On Tuesday, I woke up to some terrible news. Backpage, a text-based classified ad service not unlike Craigslist, had just finally shuttered its adult services section. Though the news wasn't exactly a shock, given that Backpage's CEO had been arrested for pimping last October, it was still a harsh blow for any sex worker who'd been reliant on new business from the website. Like, for instance, my friend Bella Vendetta.
By her own admission, Vendetta, a lifestyle and professional dominatrix based in New England, isn't the type of sex worker one associates with Backpage. Over email, she told me that other pro dommes have been surprised to learn about her ads there, saying that "they thought I was somehow higher caliber than the new Craigslist [Erotic Services]."
Backpage ads have never been classy: with their limited text and headline first approach, they force sex workers to cater to their clients' baser instincts. Unlike glossy alternatives such as Slixa (which, full disclosure, sponsored a burlesque show I produced a few years back), where ads feel more like dating profiles than escort listings, Backpage's offerings aren't particularly upscale. (For a better sense of what I mean, check out some of the listings at Backpage Canada, where the adult section is still in operation.)
But for sex workers advertising on Backpage, the service's shortcomings have never really mattered. The value Backpage offered sex workers was far greater than any sleek and polished ad: cheap listings, high volume of potential clients, and plenty of new business. Since the shuttering of Craigslist Erotic Services in 2010, Backpage became one of the best known sites for anyone looking to secure a sex worker. And though that notoriety meant users had to sift through a higher percentage of time wasters and cheapskates, it also meant a whole bunch more business than many competing sites could offer, all for just a few bucks an ad.
For Domme Discordia, Backpage has consistently been the one site where the return on investment was sufficient to support her expensive vocation. "I've had an active ad for real time sessions in the BDSM section of Backpage in my area for the past five years," she told me, noting that "I also took out Backpage ads in cities where I planned on traveling."
"I paid extra for auto-repost and a sponsored ad every time, because it was totally worth it," she continued. "There was never any worry over whether a Backpage ad would be a good investment. It was super affordable, had tons of traffic, and the tribute for booking just one session would cover the advertising cost many times over."
People using Backpage for survival sex work are the least likely to have the resources and ability to put together a backup plan
Client volume and cheap ads weren't the only thing Backpage brought to the table. It also made it easier for small town escorts to get into the game. Over at Slixa, sex workers can post ads in just 46 cities (and just over 30 states); while Eros is a bit more widespread, it still doesn't have the same coverage as Backpage. (Neither Eros nor Slixa has any coverage in Alaska. In contrast, Backpage offers listings for Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and the Kenai Peninsula.)
Ann Arbor, the home base of Bex, a trans sex worker I spoke with, doesn't make Slixa's cut. The closest city is Detroit, where posting an ad brings complications beyond just extra travel time. As a white trans woman doing sex work in Ann Arbor, Bex is something of a rarity. On Backpage she could just pay for an ad and wait until it expired, without ever worrying about paying to bump it back to the top of the page. Interested clients were able to find her through that unicorn status alone. In a larger market, she's more likely to get lost in the shuffle, making it harder (or at least more expensive) to secure the seven to fifteen clients per month she relied on to cover many of her essential expenses.
Bex at least has a day job to fall back on, albeit an underpaying one. Others aren't so lucky. And while it may be tempting to say that Backpage users should have seen this day coming—the government wasn't particularly covert about its investigation of the site's adult sections—people using Backpage for survival sex work are the least likely to have the resources and ability to put together a backup plan. If Backpage was just barely covering your day-to-day expenses, setting aside a few hundred bucks to test the waters on other, less-trafficked sites can seem like a decadent luxury rather than basic business sense.
Amidst the voices of panic and sex workers struggling to figure out their next move, I did hear from one person who's holding out hope that this story might result in a positive outcome for sex workers. Though Toronto-based escort Rebecca Winter doesn't want to minimize the very real hardship faced by Backpage users, particularly those in the unenviable situation of figuring out how to pay rent or heating bills in the midst of a brutal winter, she's hopeful that this shut down could spark the rise of a site that offers sex workers something even better than Backpage.
"Perhaps a site like Slixa that's run by women?" she suggested. "Perhaps a site run by sex workers as a not for profit to support sex worker health initiatives such as STI testing, abortion access, and birth control?"
Only time will tell if Winter's optimism is warranted. But even if the sex work community doesn't coalesce around some utopian, sex worker-first site, it will coalesce around something. The shuttering of Craigslist Casual Encounters didn't end the sex industry, and neither will the end of Backpage Adult. The demand for sex work is strong enough to sustain the industry, even in the face of repeated government crackdowns. The tragedy is how many vulnerable, marginalized sex workers are rendered casualties in the ongoing war between the Department of Justice and the world's oldest profession.