Kristen D'Angelo is worried about Chicago's prostitutes. As it currently stands, sex workers in the Windy City are able to advertise their services online and screen clients in advance, an arrangement that she says boosts their business and helps keeps them safe. But if the local sheriff gets his way, D'Angelo — a sex worker herself for 30 years and an advocate for women in the industry — expects that more members of the oldest profession will be forced to walk the streets, a risky proposition that leaves them exposed to sexual assault, robbery, or worse.
A battle has been brewing this summer between Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Backpage.com, a website for classified ads that allows sex workers to advertise escort services. D'Angelo and other sex worker advocates fall on one side of a thorny debate about how best to keep them safe. On the other side, Dart and a coalition of law enforcement and advocacy organizations have waged a years-long campaign against sites like Backpage in order, they say, to protect vulnerable children and young people from pimps and human trafficking.
The latest chapter of this fight began on June 29, when Dart sent a letter to Visa and MasterCard asking the companies to "immediately cease and desist" processing credit card transactions to place ads on Backpage, which he wrote had been "objectively found to promote prostitution and facilitate online sex trafficking."
"It has become increasingly indefensible for any corporation to continue to willfully play a central role in an industry that reaps its cash from the victimization of women and girls across the world," he wrote. "For years, law enforcement agencies and advocacy organizations have screamed and howled about Backpage.com and similar sites to no avail. But Congress is too hamstrung to act and the Courts continue to follow antiquated laws to the point of nonsensical outcomes."
Dart had in mind a federal court's decision last May to dismiss a lawsuit against Backpage filed by three women who had been exploited sexually as teenagers and advertised by their trafficker on the site. They argued that Backpage should be held liable, but the judge noted that under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, "the allegedly sordid practices of Backpage… amount to neither affirmative participation in an illegal venture nor active web content creation."
Though online ad listings for escort services are not illegal, the credit card companies quickly complied with Dart's request, severing ties with Backpage. In response, Backpage filed a federal lawsuit against Dart last week, claiming that he had violated their right to free speech and damaged their business.
"Sheriff Dart's actions and the credit card companies' acquiescence to his pressure have cut off nearly all revenue to Backpage.com," the lawsuit says. "In his zeal to prevent the few improper ads that users may post despite Backpage.com's efforts to prevent them, Sheriff Dart has taken it upon himself to eliminate the website altogether."
A federal judge soon granted Backpage a temporary restraining order against the sheriff. The order referred to Dart's "extra-judicial, extra-legislative efforts" and noted that references in his letter to federal money laundering statutes and his legal responsibility to eradicate trafficking could potentially have been seen as a "threat" that effectively coerced Visa and MasterCard to comply with his request.
The Cook County Sheriff's Office told VICE News that neither Dart nor a spokesman could comment on the ongoing litigation because of the restraining order. Backpage did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News, but said in a previous statement that it aggressively fights human trafficking by monitoring posts and cooperating with law enforcement to a high degree. Dart, meanwhile, has publicly condemned Backpage frequently in the past.
"Backpage has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for would-be sex traffickers, giving them easy access to millions of johns while cloaking them in anonymity and putting all risk on the shoulders of their victims," he said in a statement on June 30. "Raising that barrier will lead to less would-be sex traffickers entering the business and ultimately fewer victims."
Dart increased his anti-prostitution efforts in the years ahead of his confrontation with Backpage. In 2009, he sued Craigslist in federal court for facilitating prostitution, but the case was dismissed. Dart, together with an organization called Demand Abolition, launched a national sting operation in 2011 to draw attention to the johns and pimps involved in the sex trade. The multi-city operation is partially funded by Demand Abolition, which is part of a broader network of advocacy organizations funded by Swanee Hunt, an oil heiress and former US ambassador to Austria, under the umbrella organization Hunt Alternatives.
According to information from Demand Abolition, Cook County Sheriff's Office staff members sit on the organization's steering committee. Demand Abolition also funded the production of 4,000 copies of an educational DVD made by the Cook County Sheriff's Office on how other law enforcement agencies can combat prostitution.
Nearly 500 people who bought sex on Backpage were arrested in a nationwide sweep in 2014, but only 14 of the individuals were classified as "pimps/traffickers." The Cook County Sheriff's Office said in a press release that 111 prostitution victims were "recovered" in the operation, including 98 adults and 13 juveniles.
Hunt was not available to speak with VICE News, but Demand Abolition executive director Ziba Cranmer* said that the fight against Backpage is crucial to protecting women.
