Entertainment

Is Paid Sex Over Now That America's Largest Escort Website Won't Take Credit Cards?

The suddenness of the ban on Backpage.com and the confusion it has caused will hit the marginalized hardest. That could lead some workers into dependent relationships—exactly what law enforcement is most concerned about.

by April Adams
Jul 6 2015, 6:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Lies Thru a Lens

Last Monday, a man named Thomas Dart wrote MasterCard and asked them to stop processing payments on Backpage.com, the country's premier online adult services advertising board. He argued the company had "a moral, social and legal right to . . . make a fundamental and everlasting difference."

MasterCard agreed, and on Tuesday, June 30, they ceased processing payments to Backpage. Visa pledged to follow suit the next day, and with American Express already having made a similar move earlier this year, the site was effectively cut off from most forms of digital payment. After a weekend of accepting only electronic currencies (some users reported successfully using prepaid credit cards), it is now free to post a Backpage ad. As for how long, that remains uncertain. The site could not be reached for comment.

MasterCard spokesman Seth Eisen said in a statement, "When the [illegal or brand-damaging] activity is confirmed, we work with the merchant's bank to resolve the situation." Similarly, Visa spokesman John Earnhardt told media outlets, "Visa's rules prohibit our network from being used for illegal activity."

Dart, whom I tried to contact via email* before publication, declared victory, tweeting, "The barrier to entry for the sex trafficking industry has just gone up."

But sex worker rights advocates were outraged and dismayed by the ban. The hashtag #chargeisdeclined quickly got traction. Sex workers in Australia were amazed that a sheriff in another country had shut down their legal advertising forum. Others pointed out that the ban will disproportionately hit the most economically vulnerable sex workers, as well as force them back out onto the non-virtual street—at risk to their safety.

It's safe to say the ban caused immediate financial hardship for many independent sex workers. They've adapted to legal obstacles before, and will do so again, but the suddenness of the ban and the confusion it has caused will hit the marginalized hardest. That, ironically enough, could lead some workers into dependent relationships of the precise sort that Dart and his adherents decry.

In an essay called "Why Backpage Is Important to Me," a woman identified as Pink wrote, "Backpage has helped me to not be destitute." Others raised the question of whether trafficking would be reduced or merely shifted to new locations. A formerly trafficked woman, Madeleine wrote, "The conditions that make people like me vulnerable to human trafficking will not disappear, nor will the economic incentives that exist for traffickers . . .For consensual sex workers, shutting down advertizing services does not magically eliminate the conditions that caused them to seek out sex work in the first place."

Dart is no regular sheriff. He heads up law enforcement in Cook County, the second largest county in the United States and home to the city of Chicago. He also has a history of intense opposition to sex work, having filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2009 against Craigslist, hoping to close the Erotic Services section of that site. The lawsuit was dismissed, but Craigslist shut it down a year later anyway in an apparent bow to public pressure.

Founded in 2004, Backpage skyrocketed after Craigslist bailed. The sites look very much the same: a text bulletin board offering various products and services, though there are rather few listings on Backpage outside its "Adult" section. Posting takes less than half an hour: Just drop in a small amount of text and a few photos, 17 bucks (at least in New York), and you're done. Most contact is done via phone, and responses are immediate, trickling off within a few hours as new ads are placed. Bookings are generally made for the same day, or perhaps the next—this isn't a site for long-term planning. Client screening is typically minimal or nonexistent, and the advertisers are less likely to have reviews, which means both escorts and prospective clients are chary to provide information for fear of police.

Backpage's fundamental lack of accountability has made it a favorite of both law enforcement and the less than scrupulous.

Many marginalized sex workers I know advertise with Backpage because there's a low barrier to entry, and the response is often immediate. The site is heavily used by people of color, trans workers, drug users, and others with urgent financial need, but it is also used by many sex workers who appreciate the sheer volume of customers. Most other ad sites charge by the month and may take weeks to gain momentum. Backpage, meanwhile, is akin to a digital track or street—dangerous, but profitable. Get on the site, make what you need, and leave.

Backpage announced last Thursday that a promo code called FREESPEECH would suffice as payment, but users had trouble getting the code to work. As of Sunday, Visa prepaid cards were still being used despite the ban, although new regulations require users to register the cards with their social security numbers. A sex worker named Janice, who had an ad posted that day, told me over the phone, "I went to CVS and bought a VISA 2 hours ago and it works. It's a way to target women, especially poor and Latina women, by forcing them to provide their names."

On Monday, the site began offering free ads.

If the free ads are only temporary, is a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin the answer? Kyler, a Darknet user who prefers to use only his first name, argues that restrictions like the ban will have the ironic effect of increasing the speed with which sex workers adopt cryptocurrency, which could decrease their legal vulnerability in the long run. He recommended Dogecoin, a smaller and less scrutinized alternative to Bitcoin.

"Cryptocurrencies are the beginning of the way that monetary transactions are likely going to happen in the 21st century," he said. "It might seem difficult right now to wrap your head around, but we have to remember that in the beginning of when we were using email, it was also confusing. If you can use a cell phone, you can use the most basic features."

I tried to buy a hundred bucks worth of Dogecoin and found the process to be an awkward one. For starters, one needs a computer on which to store the software, and many sex workers buy their advertising on smartphones. A sex worker specific bitcoin tutorial is now available, however.

How will the credit card companies washing their hands of the situation affect those who buy sex on sites like Backpage? I contacted several of my own clients to find out.

"There is such an abundance of buyers, it wouldn't make a difference on the consumption," one told me. "I do believe that it is just going to move into normal dating profiles. I would just look in normal personal ads if I would look for escorts."

Another said, "I doubt it will have a significant effect. There are too many outlets for advertising."

Both clients and escorts mentioned the similarity of this ban to when the Craigslist Erotic Services board shut down, and predicted that another site would soon take its place. A man named Joe who used to advertise on Craigslist said that when that board shut down, he felt vulnerable.

"I perceived an etiquette. 'They have my information.' It was a vital evidence trace that made it easy to deal with malefactors should they present themselves," he told me.

As for what to do now, one sex worker offered a calm analysis.

"I'll do what always must be done: reinvent the wheel," she said. "Tools and methods and ad copy I thought were great have stopped working or been revoked or just become stale many times before. You should bet on these things continuing to happen. This isn't a business where you get comfortable with what works, kick back, expect promotions with seniority.

"It's a 3D chess board of a bizarre and challenging marketplace where the rules of the game are constantly changing," she added. "I know the girls who think two steps ahead will make it, they always do."

*Editor's note 7/9: An old campaign email address was used in the initial inquiry, delaying the Sheriff's response. We regret the error.

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