Prior to April 11, 2018, there was a loophole in US federal law that exempted websites from prosecution for promoting sex trafficking of children or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion. So when, on April 11, Donald Trump signed two bills: SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), which effectively closed that loophole, it seemed like a logical step. After all, any measure that stops the exploitation of children naturally seems like a positive one. However, there's been an unintended consequence. Because those two bills also meant the instant closure of sex-work advertising sites Backpage and Cracker, which many sex workers relied on for their safety and livelihood. The sex workers most affected by the closures were those unlikely to be accepted into legal forms of sex work, like brothels, due to not being white, femme, and able-bodied. So, people of colour, trans people, the disabled, and drug users.
The bills' ramifications reach beyond the US: over the past few weeks, sex workers across the world, including Australia, have been feeling the effects. In many ways, Backpage and Cracker had become a way to increase sex workers' safety, especially when it came to screening for dangerous clients. (Research appears to back this up: in the United States there was a 17.4 percent decrease in female homicide victims after Craigslist established its “erotic services” platform in 2002.) Some sex workers are now making anecdotal reports of women going missing, pimps preying on vulnerable workers, and people turning to street work.
“The closure of Backpage and Cracker have had a massive impact on sex workers,” says Jules Kim, CEO of Australian sex workers association Scarlet Alliance. “For years anti-trafficking laws and policies have been used as a platform of legitimacy to target sex workers… it’s an assault on our online work spaces and tools." As the sex industry comes to terms with the closure of these platforms, VICE spoke with sex workers across Australia to find out what these new laws mean for them, and for the future of sex work in this country.
VICE: Hi Rose. Why did you use Backpage and Cracker?
Rose: They were just the fastest and easiest places to advertise, especially when you needed to get money on short notice. Other advertising platforms that are more high-end cost a fortune to advertise on, have a lot of requirements that you need to fulfil to advertise with them, and are not as immediate. Often those places want you to have professional photos and a really well written description advertising yourself—but not everyone has access or the ability to do these things. Also, sometimes those places wanted proof you were real with a photo of your face or your real name, which obviously isn’t comfortable for everyone.
So the difference with places like Backpage and Cracker were that you could usually advertise on them for free or at a very low cost—like $5 (the other sites have a $150-$200 fee). And the expectation of your profile was pretty low and simple. Say I didn’t have money for rent, I’d post an ad on there hoping to get a booking that day or the next day to save my arse, and it usually worked.
What do these bills mean for Australian workers who relied on these sites?
It’s fucking annoying and irritating because those avenues for getting quick money and work are gone. I’m someone that’s very privileged to be able to access other ways to get money. If I wanted to, I could still go to a brothel here and it’d be safe and legal. But that’s not the case in other states. People that I’m imagining this will affect are drug users and marginalised people who get turned away from working at brothels and who relied on those pages to get work on their own terms when they needed to. I’m really concerned people will turn to street-based work, which has much higher rates of violence and also just way less money.
VICE: Hi Summer, what kind of sex work do you do?
Summer: I’m an independent touring escort; I provide full service and companionship [around Australia].
Why did you use Backpage in the first place?
To find clients. Backpage was the only reliable advertising site for some of the cities I work in.
How has the closure of Backpage and Cracker affected sex workers you know across Australia?
There are workers who can’t afford to pay their rent or feed their kids because their ads have disappeared. People’s mental health is being severely affected. Some workers are reporting an increase in the number of bad clients, and many are feeling forced to take jobs they would normally refuse because they don’t know if it’ll be their only opportunity to make money.
Do you worry about Australia adopting similar laws?
At the moment, Australia has fairly progressive laws towards sex work in most states, and full decriminalisation in NSW. Unlike the US, where sex work is criminalised. What does worry me is that the legal situation might one day take a step backwards here. If we look towards Victoria at the moment, the Liberal party are campaigning to introduce the Nordic Model, [which] means they’re advocating to criminalise our clients for purchasing sex.