"We're a big supporter of Sheriff Dart," Cranmer told VICE News. "He's an innovator in how he deals with police work. We think this is the result of the sheriff realizing that the site enables the proliferation of the sex trade and exploitation, so he's looking at the tools in his toolbox, and part of that is asking these companies to take actions based on giving them understanding of how the business has contributed to that exploitation."
Cranmer claimed that Backpage had actually made the sex trade more dangerous for women than street work, and affirmed that Demand Abolition's goal is to eliminate the sex trade entirely in order to protect vulnerable young individuals.
"The former prostituted workers I work with, they say that online is more dangerous," she said. "Before, when a car would pull up, they could see or gauge whether to get in the car or not, but with hotels you essentially are just waiting. It's very hard to protect yourself in that context."
But sex worker advocates whom VICE News consulted strongly disagreed with her assessment, saying that Backpage — and previously sites like Craigslist, which has stopped hosting adult listings, and MyRedBook, which has been shut down — allow prostitutes to screen clients and create a digital trail that police can use to investigate a crime.
'If he wants to fight violence against sex workers he's doing it the wrong way.'
D'Angelo, who works with the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Sacramento, said that when the FBI and IRS shut down the California-based website MyRedBook last year, the effect on local sex workers was devastating.
"One of the women we were working with, who was trafficked, had been posting on Red Book," D'Angelo said. "When Red Book was taken down she was on the street instead of a hotel room, and because she still had to make $1,000 a day to pay to her pimp, she had to work more clients on the street. Now she can talk about having a knife held to her throat and being raped. She couldn't before. That's what will happen if Backpage is taken down."
D'Angelo and others said that street work, in which a sex worker must decide quickly whether to get in a car with a client, puts the worker at greater risk.
"The sheriff is taking the exact wrong approach," Melissa Ditmore, a research consultant to the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, told VICE News. "If he wants to fight violence against sex workers, he's doing it the wrong way. The sheriff should prosecute violence against sex workers and take reports from sex workers, including those who advertise on Backpage."
Ditmore added that sex workers are afraid to report violence to police because they have been arrested for prostitution in the past when trying to file crime reports.
Various advocates pointed to the recent case of Neal Falls, an Oregon man who answered an ad on Backspace in Charleston, West Virginia, last week. Falls reportedly brought a shovel, knives, a bulletproof vest, bleach, trash bags, sledgehammers, axes, four sets of handcuffs, and a gun with him to the encounter. The sex worker he was meeting said Falls tried to rape and kill her, so she grabbed the gun and shot and killed him instead. She was not charged. Falls is now being investigated for the murders of other sex workers in Ohio and Las Vegas.
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Ditmore said sex workers should receive immunity for prostitution-related crimes when filing police reports.
"Sex workers are preyed upon for robbery and violence because they have difficulty reporting violence to the police," she said. "Some sex workers have been arrested when they have tried to report violence. People who have been forced to trade sex have been told that the police will arrest and prosecute them, and that for immigrants this could lead to deportation. And this is exactly what happens."
Kate D'Adamo, a national policy advocate at the Sex Workers Project, called Backpage a "harm-reduction mechanism that's really important to keeping most people safe." She said that the vast majority of workers on Backpage are just trying to meet basic economic needs, and called claims suggesting that they are mostly being exploited a "complete fabrication."
"It's a very frustrating situation," D'Adamo remarked. "We're very dismayed this is the route that the sheriff has gone about it because it really does mean putting them in incredibly precarious situations."
Maggie McNeil, a sex worker who is also an outspoken advocate, criticized Dart's close relationship with Demand Abolition.
Swanee Hunt "has billions of dollars to play with and she absolutely hates sex workers," she said. "I consider it really, really, really problematic that a morally warped billionaire can get an American city's police department to change their tactics to suit her agenda. That's incredibly problematic."
McNeil noted that arrests of sex workers have gone up since Dart started his campaign to crack down on johns, and that prostitutes still make up the vast majority of all arrests for sex work, rather than johns or pimps.
"They're still cracking down on sex workers because it's easier to do," she said.
She also dismissed the idea that children are trafficked for sex work on Backpage, saying that only a small percentage of sex workers are underage. "And no matter what the abolitionists tell you, pimps are not very common," she added.
"The women who are going to be most hurt if Backpage rolls over are the less advantaged, less privileged workers," McNeil said. "Not the ones who have a tech guy in their pocket they can call and say, 'What can we do to improve my website, to improve traffic and SEO?' It's not going to be those girls."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misattributed remarks to Demand Abolition founding director Lina Nealon that had in fact been made by the group's executive director, Ziba Cranmer. We regret the error.