‘Rescue me from what?’ Sex workers say banning Backpage has deadly consequences, but nobody wants to listen
Here’s how SESTA-FOSTA is harming sex workers
On April 6, the Justice Department seized control of Backpage, a classified advertising website the government says facilitates human trafficking — including child sex trafficking.
But according to some sex workers, who relied on Backpage and similar sites to find and screen clients, the government isn’t eliminating a den of child sex slavery by shutting the site down: it’s cutting the lifeline of disenfranchised sex workers across the country.
The shuttering of Backpage came after the Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, in late March. SESTA, along with its sister bill the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), made it through the House of Representatives in late February.
Nominally, the bills intend to fight sex trafficking in America. But in practice, sex workers say SESTA-FOSTA is disrupting their industry and driving sex workers into the streets and directly into harm’s way.
How sex workers use(d) the internet to stay safe
According to sex workers, the biggest benefit of advertising platforms like Backpage was that it allowed them to find and screen their own clients. Sex workers were able to post their own ads and hand-screen respondents to make sure they were safe to take on as clients.
“You can find out a little more about them even just by Googling their email, shit like that,” said Kit, an escort in her late 20s who currently works with a sex work agency. “You can screen and make sure they’re not axe murderers or whatever, which is a way that we protect ourselves.”
Kit got her start in sex work on Craigslist’s erotic services section, posing for nude photo and says that thanks to the internet, she’s never had to do street work, considered the most dangerous kind of sex work. With street work, girls pick up clients by approaching strange men in public, often on a specific street or in a certain neighborhood.
Sex workers also used sites like VerifyHim and other blacklist networks to flag dangerous individuals and weed out potentially dangerous clients.
“These sites provided a safeguard for workers to vet potential clients to make sure they are who they say they are, not dangerous to be around, and are tested and STI negative,” said Anna, a 25-year-old cam worker and sex work advocate.
How SESTA-FOSTA ruins lives
SESTA-FOSTA would criminalize any activity on ad platforms that could potentially be related to sex trafficking, which means everything related to sex work.
Craigslist’s personals section has been shuttered, sites like FetLife and The Erotic Review have altered their terms of service and subreddits like r/escorts and r/SugarDaddy have already been banned, and blacklists like VerifyHim fall under SESTA-FOSTA’s purview too.
“Closing these venues means that full-service sex workers are pushed further underground with less opportunity to making a living on their own,” Anna said. “This will push people into the hands of the very pimps and traffickers that SESTA claims to be ‘rescuing’ us from.”
Lynn, 24, works as a high-end escort and said that SESTA-FOSTA has thrown the industry into a full-blown panic. She said that most sex workers’ regular clientele came from Backpage, and now that the site is down, sex workers will have to go where the clients are in order to make a living.
“My personal plan is going to upscale hotel bars, lounges, golf courses, restaurants, and pulling clients that way,” Lynn said. “That’s where everybody will be, because if there is no way for them to get money online, behind the scenes, everybody’s gonna be in the scene and it’s not gonna be pretty.”
What sex workers are afraid of
The ultimate fear of the sex workers I spoke to, either for their fellow workers or for themselves, was being forced into doing street work — the kind of hustling you see in movies like Taken, where scantily clad women proposition random drivers out in public.
“Street work is incredibly dangerous,” Kit said. “It puts you at risk of predators posing as totally normal clients. Even the totally normal clients are more likely to try and push boundaries. It puts women at risk of state violence because they’re more visible to cops.”
Lynn echoed that street work is incredibly dangerous. Once, Lynn said a gang kidnapped her friend and forced her to be a sex slave for a year — after they picked her up off of the streets. “You’re just hopping in the car,” Lynn said. “You don’t know if he’s gonna have a gun, you don’t know if he’s gonna have a knife, you don’t know if he’s gonna stab you, hurt you, rob you.”
Why you should care (besides like, basic human empathy)
SESTA-FOSTA paves the way for the government to control more than just content that (allegedly) promotes sex trafficking.
Even though SESTA-FOSTA itself only covers crime related to prostitution, sex workers and internet activists say it sets a precedent for the government to require platforms to police any and all content users post online, lest the platforms be held accountable.
“Elliot Rodger posted a video rant on YouTube about his motives before he went on a killing spree in Isla Vista in 2014. Are the owners of YouTube criminally guilty of mass murder?” Anna said. “If an underage person posts a photo of them drinking on Facebook and then drives drunk and kills a pedestrian, should Mark Zuckerberg be sent to prison?”
Basically, if we don’t challenge the passage of SESTA-FOSTA, the government could start fucking with everyone’s content and fundamentally alter social media as we know it.
What you and I can do to help
Paying sex workers, contacting your representatives, and educating your family and friends about the reality of sex work — particularly by amplifying sex workers’ voices — are all critical when it comes to helping sex workers weather the storm of SESTA-FOSTA.
Lynn recommended signing this petition, Kit has been reaching out to her representatives, and Anna said that education is key to making sure that more damage isn’t done to the sex work industry.
“This bill only passed because society at large doesn’t care about the lives of sex workers,” Anna said. “Help us change that and you help change the conditions that allow for the oppression of sex workers in the first place.”
Because frankly, whether the government likes it or not, sex work isn’t going anywhere.
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