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In Defense of Backpage

History is repeating itself, and I doubt a single sex worker is surprised. It was common knowledge that Backpage would become the next political target after it absorbed the tremendous spillover of adult advertisers when Craigslist shut down its “adult services” section. Now, given The Village Voice’s willingness to take the fight to those who want it, the Advertising Service Provider vs. Abolitionist battle has a good chance of replaying in the near future.

Virtually all of the defenses for Craigslist apply to Backpage, too—most relevantly the fact that shutting down the service won’t end trafficking or pimping, but it will most definitely make it harder to find and prosecute those who do. It will also put consenting sex workers in danger in the process. But don’t tell that to the Kutcherites advocating an irrational and worthless scorched earth policy when it comes to escort ads: ban them all regardless of the repercussions for consensual sex workers, and then pretend the trafficking problem is solved. If you don’t believe me, check out the way in which these deeply concerned citizens handle the opinion of an actual sex worker.

“Julie” was one of the few self-identified sex workers to comment on Kutcher’s long post:

Your ilk hurt sex workers with lower incomes when they pressured craigslist to drop us. It was one of the few FREE advertising sites we had. That made many independent workers have to work for agencies when they preferred not to. […] you seek to drive us into further darkness and danger with your moral crusade.

Non-sex-working civilian “Crystal” replied:

why do u have to sell ur “services” why not get a job or two or three to support u and ur kids if god willing u have any? That’s what REAL women and mothers do they work hard for their families. [sic for the entirety]

And that was immediately followed by “Rebecca” saying:

If even one girl or boy is sold for sex by using the site then it should be shut down and the fact that you are asking for a pity party that the site may be forced to put up more restrictions is ridiculous. You are disgusting because of your total lack of human decency

So let’s go there, Rebecca and Crystal. Let’s follow your elaborate thought processes which, tragically, are the same of so many Americans.

Crystal is having trouble with the “work” part of sex work. It’s not a “real job” to her and anyone who’s doing it is therefore coping out on getting a “real job” regardless of how taxing their labor is or how much money they earn. To make matters worse, Crystal has apparently not heard about this little thing called the recession, which has rendered jobs few and far between even for accomplished individuals, and apparently she thinks childcare is either free or dirt cheap, and hence it’s pretty easy to work three minimum wage jobs and support oneself and children. PS: Julie can sleep when she’s dead. Crystal—can I say it?—is just a real asshole, and Kutcher’s campaign sits well with her in part because of that. She likes the idea of things being “REAL,” meaning they measure up to a certain external criteria before they’re recognized as worthwhile or valuable: men, women, jobs. If they don’t ring the bell of realness, they can get the fuck out. (Out of what? The country, probably. She seems like the “we should put them all on an island” sort.)

Rebecca appears a bit more level-headed, although she’s going to be pretty peeved when someone tries to explain that obliterating Backpage from the internet will not singlehandedly end child sex trafficking. I wonder if she’d take her same approach for other tools traffickers use. (“If even a single girl or boy is sold during a phone conversation on an AT&T network, AT&T should be shut down!” “If even one Trump apartment building hosts a sixteen year old giving a paid blowjob, all Trump properties should be imploded!”) Rebecca’s not willing to think about any of the practicalities of shutting down Backpage because adult sex workers don’t matter to her until they’re trafficked. And since that’s the case, good news! Shutting down a service like Backpage, which allows workers control over their own price, screening, and marketing, will drive people to agencies, pimps, traffickers, and street work to make up their lost revenue. Come back when you’re more exploited, Julie, and maybe Rebecca will be ready to wish you a better life.

Recently, Ashton Kutcher has suggested that Backpage could take the heat off by requiring ID from all of its advertisers—an incredibly ignorant suggestion from someone determined to keep proving that he doesn’t think anything through. Who wants to provide their legal name and government issued ID in connection with an (unfairly) illegal activity? Surely Rebecca and Crystal would both fly off the handle if Julie said it made her uncomfortable to share her legal information with Backpage, even if a big part of that reason was her desire to someday not work in the sex biz, a goal which Crystal and Rebecca would probably approve. Are your eyes crossed yet? There’s no way for consenting adult sex workers to win; they’re expected to carry additional burdens without complaint or comment, and any objections are proof of their selfishness, greed, and laziness. Furthermore, they’re expected to pretend that these punishments aren’t a campaign against them personally but simply the side effect of the “real” concern: protecting children.

Additionally, there’s no way such a system would be foolproof, which means abolitionists would still not be satisfied. I’ve had plenty of friends recommend I photoshop an ID scan or tell me they photoshopped their’s, not because they’re underage but because they’re not prepared to have their life ruined when some AG demands a website turn over all of their collected documentation. Inevitably, someone would use a stolen ID, doctor the ID scan, or otherwise mislead Backpage, and then it would be back to square one: destroy all escort ad venues.

