Bitcoin is thoroughly unsexy. It's notorious for requiring explanation after explanation for a layman to understand it, and it's more a plaything for technocratic libertarians than something you hand off after a rough and rowdy night. So why are sex workers suddenly posting guides on how to use it?
Recently, VISA and MasterCard pulled out from Backpage.com, the second largest online hub for classified ads behind Craigslist. That left Bitcoin (and two other cryptocurrencies, Litecoin and Dogecoin), as the only way for sex workers to pay for listing their ads.
"This is obviously an awful situation," Liara Roux, an escort based in San Francisco wrote on her website in the preface to one such guide, "many sex workers rely heavily on Backpage for their business. While it would be wonderful to have a magic wand and fix this problem, bitcoin is one of the few payment methods still accepted by Backpage and I want to make sure those who need it can use it."
The Cook County Sheriff's Department in Illinois claimed responsibility for pressuring VISA and Mastercard to withdraw in a statement last Wednesday. And that's why some sex workers have started circulating tutorials on Twitter on how to send and receive Bitcoin: as a extralegal workaround to traditional institutions that control the money flow.
"Backpage is a very useful advertising medium for sexworkers who are touring (travelling and working in different cities), who want an internet presence they can take down on days off," Corrine, an independent sex worker based in Tasmania, told me by email. She had known about Bitcoin before it became the only payment option on Backpage, but found that few clients found reason to use it. She posted her own guide explaining how to pay for ads with Bitcoin for her fellow sex workers
Corrine also uses Cracker, an Australian classifieds site owned by Backpage. They're subject to the same rules and bans from MasterCard and VISA.
"I currently have an ad up on Backpage/Cracker and over the last seven days of the total visits to my website 23% came from Cracker/Backpage, out of traffic sources that were referred 57% came from Cracker/Backpage. Without access to Backpage my earnings would be significantly impacted," Corrine said.
Bitcoin advocacy groups have sensed the demand, too, and have taken to reddit to develop bitcoin guides aimed at sex workers of their own.
Craigslist did have a section for sex ads once upon a time, but ended up pulling those services in 2010 after the site was subject to mounting pressure from anti-sex trafficking groups. Backpage took up the reins. Village Voice Media, the publishing company behind the site, has been sued and criticized numerous times for their levity toward sex trafficking and, despite having systems in place to monitor for such illegal activity, it's an issue with no real resolution in sight.
Liz McDougall, the legal counsel for Village Voice Media, argued in an op-ed in The Seattle Times that it's possible that MasterCard/VISA's withdrawal could displace sex workers to even less monitored and regulated sites. Or, sex workers may just learn how to use bitcoin.
"We applaud the tremendous actions taken by Visa and MasterCard this week. Their decision to sever their relationship with Backpage.com is a significant step in our efforts to combat human trafficking," a Cook County Sheriff spokesperson, Sophia Ansari, said in an email.
While the Sheriff's department said they were monitoring the Bitcoin situation, they didn't confirm if they were seeking to get Backpage to drop Bitcoin payments.
Backpage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.