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Indictment Shows Backpage Facilitated Prostitution, But its Shutdown Will Still Hurt Sex Workers

The co-founders of Backpage.com are charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering.

by Samantha Cole
Apr 9 2018, 9:15pm

Image via Shutterstock

Friday, U.S. law enforcement agencies seized Backpage.com, a classifieds website where people posted, among other things, ads for sexual services. Since 2004, when the site went online, it’s been a lifeline for consensual sex workers as a place to vet clients and seek help from the community.

The Department of Justice unsealed the charges against Backpage on Monday: A 93-count indictment names seven people, including Backpage co-founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. The indictment lists 50 instances where ads were alleged to have facilitated prostitution and also accuses Lacey and Larkin of money laundering. The full indictment can be found here.

Backpage was shut down soon after the passage of FOSTA, a bill passed last month that will make websites more liable for what users do and say on their platforms. Advocates for FOSTA held up Backpage as the poster-villain for why they claimed we need stronger anti-trafficking protection. Representative Mimi Walters, who supported the bill, applauded it for causing the shutdown on Twitter.

Sen. Kamala Harris, who’s waged a years-long battle against Backpage—she brought felony pimping charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer in 2017 and co-sponsored SESTA—has been silent on social media about the site’s seizure.

But FOSTA isn’t even law, yet: The president still needs to sign the bill, so Backpage was shut down without the statute in place.

The indictment against Backpage does not look good. It summarizes 17 experiences where alleged victims of trafficking passed through the site, and details email correspondences between Backpage staff about how to discuss escort services on the platform. Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, told AZ Central that several of the victims were as young as 14 years old. But while Backpage was imperfect and had many flaws, sex workers say that it became critical to their businesses and their safety. Backpage was what they had to work with.

Canada-based sex worker @asbinvancity told me in Twitter direct messages that this bill is already impacting her work, even though she’s living and working outside the US. Before Backpage’s seizure, she was able to screen clients using it. Now, people ask her for services she doesn’t provide, people with blocked phone numbers call her, and would-be clients try to reach her through various apps. “The predators are out and about trying to get [sex workers] to lower rates,” she said. She has raised her rates to help weed out these clients.

Backpage was an imperfect solution to the problems facing the sex work industry, but for many workers, it was a life raft—being able to vet clients and post one’s own ads freed them from relying on abusive agents and clients. It was the kind of platform that workers warned would be destroyed in FOSTA’s wake, and they were right: Even in the days and weeks following its passage in Congress, multiple sex work forums shut down their sites proactively, and even a few tangentially related forums did the same, including fringe-preference dating sites and the Craigslist personals section.

“The impact on sex workers has been immediate: people are pushed out into the street where they’re at greater risk of violence, and they are afraid to seek help because their work is criminalized,” Jessica Raven, executive director of DC-based advocacy group Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), told me in a Twitter message. “For those who relied on websites to screen clients and engage in sex work, they’ve lost income that they needed to pay for housing.”

Minority groups of sex workers, including trans women and women of color, will especially be impacted by Backpage and other ad forum sites shutting down, Raven said. Anti-trans discrimination pushes these individuals out of “vanilla” jobs and into sex work, she explained, where they can at least control their own livelihoods. “For trans communities of color, there are few alternatives.”

When Craigslist personals shut down last month, it impacted trans women of color drastically, CASS program manager Nona Conner also told me in Twitter messages. She said she knows a “host of girls” who are now facing extreme homelessness, sleeping on the street, and being rejected from shelters because they’ve lost income from sites like Backpage. “It leaves the girls hungry and unable to even travel on the [DC] Metro. It’s a major struggle,” Conner wrote.

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