Anything that pushes the sex industry further underground makes our work less safe—it does not stop sex work, it only harms sex workers. We have proof that decriminalisation is the best solution to stopping trafficking and keeping sex workers safer. Any other approach, even if its dressed up as intending to “help” or “save” sex workers, is simply a moral objection to paid sex. Nothing is going to stop people buying or selling sex. The objective should be to make the sex industry safer.
What can people do to help support workers right now?
Listen to us. Trust that sex workers are the people who know best about the sex industry. If you have money to spare, donate to sex worker organisations; it’s much appreciated at this difficult time. If you have time or skills to share, ask sex workers organisations what support you can give. Advocate for decriminalisation.
VICE: Hey Danielle, what kind of sex work do you do?
Danielle: I’m an independent escort and brothel worker based in Melbourne, Victoria. I have worked in a variety of legal settings in a variety of different states in Australia and internationally.
How has the closure of Backpage and Cracker affected you?
Backpage and Cracker were my lifelines as an independent worker. Under the licensing system in Victoria, escorts must register their legal name and details with the government. Backpage and Cracker were one of the few sites that didn't require this to advertise, [making] it so much more accessible to people, like me, who for privacy reasons cannot be registered.
Backpage was an option that enabled less financially stable workers to advertise. It will eventually become difficult for workers to implement online screening of clients and outreach to other workers, particularly via American hosted platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
VICE: Hey Natalie, has FOSTA/SESTA affected you and your work?
Natalie: I had a mental breakdown before FOSTA/SESTA hit Australia. As I was boosting my ads on Backpage at 4AM, the site cut out with my money on it. This job kept me from homelessness and has provided me so much relief. [The closure of the sites has] been personally bad for me as I am as transgender worker on hormone replacement therapy. My plan was to come out and transition, but now that’s not an an option in the foreseeable future. I might have to see regular clients that are slightly dangerous physically, or at least a big deal to recover from.
How do you think these laws are going to impact the sex industry in Australia?
In different ways. Some sex workers are happy because they feel like it will eliminate a lot of lower class or niche private workers, and there will be more opportunity for them to get jobs now. But many won't be accepted to work in brothels because of their skin colour, body shape, or gender.
Is there anything we can do here in Australia, given FOSTA/SESTA are American laws?
If you know anyone that [works] for survival, see how they’re going, because a lot of us are definitely not okay. Fuck SESTA. Fuck FOSTA. Fuck policing of our rights.
VICE: What kind of sex work do you do?
Blaire: I have been a Girlfriend Experience (GFE) sex worker for 14 months, based in Melbourne.
How has FOSTA/SESTA affected Australian workers?
I know that a large number of Australian workers relied on those pages for their income and their closure [has] meant unemployment and potential homelessness. It's a pretty scary time. I have noticed the Australian industry really support one another. Photographers are offering extremely reduced rates for sex workers to get started; other sex workers are offering to pay for photographs/promotional fees to those that cannot afford it, and websites are offering free classifieds. The support and love being shown is really beautiful.
VICE: What kind of sex work do you do?
Sofia: I mainly do massage and body rub through an agency and as an independent worker. I’ve also done full service work at my own discretion, but one of the main reasons why I haven't made escorting my main work is because of Australian laws making you register as a sex worker and fear of this coming up on visa applications, etc. I'm not registered, so this means I can't advertise on sites like Scarlet Blue.
What does it mean to lose Backpage and Cracker?
I'd say about 90 percent of my customers have found me through Backpage and Cracker. The site was just really easy to use and manage. So since Backpage has gone I've mainly been using Locanto. I have used it in the past as a second opinion to try get more customers but the site is really hard to manage and not set up as well as Backpage. Sometimes I can’t find [my ads] through all the other ads so how were clients going to find me? Not to mention it sometimes took hours to be posted.
How do you think FOSTA/SESTA is affecting Australian workers?
I have a lot of sex worker friends whose only income was from doing work on Backpage and a lot of them don't want to register [with the government, for similar reasons]. I feel like FOSTA/SESTA is mainly affecting the people who do fetish, domme, and body rub work as well as BBW (Big Beautiful Women), people of colour, and trans workers, who can't charge $500+ an hour for their service and who heavily relied on cheap ads to get work.
*Names have been changed in some instances to protect privacy.