrants, and few think of it as their career. For me, however, among the straight work I’ve pursued concurrently, prostitution is my profession and I’m comfortable with that. I’ve engineered that. My various privileges mean I operate in a way that is about as low-risk and comfy as one can get: I screen extensively, I am my own boss, I request a very high hourly rate, and I don’t see people who are violent or rude. If you asked me if I like it, I would say, “yes, I like it.” I like the people I meet, I like the freedom of schedule, and I like the money I make.

A big part of thinking about escorting as my career means evaluating my work and trying to improve the quality of service I’m offering in the interest of maintaining current clients and attracting new ones. Because it’s my profession, I think about it professionally and seriously, as a business person. It’s during these performance reviews that I might chastise myself for making my unhappiness with the physical interaction transparent, if/when I struggle to hide it. “He can tell I don’t like it,” I’ve thought to myself before, about clients with whom the physical aspect is more challenging, “but he lets me get away with it.” The “it” here means my inability to pretend I enjoy the sex. That’s what he “lets me get away with,” by not demanding his money back, I guess, and by continuing to see me and pay me for my time.

In other words, this man allows me to not to disguise my fundamental lack of desire to have sex with him. I think this feeling of being granted some type of permission to not fake enjoyment isn’t unique to me and isn’t unique to sex workers. I think a lot of women’s heterosexual sex is or has been characterized by negotiating their own lack of  “enthusiastic consent,” a relatively new concept aiming to educate in a more nuanced way than “no means no” and “yes means yes.” It’s rare that I give authentic “enthusiastic consent” while I’m working. And that’s how I prefer it.

Sex Work Snobbery

One of my favorite aspects of sex work is the camaraderie. I often feel that I’m in a secret society; I’ve had people pull me aside and confess their own sex work past (or present) after learning of my own. There’s a level of honesty and candidness I assume with other sex workers that I don’t have with civilian friends whom I’ve known for longer. The girl I met on my first day of webcam, eight years ago? We still talk on the phone. The girl I met through an agency once I started doing in-person work? I was the officiant at her wedding. I find sex worker bonds to be more durable and more intense than the connection I form—or rather, don’t form—with civilians.

But it’s not all group hugs and gossip sessions. There’s a tremendous amount of classism and snobbery among sex workers. It runs both ways, existing within each facet of the industry and also cutting across job descriptions. That means an incall escort may trash talk street workers and turn up her nose at strippers, while a massage girl might think that her colleagues who offer more than handjobs are super skanky and dominatrixes aren’t “real” sex workers. The pressure of stigmatization and often operating in environments where one’s boundaries aren’t respected leads to this demonization of co-workers and other sex workers on the whole, when instead we should direct the frustation where it belongs: on bad laws, bad bosses, and bad customers.