In April this year, United States law enforcement moved to shut down Backpage, the marketplace website used for flatmates wanted, second-hand furniture—and by sex workers to advertise their services. Go to the site today, and it’s still stamped with the message: “backpage.com and affiliated websites have been shut down”, under the emblems of the FBI, the Department of Justice and Treasury.
In its announcement, the US Department of Justice called the site “the Internet’s leading forum for prostitution ads, including ads depicting the prostitution of children”. But while the bill was touted as an anti-trafficking measure, advocates say it failed to differentiate between illegal trafficking and consensual adult sex work.
“For far too long, Backpage.com existed as the dominant marketplace for illicit commercial sex, a place where sex traffickers frequently advertised children and adults alike,” said Attorney General Sessions at the time. “But this illegality stops right now. Last Friday, the Department of Justice seized Backpage, and it can no longer be used by criminals to promote and facilitate human trafficking.”
The site was shut down as President Donald Trump signed into law the SESTA, or Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which makes it easier for federal law enforcement to sue sites, including social media sites, for facilitating offences including sex trafficking.
“We have put an end to the violence, abuse, and heartache that has been perpetrated using this site,” Sessions went on, “and we have taken a major step toward keeping women and children across America safe.”
But 12,000 kilometres away, in New Zealand, local sex workers say the law-change is still affecting them, making their work less safe, less inclusive and more expensive.
While sex work has long been decriminalised in New Zealand, Backpage was still a key source of work and revenue for local sex workers. Local workers say getting work online meant a wider range of sex-workers—including trans, body-diverse or those with disabilities—could access a customer base.
Phoenix, a trans sex-worker based in Christchurch, says work has been getting harder to come by since the site closed down. “Since Backpage is finished, it’s just all died. Backpage was life. And just because they were told trafficking, or whatever they were doing overseas, it’s really hit everybody. And all these other websites, they call and they don’t turn up.”
For Phoenix, that means the key place to source work is on the streets of Christchurch. “It’s just really slow. The work is really, really, really slow out there."
Out on the street, she’s been exposed to violent assaults, including one disgruntled customer who assaulted her with a rock after she declined to discount prices. [Read Phoenix’s story in full here]. Manchester Street, where she’s now based, is the site from which four sex workers have been taken and killed since 2005. Research out of the UK indicates that street-based sex workers are “likely to be exposed to much higher levels of violence and abuse from clients and pimps than those who work indoors,” as well as being more likely to be pressured into unsafe sex or drug use.
Sex-worker advocacy group Coyote RI attempted to measure the immediate impact of Backpage’s closure in May. Surveying almost 300 local sex workers, they found 75 percent reported an immediate effect on their income following the closure, and 45 percent reported their income was reduced to a point where they were unable to support themselves within a week. Sixty percent said they’d taken on less safe clients to make ends meet.
Here in New Zealand, NZGirls, the largest local listing site, now dominates the market. But it’s more expensive than Backpage was. It also demands exclusivity of promotional materials—and workers must agree to advertise exclusively on the site to be featured on its key Members' Lounge and Priority sections—limiting their ability to make their own listings.
Annah Pickering of New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, told VICE sex workers should have the liberty to advertise where they want. NZPC knows of sex workers who have been kicked off the NZGirls sites for a number of reasons, including having photos that were "outdated". "This is ridiculous," says Pickering. "NZG also have kicked transwomen off their sites because their photographs are too old or workers have not complied to NZG rules and regulations on their site.
"Backpage was fantastic. The site never discriminated on gender, class or age. Backpage created a platform that was affordable and complimentary to the needs of a diverse range of sex workers in the industry, who wouldn’t get the opportunity to advertise on NZG because of ageism, classism and racism."
Sex worker and co-editor of ‘Tits and Sass’ Caty Simon wrote following the shutdowns that the closure of Backpage had set off an avalanche of other site closures, as websites saw the precedent and opted not to weather the risk of a similar outcome. In her eulogy to Backpage, she wrote, “In the days after, in the week after, we watched numbly as the Craigslist personals, Reddit’s sex work-related subreddits, Cityvibe, The Erotic Review’s U.S. boards and eventually all U.S. access to the site, Nightshift, Men4Rent.com, Eccie, and too many others to name—all of these avenues were lost to us.”
When Backpage closed, Pickering and her team were under pressure to source other trustworthy sites sex workers could use to conduct their business. "Any American-owned site that formerly promoted prostitution would now be prosecuted, and for sex workers living in other countries using these sites meant leaving the door open for government agencies like FBI," she says.
"In Aotearoa we are fortunate that sex work is decriminalised and thankfully other adult sites have popped up or created a platform to accommodate sex workers."