Originally launched in 2004 by Village Voice founders Michael Lacy and James Larkin, Backpage.com is known to many as Craigslist's little cousin—a place where one can buy not only a date but also a car, an apartment, or even a tractor.
Unsurprisingly, it's the "date" part that has made Backpage notorious among law enforcement. Since its birth, the emoji-laden escorts subsection of the site has racked up a long list of adversaries in top legislative positions, including sheriff Thomas Dart of Cook County (which includes Chicago) who fought to force Visa and MasterCard from being used on the site, and California attorney general Kamala Harris, who has made fighting sex trafficking a cause celebre and Backpage her prime target. Last week, after a long sting operation by the feds initiated by the California Department of Justice—including undercover operatives who posed as escorts in ads and arranged clandestine meetings with clients—the CEO of the company, Carl Ferrer, was arrested on felony pimping charges; Lacey and Larkin were also charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Harris cheered the arrest of Ferrer, calling his site "outrageous, despicable and illegal," in a statement. The news was also generally championed by the mainstream press, who see in Ferrer a villain profiting from those sex trafficked on Backpage; the New York Times quoted Carol Robles-Román, the president and CEO of Legal Momentum, calling Backpage "the McDonald's of trafficking," adding, "they made it so easy."
But on Twitter, porn stars and escorts who rely on Backpage were, generally, horrified by the news of the raid, as well as the idea that they could be cut off from their income by legislators paying lip service to their health and safety.
"The war on sex trafficking is a political prop politicians use to bolster their career," trans sex worker Cyd Nova told Broadly over email. "A large, showy, and questionably legal arrest of Carl Ferrer for pimping of minors makes a wonderful headline promoting DA Kamala Harris' run for Senate seat in 2016, but it's not actually effective in stopping that crime. My wish is that politicians hell bent on saving us actually looked at us as humans worthy of talking to."
Others pointed out that sex workers pushed off the site could end up being forced to sell sex in public, where their lives are generally considered more at risk. "Those who are engaged in survival sex will end up on a street corner, with increased violence and risk if Backpage is taken down," Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) in Sacramento, said in a press release.
Those who are engaged in survival sex will end up on a street corner, with increased violence and risk if Backpage is taken down
According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, the risk of physical violence or rape among sex workers who advertise their services online is "minimal" compared to sex workers who work on the streets, though violence in both arenas is still ever present.
"Even though the Internet is one of the safest venues for solicitation, web-based sex workers still face a number of challenges to their health and safety," the report reads. "Across all venues where sex is sold, including the Internet, sex workers face such risks as physical violence, sexual assault, rape, robbery, kidnapping, arrest, harassment, threats of violence, and emotional abuse." The authors also point out that black sex workers are disproportionately affected by violent crime victimization and lower pay.
SWOP Sacramento found that eight percent of the street-based workers they interviewed had returned to the streets after the 2014 closure of MyRedBook.com. With online soliciting, advocates say sex workers generally have more opportunities to vet their clients, which can help to minimize risks.
However, this doesn't change the fact that Backpage has become synonymous with sex trafficking. Among the revelations from the case against Backpage was a 15-year-old girl identified as E.S. who said she was a forced into prostitution on the site when she was 13. "I mean really, coming from someone my age, there is too much access, like it's too easy for people get on it and post an ad," she said in court papers. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has also said there has been a more than 800 percent increase over the last five years in reports of suspected child sex trafficking, with much of it happening online.
Kebreyana Jamai Jones, an incarcerated sex worker at a federal correctional institution in Tallahassee, was arrested twice after using the site—once in a sting operation at age 19 and again at age 21 when she was federally indicted with conspiracy for sex trafficking charges because, she claims, she was escorting with a 16-year-old.
She told Broaldy over email that the existence of Backpage made it easy to earn cash fast, which isn't necessarily a good thing: If it wasn't for the website, she says, she might not have fallen into sex work in the first place.
"If it wasn't for Backpage, I don't think I could have jumped fully into that lifestyle," she said. "I wasn't brave enough to walk the streets and Backpage made it too easy to make quick money."
She added that she doesn't believe the arrest of Ferrer will do anything but help his foes score political points. "At the end of the day, his arrest won't probably accomplish much of anything. Sex sells, it's been going on since Bible times, they can try to stop it, but it will never stop. People will just find other ways to do it."