In the interest of honesty, I will say that I’ve never used Backpage and I don’t plan to. But these brewing attacks make me feel threatened because I know that the closing of one more site means the sites I use come closer to next in line. It’s all part of a larger attack on who I am because of what I do. This is about control. Amanda Brooks wrote eloquently about this issue when Craigslist was still the focal point, and I’m going to let her have the last words:

The antis threaten me. My existence is a personal affront to them. That I do exist means they continue to receive government funding to persuade others to try and rid the world of me. I’m simultaneously a victim to be saved and a parasite to be stomped out of existence. They have the right to choose what life they want to lead, I have the right to choose the life they want me to lead.


  1. As a internet hooker of three-ish years, I actually do support the idea of requiring ID for advertising. If there are going to be naked/sexy/provocative photos of people on the internet, I find it very reasonable for the sites representing them to want to make sure that they’re of legal age. Porn sites or strip clubs wouldn’t hire people without ID, and I’m surprised that sites like Backpage, Redbook or Craigslist would let escorts advertise without it.

    In my few years of work, I have advertised with Eros and CityVibe (both require ID and payment) and Redbook (which requires neither). My Redbook photos were the ones that ended up being stolen and reused on a series of websites that very purposefully advertises retired women without their permission. As far as I know, no one has ever elected to be on this site, and it’s run by an abusive guy who steals people’s photos (including, in my case, a face photo that I used only once for about two days back in 2008). He certainly doesn’t require ID from his advertisers, because no one there is being advertised consensually.

    If I ever begin advertising again, I will certainly only use paid/verified sites, because I feel these measures hold the advertising site to a higher level of integrity.

    Then, just from a business standpoint, the verified sites have provided me with infinitely better clientele. With bait and switch being less probable, they’re more likely (in my experience) to provide personal screening information, relax, and trust that they’re with the person they initially saw a photo of.

    While I understand being uncomfortable with the privacy issues of submitting an ID to Eros, we all assume risks in this line of work. It’s definitely not foolpoof; anyone can use a fake ID in any situation, whether it’s getting into a bar or advertising yourself as a sex worker. But I do think Ashton, dipshit that he is, makes a reasonable suggestion here. If nothing else, requiring ID for web advertising might make him take his crusade elsewhere in the search for these elusive underage trafficking victims.

    • My understanding is that Backpage currently requires a “valid” (ie not prepaid) credit card to advertise, which is already a substantial piece of traceable information. As I said in the post, I have no doubt that if IDs were required, when someone *does* use a fake ID, it will back to square one: Backpage should be shut down. So I don’t agree that requiring an ID would make Kutcher back off (ha ha) of Backpage, and in fact I think it would embolden him/people like him to keep attacking with the goal of eventual elimination of the ad site altogether, knowing now that their demands will be taken seriously regardless of how “expert” they are. This all or nothing mindset they’re perpetuating is an ideology of people disinterested in compromise. The whole “one child is too many thing” would quickly be revived when some 16 year old photoshops her driver’s license to appear 18. (Obviously, one raped child is too many. But they’re using that as a rallying cry to make people respond immediately without thinking through all the consequences of those actions.)

      I too have had to provide my ID to advertising sites and I do find many escort sites to be appalling irresponsible, not just those that steal but those who allow virtually anyone to post anything and don’t have protections in place for stolen work identities and so on. But I do not want Ashton Kutcher dictating the terms on which we do our (illegal) work.

  2. Thank you for quoting me, Charlotte!

    I’ve advertised on Eros and had those photos stolen. Anywhere that places images/text online can have it stolen. Paying for advertising does not reduce that risk (someone in my city just slightly rewrote my entire Eros ad-text and they’re using it in MY city).

    Though age-verification does make a site safer from being shut down and I like that, I also do not recommend that age-verification be implemented on all sites, especially classified sites. Restricting the type of photos that can be used in ads takes care of the need for age verification. The reason I’m so against it is because sex workers do not have rights. Why should we willingly allow MORE regulation of our work when we don’t have the basic legal right to work? Akin to taxation without representation, as far as I’m concerned.

  3. You are right, requiring IDs is just another effort to shut down the adult classifieds. However, I *do* appreciate any website that tries to prevent underage ads from going up.

    My Northern California/San Francisco adult ads website, lovings.com, has been requiring a proof of age since our opening in 1996, before the other adult classifieds sites even existed, not to mention required IDs – not just because IDs are already required for content related to adult entertainment (Internet ads are still a gray area), but because I really, really didn’t want kids advertising on it. I also didn’t want the kind of publicity and problems that come with underage advertising “scandals” – for our advertisers as well as for our website. This policy did pay off – we’re pretty much the only local site that didn’t end up in the news at one time or another under headlines such as “Local Underage Prostitution Ring Busted”.

    While there’s a good many reasons not to trust *anyone* with your ID, I feel that this creates both a safer space and a less “seedy” visitor market for people who advertise on our website. (We do make sure that any IDs on file are in a safe, encrypted *offline* location, and anyone can – and some did – request a complete deletion of all information we have once they choose not to advertise with us anymore. I do wish that any laws requiring identifying information that can mess up someone’s life would also have clearly written provisions on handling, keeping and destroying such information… they don’t. It’s even worse in porn industry – since the latest batch of laws came out, producers are required to send the IDs of models with photo/video sets… *anyone* can buy those. Scary.)


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