Banning Backpage and escort sites is not as simple as it seems

  1. A new law called SESTA means website owners are now legally responsible if their platform is used to facilitate the sale of sex by users
  2. WikiTribune interviewed sex workers who are not convinced SESTA will curb the most egregious cases of sexual abuse and violence

Buying sex online has been a booming business, and until recently the classified advertising website Backpage.com was the undisputed leading hub for doing so. The site, whose operations were shut down by the U.S. government in April, accounted for 70 percent of the entire online U.S. sex trade in 2011, according to Advanced Interactive Media Group.

The era of “escort” and “adult services” online spaces is expected to decline in the United States with President Donald J. Trump’s April signing of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), more commonly known as SESTA. The legislation passed both houses of Congress by an overwhelming majority. According to the law, website owners are now legally responsible if their platform is used to facilitate the sale of sex by users.

SESTA is an acronym standing for Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. As its name indicates, SESTA was promoted as a means to combat online sex trafficking, a term referring to forced prostitution that automatically includes minors. Backpage was a leading impetus for the new regulation. According to a scathing U.S. Senate report released in 2017, the site systematically turned a blind eye to possible cases of child prostitution. Internal emails showed the site intentionally allowed posts advertising underage prostitutes to remain active, only removing certain keywords.

“The Department of Justice’s action against Backpage is good news for victims and survivors of online sex trafficking,” said Senator Rob Portman, one of the sponsors of the bill.

The final SESTA bill isn’t limited to sex trafficking, but to any transaction that “promotes or facilitates prostitution(The Verge), two separate worlds that are often conflated according to sex workers who spoke with WikiTribune. After the Backpage website was seized, seven Backpage executives were indicted on charges relating to prostitution and money laundering, but not sex trafficking (NPR).

The other side of Backpage

Several groups that work on the front lines of the sex trade are not convinced SESTA will curb the most egregious cases of sexual abuse and violence. For them, Backpage actually increased the safety of sex work, while making sex trafficking more detectable by introducing “visibility” to a profession that has traditionally operated in secrecy.

“We’ve lost an incredibly valuable resource, to not only be able to build community, but also get safety information out to vulnerable people,” said Kate D’Adamo, an organizer for sex workers with Reframe Health and Justice, two weeks after SESTA was signed into law.

DOJ announcement the Backpage website had been seized by the federal government (SCREENSHOT)

While civil liberty groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, oppose SESTA on freedom of speech grounds, some advocates for trafficking victims oppose the bill because of the benefits of Backpage for “sex workers,” the preferred term over prostitute for those who work in the industry. Sex workers themselves say they use the service to screen clients before meeting them.

A classified ad on Backpage reading, “Let me be your ‘Best Kept Secret’ {Vicki} … Outcalls only!!!! Don’t waste my time,” can provide valuable information for advocates like D’Adamo, who need to build a relationship with sex workers.

As a community organizer, D’Adamo said she would scroll through Backpage to evaluate “trends” in a given American city. If a city’s Backpage site had mostly ads like the one above, she knew most sex workers worked independently, not for a brothel, and planned her outreach strategy accordingly.

Fear of being arrested, and generally precarious lifestyles, make outreach a difficult task for sex worker activists. For Erika Gonzalez, a lawyer for trafficked victims, Backpage was a last-ditch resource to contact clients who had disappeared on her. She explained the situation on Twitter, the main platform the sex work community uses to reach an audience.

ErikaG on Twitter

Sometimes the only way I could get ahold of her was by finding her through Backpage so that I could get her most recent number.

Screening clients

Christina Parreira, a Las Vegas-based dominatrix, says online forums made interactions with clients a vastly safer experience than the pre-Backpage alternative. They provided a space to run basic background on potential clients, she never had to pick up on stranger from a street corner, or a “casino floor” in her case. 

With their phone number, she could look them up online. With a few discrete questions, she says she could gauge a client before agreeing on a meeting place. She even began asking for personal references and deposits. 

“Screening is essential… people say its an exaggeration to call [SESTA] a death sentence, but it’s really not.” Parreira told WikiTribune.

Parreira acknowledges she’s a more privileged sex worker than some. She’s currently applying her sex work to conduct field research for a doctorate program in sociology. Her occupation, therefore, is not based on a lack of options. Not every sex worker can ask a client for references and expect to stay in business. 

With the passage of SESTA, legal sex workers such as Parreira are faced with the same worries as the average sex worker – loss of income and safety. 

“You see a lot of girls trolling the casino floors, just going up to strangers,” Parreira says. “They don’t know anything about that guy. I don’t judge them, I fear for them. And there’s gonna be a lot more of that now… I’m in the very privileged position where I have the social capital where I don’t need to do that.”

She plans on leaving Las Vegas to join one of the few legal brothels in the country, all of which are located in the Nevada desert. The brothel she’s joining will take 50 percent of her earnings as a house cut. Parreira says the price is worth it when you consider the increased security that comes when a  brothel can call the police. 

“I feel safer in the legal brothels, if something were to happen we could call security… if you’re raped or assaulted on the street you can’t call the police and say ‘hey I just turned a trick,’ without being arrested.”

 

Embracing transparency

Sex trafficking predates Backpage, but online forums certainly make child prostitution more accessible. With millions of ads, some planted by law enforcement, it’s impossible to know how prevalent child prostitution was on Backpage. But it certainly existed (Washington Post).

In certain cases, Backpage has cooperated with law enforcement (CBS4 Denver). By and large, however, the company didn’t alert authorities to potential cases of sex trafficking as a matter of policy. Code words for an underage prostitute, such as “amber alert” or “lolita” were automatically removed from ads through filtering software implemented by Backpage, according to a U.S. Senate investigative report. But the ads themselves were not taken down, meaning customers could still set up a time to have sex with someone who could be under 18.

The Senate report added to the narrative of Backpage as a knowing participant in trafficking. Journalist Nicholas Kristoff, a supporter of SESTA, detailed the proliferation of underage prostitution on Backpage for the New York Times. In 2014, he reported on a 15-year-old runaway girl who slept with a staggering number of men, all arranged by a pimp who advertised on Backpage.

The same horror story, however, is used as an example how Backpage can be used to combat trafficking. The family of the teenage girl in question was unable to find her until Kristoff recommended checking Backpage listings. They were able to locate her ad in less than two minutes and quickly alerted authorities.

Anti-trafficking attorney Alex Levy openly supports Backpage because of this transparency potential. In her view, this is something law enforcement should embrace. Like most people who oppose SESTA, her advocacy lives on Twitter. She argues that reducing trafficking comes from law enforcement embracing online intermediaries rather than rejecting them.

“To the extent that traffickers use the platforms to make their victims more visible to potential customers, they also increase victims’ visibility to law enforcement and others seeking to recover them,” Levy wrote in an article, “The Virtues of Unvirtuous Spaces,” published in the Wake Forest Law Review.

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