Sex workers across America were left scrambling on Monday after Backpage.com, an online advertising clearinghouse, closed its controversial "adult" section following years of intense US government and law enforcement pressure.
In my city of New Orleans, professional dominatrix and masseuse Mistress Genevieve needed a ride to an emergency meeting of local sex workers spooked about the news, so I picked her up at her tasteful Seventh Ward dungeon, appointed with a working stockade. "Before Backpage, there was no site for anyone who wasn't a full-service provider," she explained as we drove to the meeting Wednesday. "Backpage was the only place I was finding work as someone who doesn't provide [traditional sex]. It gets so much traffic that you'd get guys who were just looking for domination, or specific other stuff. The other sites don't generate enough traffic for that."
But according to a report released Monday by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations after a 20-month investigation, Backpage is also involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives. The report also cited Backpage's own estimates that it once edited up to 80 percent of its "Adult" ads to remove words that allude to sex trafficking. In the face of such intense scrutiny, the site acquiesced and shut down its Adult section.
It's important to note, however, that none of the sex workers I spoke to for this article say they've ever seen evidence of human trafficking on the site, and Backpage's official statement accompanying the "adult" shutdown was one of defiance. "For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed, but new government tactics… have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content," it read.
Either way, the mess leaves many consenting adults in the lurch, wondering how they'll do business without taking on excess risk in one of America's more dangerous black markets. Sex workers have endured in the face of many crackdowns over the years, of course, but rarely have they experienced a potential economic shockwave quite like this one.
Genevieve has worked as a dominatrix for 23 years, starting her BDSM career working from the backs of nightclubs. "This was already my only job before the internet even came along," she recalled. "And I was one of the first mistresses with a website. I also did really well with print ads in the back of local magazines like Gambit and OffBeat—and in turn, escort ads are what paid the bills for a lot of those magazines. Today, I was wondering if I shouldn't try print ads again…"
The name Backpage itself is pretty much a direct reference to sex work, as advertised in the back page of the Village Voice, the company that launched Backpage.com in 2004. Alongside garage sale notices and used cars ads, sex workers helped keep the Voice and other American weeklies afloat during leaner times. Then founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin dumped the Voice entirely in 2012 for a monogamous relationship with their website.
Meanwhile, a seemingly endless stream of prosecutors and other critics have claimed that most of Backpage's revenue derives from sex workers—and that a not insignificant share stems from trafficking.
As sex workers have moved to the internet, the government has maintained a steady pursuit. In 2010, 17 state attorneys general sent Craigslist a letter demanding it cease selling sex ads that, at $10 a pop, reportedly brought the site more than $40 million annually. The site relented. Following the 2012 uncoupling from Backpage, the print version of Village Voice decided to police its own famous adult ads almost out of existence. In 2014, the FBI shut down MyRedBook.com, and a year later, the feds busted the famous gay escort site Rentboy.com.
The void allowed Backpage to become a catch-all service offering everything from topless massages to hardcore bondage. I am loathe to dismiss real concerns about sex trafficking, but it would be tough to come up with a greater, more dynamic depiction of real, honest humanity in all its colorful complexity than the site's now-defunct Adult section.
"In New Orleans, the most traffic we have online is from Backpage, hands down," said girlfriend experience provider Zorah as she stood outside the sex workers meeting in New Orleans's 60 degree January air. "But Backpage.com made the traffic amazing for everybody. The analytics say that at least 70 percent of the traffic to my website came directly from Backpage.com."
The traffic bonanza seems to have simply attracted more federal attention, though. In 2015, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express ended all business dealings with the site for fear of facilitating child-sex trafficking. Last year, Backpage's CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, eluded official pimping charges regarding the site's "adult" section, thanks in part to federal free speech laws. The month after they were cleared, three women appealed dismissal of a lawsuit claiming they'd been sold as prostitutes via Backpage while teenagers. The Supreme Court, however, continued to defer to the website's right to host—and not necessarily be blamed for—user-created content.
"When that all happened, everyone in the industry got worried about [using Backpage]," recalled Zorah. "But then nothing happened, and I had quit worrying about it. So the shutdown really caught me by surprise."
Mistress Genevieve had just deposited $200 into her Backpage account, which she is still welcome to spend purchasing ads in other, less loaded categories. "Today, I ran ads to test out Backpage's Massage section and even the dating sections of Backpage. So far I've gotten only really bad, bad calls," she told me. "The good clients haven't found their way over there yet, just the trolls who do prank calls just to get off and book no-show appointments."
Alternative escort sites (Eros.com, AdultSearch.com) and client message boards (EroticReview.com, ECCIE.net) exist, of course, but Genevieve and her colleagues suspect none of them will ever garner as much traffic as a site that sells sex but also sells boats, and bikes, and hope for a new job working from home.
Check out our documentary about the new era in Canadian sex work.
On the sidewalk outside the emergency meeting in New Orleans, sex workers grumbled about how the State of Louisiana recently voted to raise the legal dancing age at strip clubs to 21—a move some strippers and club owners believe will aim more young girls toward prostitution. With no recognizable place to advertise, sex workers could be driven further underground, further from safety.
After we leave the meeting, Genevieve leads me back to her dungeon, where she listens to a conference call organized by a group called SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach) to address short-term solutions and long-term strategies. She later told me the call included complaints from sex workers (male, female and non-binary) from Las Vegas ("This is censorship!"), Boulder, Colorado ("I haven't received one call from alternate sites."), south Florida ("We are in a panic here.") and elsewhere.
"It's at least good to see sex workers worrying about their own and pulling together," Genevieve said.
In a San Francisco Weekly opinion piece after the 2014 RedBook shutdown, escort Siouxsie Q called sex work "a means of survival in an economy that has betrayed [us]." For Mistress Genevieve and many others, this latest act of marginalization is just another front in a long-running Puritan war against an occupation they think should be legal—and regulated.
"If fat rich white men could put women on the stock exchange, they'd be all for it," she said. "But they can't handle that we have our own agency, and that they're the ones paying instead of capitalizing."
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