Backpage dot com was one of a kind website. In case you’re unfamiliar, the website, which is now defunct (RIP), was a venue by which adult entertainers could advertise. In April of 2018, shortly before the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), the Backpage website was seized by the federal government and permanently shut down. This decision by the government has had a hauntingly residual effect on sex workers all over the United States which has reverberated to this very day.
The federal government is ultimately responsible for the failed trafficking policy that resulted in the shutdown of Backpage and the displacement of countless numbers of adult industry professionals. So what happened with the Backpage shutdown and why was it a watershed moment in sex workers’ lives? Though SESTA and the shutdown of Backpage were technically separate events, they were very much inspired by the same prostitution “abolitionist” rhetoric. The kind that says all prostitution, or adult industry work, is inherently exploitative. Anti-trafficking nonprofits have heavy influence on US public policy and are very much often based in Christian evangelical anti-sex work ideology. They have an agenda and that agenda is to abolish sex industry work in all of it’s forms. They use the front of being anti-trafficking organizations, and while they probably are indeed against trafficking, they are also against people having the right to freely choose to work in the sex industry as well.
After Backpage was seized by the feds in April 2018, many things changed in the lives of American sex workers. Particularly low income sex workers, survival sex workers and sex workers of color who were undoubtedly all disproportionately effected by the displacement that the shutdown caused. Backpage was sort of a great equalizer in terms of adult websites in that the fees for posting an ad were usually very nominal, and for a while they didn’t even charge anything for a posting. Backpage was, more or less, accessible in ways many other sites that have come since are not. The rationale for the federal shutdown was that criminals were allegedly using the site to traffic underage girls. A popular red herring in public discourses on sex trafficking. Not that sex trafficking of minors doesn’t happen online - of course it does. But the point is that the answer to getting rid of sex trafficking is not to conflate adult, consensual sex work with sex trafficking of children (or adults). The answer is far more complex.
The result of this conflation has been catastrophic to communities of erotic service professionals all over the US. What ended up happening right away after the shutdown is that a large portion of online sex workers were displaced to the streets. Street based sex work, as evidenced by this report from the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center is in many ways much more dangerous than indoor sex work and putting more sex workers on the streets means higher chances of targeting by law enforcement, which Trans women of color often bear the brunt of.
Working online has several advantages that the streets don’t provide. For one, it allows for better screening and safer means of rejecting a potential client. One of the biggest plus sides to Backpage was there were always clients to be had, and business was usually good for most. This means sex workers using Backpage were able to be more selective in accepting clientele. After the BP shutdown, some people lost their whole livelihoods overnight, leaving those folks impoverished and desperate. A most dangerous combination. It took some time before anything really substantial came along that even came close to taking the place of Backpage, and most sex workers agree that to this day nothing comparable exists.
The shutdown and de-platforming of sex workers on Backpage disenfranchised an untold number people. The double whammy that was BP shutdown on April 6th, 2018 and the passage of SESTA on April 11th, 2018 has been devastating to the community in ways many of us still have not been able to fully recover from. The sad truth is that conflating adult, consensual sex work with sex trafficking gets us no closer to solving the human issue of sex trafficking. While it’s tempting to grab towards the brass ring of an easy fix, these are the kinds of sweeping policy decisions that put peoples lives in danger. Not taking complexity into account is dangerous for sex workers and trafficking survivors. The real answer to the societal ill of sex trafficking is much less quick and easy and involves a lot of grassroots advocacy and government policy work related to confounding issues in sex trafficking like poverty, racism, houselessness, homophobia, transphobia and sexism. As soon as we can embrace complexity and hold sex work and sex trafficking as two searate but interconnected issues, we will be stuck with policy decisions that leave our community out in the cold, just like the Backpage shutdown has.