Trafficking

Home Trafficking

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.”

So These Sex Workers Walk Into A Human Trafficking Conference: Red Umbrella Project at the Toledo International Human Trafficking Conference

The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)
The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

When I accepted the chance to go the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference in Toledo, Ohio, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The organization I work for, Red Umbrella Project, attended the conference to present our report on New York’s new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. Just the fact that they accepted us—a sex worker-run organization—to speak threw me for a loop. When I saw that members of SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) and Miriam Weeks (AKA Belle Knox) were also speaking, I wondered if this conference might prove an exception to the usual anti-sex work stance of the rescue industry. After all, “sex work” was right there in the title. Someone in charge must have understood the complex reasons people get into sex work better than to assume that everyone everywhere within the sex industry is being exploited and trafficked, right? But as a sex worker, I also knew what the rescue industry—and what seems like most of the world—thinks of me and my job.

Our organization has just completed an eight-month study on New York’s Prostitution Courts, now known as Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). Now, in 11 jurisdictions within New York state, anyone charged with prostitution is assumed to be a victim of human trafficking and instead of being charged as a criminal can choose to do five to six sessions in a diversion program.

It felt to me like we were pretty well received. We didn’t deliver an impassioned speech about the plight of American sex workers, we instead explained the trafficking courts of our city, pointing out how they aren’t meeting the needs of the people they’d taken a seemingly more compassionate legal stance for. Our study found that the racially motivated arrest tactics of the NYPD were very visible within the courts, and that due to a shortage of capable interpreters, defendants who spoke English as a second language were progressing through the system at a third of the speed of native English speakers. We also suggested that the six weeks of therapy the diversion programs provided did little to address the needs of people doing sex work for survival. After a defendant charged with prostitution completes their mandated diversion program, they have an open record for six months, which can be a barrier when trying to find other work. They also cannot be re-arrested during this period or they have to start the process from the beginning again.There are more and more new court systems in the US that are similar to New York’s, and the idea of using “human trafficking” as a term that refers to all people in the sex trades is becoming more popular. And most of the time, the fight to end human trafficking is led by people who make no distinction between someone who is forced or coerced into the sex industry, someone who enters it by choice or curiosity, and the myriad scenarios in between the two. We saw a lot of this in the Toledo conference.

The best example might be the woman who, after finding out what Red Umbrella Project does, asked us, “But if your organization is made up of current and former sex workers, how do you keep the current ones from recruiting the former ones?” The member who she asked was floored as he tried to explain that that has never been a problem. How could you explain to someone with that view of sex work that no, our organization is not partially made up of unscrupulous hookers lurking around trying to sucker recovering trafficking victims back into a life of drug-addled degradation? We all tried to explain, taking varying tacks with forced cordiality. We explained that RedUP is made up of sex workers from all walks of life and varying circumstances, that our main goal is to give our members the tools to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves, and would you like to take a look at our literary journal of sex worker memoirs? It was exhausting, but it felt important for us to be there, no matter how much teeth-gritting it took.

The JVTA: Not Just Bad For Trafficking Victims

Republican Senator John Isakson urges the Senate to pass the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in March. (Screenshot of Youtube video released by Isaskson)
Republican Senator John Isakson urges the Senate to pass the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in March. (Screenshot of Youtube video released by Isaskson)

On Wednesday, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 [S. 178] passed through the Senate by a unanimous vote of 99-to-0. It is being celebrated as a heroic example of bipartisan cooperation for humanitarian advancement. However, if the bill continues to pass through the House, it will be delivering its system of protection over tapped wires, via an increasingly militarized police force.

Introduced by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), the majority whip, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 is nothing short of a carceral mandate. Its primary function is to allocate funds and special privileges to law enforcement and immigration control and to legitimize the adoption of new surveillance technologies, purportedly in order to combat child exploitation.

Democratic opponents delayed the bill in committee for six weeks, debating over whether fines collected from criminal offenders could go towards funding abortion services for trafficking survivors. They argued that Republican lawmakers were trying to throw an anti-abortion rider into the bill, extending the Hyde Amendment of 1976 (which prohibited federal funding of abortion), to apply to non-taxpayer funds. To break the stalemate, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put pressure on Democrats to pass the bill by asserting that until the legislation has gone through the Senate, he would not schedule the confirmation of Loretta Lynch, the first black woman to be nominated for Attorney General.

