On January 9, Backpage, an equivalent to Craigslist, was forced to shut down their adult section, according to a statement by the company, due to continued pressure placed on the company after credit card companies were pressured to not do business with Backpage by the United States government. The credit card companies abandoned business with Backpage back in 2015. However, it was not until recently that this forced the company to finally close the adult section outright.
The efforts of the government are predicated upon stated interests of stopping sex trafficking, a form of human trafficking which revolves around sexual acts. Amnesty International, a renowned human rights organization, has laid out the difference between sex work and sex trafficking by highlighting that sex work is voluntary and consensual, whereas sex trafficking is slavery, as are all forms of human trafficking. Sex work itself spans a wide variety of services from the legal to the illegal: modeling, pornography, stripping, escorting, prostitution, and more. Yes, and Melania Trump was engaging in sex work when she modeled.
As reported in the Guardian, the Backpage adult section has been a lifeline for many sex workers, engaging in both legal and illegal forms of sex work. The platform allowed for vetting of clients and allowed sex workers to safely advertise legal services which meant not having to walk the streets or rely upon a manager or pimp for their services. By taking away this lifeline from sex workers, they are forced to act in less visible, and therefore more dangerous, avenues which greatly increases the possibility of being trafficked.
In fact, according to Lois Lee, President of Children of the Night, a non-profit organization which claims to have saved over 10,000 children from sex trafficking and dedicated to fighting against it, Backpage also helped proactively fight sex trafficking.
“Backpage.com was a critical investigative tool depended on by America’s vice detectives and agents in the field to locate and recover missing children and to arrest and successfully prosecute the pimps who prostitute children. The ability to search for and track potentially exploited children on a website and have the website bend over backwards to help and cooperate with police the way Backpage did was totally unique. It not only made law enforcement’s job easier, it made them much more effective at rescuing kids and convicting pimps.”
The truth of the matter is that sex trafficking is not at all the actual goal of sex-negative, anti-prostitution measures. The problem is with sex itself.
Criminalizing prostitution does not stop prostitution or prevent trafficking into prostitution. Criminalizing any form of sex work only pushes it underground where it is harder to see, and sex workers cannot reach out to authorities for assistance. If someone is trafficked for sex and goes to the police for help, they will be charged with prostitution and find themselves in jail instead of receiving protection. If an escort, who is merely providing their presence for a fee, is raped, they cannot go to the police for help, or the same thing will happen. Police resources are squandered on busting innocent sex workers instead of busting trafficking rings.
It is possible, however, to greatly reduce trafficking. If a client has the choice of purchasing a prostitute’s services legally, through a properly regulated industry, or go somewhere shady where the prostitutes are likely trafficked, the safe route without the uncomfortable feeling that the person may not be in a position to consent is preferable for most. This drives down the profitability of sex trafficking and thus there will be less of it.
However, the actions taken by the United States government, as well as state and local governments, such as forcing the closure of the Backpage adult section, do not fight trafficking. To the contrary, they increase trafficking by putting up barriers for victims and forcing sex work underground. If the purpose of laws against sex work were to alleviate trafficking, they wouldn’t exist. Just as doctors stopped using radiotherapy willy nilly once we learned that radiation could cause cancer, society would repeal laws against sex work — which once again is different than trafficking — once we learned that they put sex workers in danger and increase trafficking. Our society is victimizing further those who are already among the most victimized. Sadly, in a way, that is the story of America.
We have seen this elsewhere in society: the War on Drugs. As Forbes reported back in 2011, Portugal had seen drug abuse fall by half in the decade after decriminalizing, not quite legalizing, all substances. However, in this knowledge, we still see the fierce tough on drugs mentality emanating from Republicans and Democrats alike. The goal is not to decrease drug use, it is to demonize drug users. Likewise, our sex laws have a goal not of preventing human trafficking, but of demonizing sex workers. We want privileged people to sleep well at night knowing that they’re better than these other people not to actually solve any kind of actual problem.
But it isn’t just sex workers, but sex itself. It is also the demonization of anyone who dares be promiscuous or sexually open. With every sex worker busted for just earning a living, they are telling you to cover up. By forcing Backpage to shut their adult section down, they are trying to put rules in place about what you do in your bedroom. Prostitutes do not victimize people, no sex worker does, the movement against sex work is a movement against sex itself.
It is time that we, as a society, stand up and say “enough!” We need to be calling for the legalization of all forms of sex work in every jurisdiction of the United States. We need to be calling for our tax dollars to be spent responsibly on things that make our lives better, not worse. The next time you hear of a slut walk, join in. The next time you hear a woman slut shamed, stand up for them. This is something that it is so easy to be silent about and that is why it is so important to speak out about it. If you feel that you own your body, then it is in your interest to prevent people from telling anyone else what they can do with their own in a way that harms no one.
As for getting Backpage back up and running, I can only suggest the best boycott against credit card companies that we can manage. If you can pay in cash — pay in cash. Do not use your credit or debit card, because every time you do that the credit card company gets a fee whether you pay it or not. If we pay by cash, they lose money, and maybe they’ll feel the pressure to do business with Backpage again. Right now, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, intentionally or not, are supporting children being trafficked for sex by refusing to do business with Backpage. With enough pressure, we may be able to get the Backpage adult section back online.