The War on Sex Workers Escalates with FBI Shutdown of MyRedBook
Logging into Facebook on June 26, I was immediately confronted by dozens of screenshots of a notice with FBI and IRS seals indicating that MyRedBook, a free advertising network for escorts, had been seized.
Protesters mocking cops and their crackdown on sex work at a 2010 rally. Photo via Flickr user Steve Rhodes
When I logged in to Facebook on June 26, I was immediately confronted by dozens of screenshots of a notice with FBI and IRS seals indicating that MyRedBook had been seized. I typed in the URL myself and got the same message, at which point my stomach dropped. For the uninitiated, MyRedBook was an extensive network of public and private forums offering escorts a place to advertise, be reviewed, blacklist bad clients, screen new ones, and generally support one another in an often solitary and isolating business. Most importantly, MyRedBook was probably the largest adult advertising venue in Northern California, and the only venue to offer free ads.
A few years ago, Craigslist shut down its erotic-services section after Melissa Farley lied to Congress about the average age of entry into prostitution being 13 and the Women’s Funding Network falsely told lawmakers that underage prostitution advertised on the site was exploding and had increased by 64.7 percent in a period of six months. That, too, left me reeling. Craigslist had made it easy to post explicitly about the experiences I wanted to have and fish for compatible gentlemen—suddenly I was faced with advertising only my availability to meet up at an hourly rate. Discussions of compatibility or expectations could land me in jail, and were blocked by advertising sites. What if my new customers wanted services I didn’t want to provide?
Some of my friends were left in much worse positions. One was unable to get a credit card or bank account, and with no one in her life she could confide in and borrow a credit card from (which would make them, legally, her pimp or sex trafficker), she quickly turned to working on the streets to make her rent.
“I can’t believe this is happening again,” I texted another friend who lives in San Francisco. “I hope people aren’t going to end up walking the street.” I stared at my bookshelf and tried to rearrange the titles into poems to occupy my mind. My phone buzzed.
“Of course it’s going to happen. It’s probably happening as we speak.”
I turned back to Facebook in search of information. Abeni, a nonprofit that provides services to those in the sex trade, including domestic sex trafficking victims, posted: “In the wake of [the RedBook seizure], we know some will be making hard choices about how to proceed and which calls to book. We urge you to up your game, listen to your gut, and don't skimp on the steps you take to keep yourself safe. Don't forget to check in and out, research your dates if possible and to consider apps like KiteString if needed. For those who have little or no choice about the work they are engaging in, we urge you to stay as connected as possible to the advocates and friends you have.”
I chatted with Meg Munoz, Abeni’s director, and she explained that MyRedBook was “a huge asset when it came to survivors we knew and were following. It was actually a huge asset in helping us work with a survivor to set up an emergency relocation."
Rumors flew about minors or pimps who could have been using the site, attracting the ire of the FBI. “How are the cops going to find trafficking victims now that there’s nowhere for them to advertise?” many reasonable people wondered. It seemed those arrested were only charged with money laundering and something related to the Mann Act, which apparently prohibited an alleged prostitute from placing an ad on MyRedBook in order to facilitate transporting themselves across state lines for immoral purposes. That part made me extra angry. Almost ten years ago there was a man in my extended network of sex-worker friends who repeatedly flew women to his state to rape them. That clearly seemed to be transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, but the FBI didn’t seem to agree and declined to press charges. As usual, law enforcement refused to use laws supposedly designed to protect women to actually protect women, and instead was using them against us.
The seizure of MyRedBook came on the heels of a cross-country sweep in which the FBI arrested 168 victims, 281 pimps, and more than a thousand sex workers. That’s right: Somehow, the FBI managed to find 1.67 pimps per victim. In some cities, the FBI found several pimps and no victims. These sweeps are called Operation Cross Country, a part of Project Innocence Lost. When I first heard about it, I thought Innocence Lost must be a barely legal porn site, but it turns out it’s actually a thing where the government hunts you down if you’ve misplaced your innocence.
A reporter from Truthout spoke to several FBI agents who were evasive about the number of sex workers arrested and what happened to the minors who were “recovered.” Last week, the FBI national office did not return calls from VICE.
Five days after MyRedBook was seized, US senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Mark Kirk of Illinois introduced the SAVE Act. The bill, intended to crack down on the sex trafficking of children, would entirely eliminate online “adult advertising,” including advertisement of legal adult services. It would make having a website that “facilitates or is designed to facilitate” adult advertising “to facilitate commercial transactions” a federal crime. The Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have criticized the bill for its broadness and potential effects on free speech.
I can’t claim to be an expert in constitutional law. But what I do understand is that the elimination of online advertising would send many sex workers back to the dark ages of street work. To avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement, workers would jump too quickly into the cars of customers they haven’t screened, with no time to negotiate payment or services before finding themselves in a small space equipped with child-safety locks in the company of a strange man. If it passes, this bill will be the cause of so much unnecessary violence toward sex workers—people who are often unable to report crimes committed against them without being arrested themselves.
Nine days after the SAVE Act was introduced, a member of my local community was arrested and charged with seven felony counts of sex trafficking. She’s not accused of force, fraud, coercion, or any kind of abuse. Instead, the troopers allege that she provided online marketing of women for “customers of the sex trafficking trade,” maintained a place of prostitution, and was in possession of 31 independent contractor agreements. Online marketing, associating with one another, and safe, shared indoor work spaces provide a higher level of security for people in the sex trade—but taking measures to increase safety is called sex trafficking these days.
They say this is all to save people who work in the sex industry, to rescue us as if we were mewling kittens. But to the sex workers impacted, their actions speak pretty clearly of a different agenda—one that seeks to create a world where sex workers are driven further underground, and escorts are cut off from professional and personal support, with no way of protecting themselves from violent pimps or customers. They say that patriarchy is concerned with guaranteeing men free sexual access to women. Today, it is most certainly succeeding in punishing women and trans people who dare to offer sex that isn’t free.
Tara Burns is the author of Whore Diaries: My First Two Weeks as an Escort and Whore Diaries II: Adventures in Independent Escorting. Follow her on Twitter.