On Tuesday, given much pressure on both sides to move the bill along, a compromise was reached in which a separate pool of money would be created for survivor health services, in addition to money collected from criminal offenders for non-health-related services. The fund stream for survivor health services would already be covered by the Hyde Amendment, and thus could not be used for abortions for trafficking survivors. However, the language of the bill as it was passed ensures that the Hyde Amendment’s reach will not extend further to private funding.

While Democrats in support of reproductive justice and civil liberties have been vocal on the legislation’s language about abortion, they have paid less attention to the ways in which this bill also promotes the militarization of police, expands the carceral system, and funds the use of wiretapping and other surveillance technologies by immigration control, with little transparency or oversight. The amended legislation contains some benevolent provisions for increasing victim compensation and funding social services for survivors of human trafficking. However, in addition to these victim-centered services, there is a clear law-enforcement-centered strategy in the bill for addressing human trafficking, which prioritizes the expansion of funding for law enforcement and immigration control.

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.

Slave Hunter and Cultural Boners

Appropriately bleak looking promo for Slave Hunter (via msnbc.com)
Appropriately bleak looking promo for Slave Hunter (via msnbc.com)

In 2011, I had the privilege of speaking on a local television program, Face to Face with John Ralston in Las Vegas. At the time, I worked on a national research initiative called the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), a federally funded project. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) created CSEC in an effort to curb the alleged epidemic of sex trafficking of minors. I say “alleged epidemic” because, as most sex workers’ rights advocates know, research on sex trafficking often employs shoddy methods. Indeed, many “studies” on sex trafficking have proven to be deeply flawed or outright fabricated. The most famous example is Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner’s study, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico (same name, unrelated to the DOJ study.) When we hear that 300,000 children are sex trafficked into the US every year, for example, we should assume that statistic comes from Estes and Weiner’s study. Their research has been largely debunked by scholars of sex work (not to mention sex workers themselves) and not just because they operationalize the number of children “at risk” of commercial sexual exploitation as “users of psychotropic drugs,” among other things, in their study. They also claim that undocumented children are at higher risk for sexual exploitation, yet they fail to thoughtfully analyze the economic and social reasons why an underage, undocumented person might exchange sex for something in return.

Along with CSEC’s primary investigator, Dr. Spivak, I was asked on Face to Face to debate claims made by then-Las Vegas vice detective Chris Baughman. Indeed, CSEC proved over and over that underage people in the sex industry are in much more complicated situations than anti-trafficking movements would have us think. Baughman’s appearance was also a promotional opportunity—at the time, his new book Off The Street, a “true life story of [a man] fighting to protect a class of women who are too easily forgotten and readily dismissed,” had just hit the shelves. Despite grabbing onto the nonsensical trope that sex work is never a victimless crime, Baughman was a rather soft-spoken and open-minded man behind the scenes. I can say with the utmost sincerity that I’ve never had such a fruitful interaction with a cop. He listened intently as I recounted, off air, abuses I’d faced as a sex worker in Las Vegas—not at the hands of brutal pimps, but from the sadistic wiles of Las Vegas’ finest. I explained that my sisters and brothers were routinely giving blowjobs to cops in exchange for police protection. I told him I was in the process of filing a civil suit against Las Vegas Metro and that I’d experienced significant backlash from the head of vice because of it. He took out a business card, wrote down his personal contact information, and instructed me to call anytime. “We’re both trying to end abuses associated with the sex industry,” he said. “Let’s work together.” I agreed.

That was two years ago. Not much has changed in Las Vegas save for more punitive policies intent on eradicating the sex industry (funded by right-wing Christian non-profits that somehow manage over a million dollars in profit every year). And, oh yeah! Chris Baughman now has his own television program with Aaron Cohen called Slave Hunter. The new MSNBC series reveals, “in captivating detail,” what happens in the sex trafficking underworld. Posing as potential clients, Baughman and Cohen arrange to meet sex workers for the purposes of “[putting] in motion a plan to allow them to escape their bonds and build a new life outside of sex trafficking.”