In an enforcement action that represents the culmination of a years-long battle by federal and state prosecutors to stop sex workers from operating openly on the Internet (under the guise of “fighting sex trafficking”), a coalition of federal law enforcement agencies on Friday shut down backpage.com, the most popular website for peddling “adult services” in the US.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the site began shutting down Friday morning as FBI agents shuttered affiliated sites around the world. A notice published on Backpage said it had been seized by the FBI, Postal Inspection Service and the IRS, according to the LA Times.
Federal agents raided the Sedona, Ariz., home of Michael Lacey, a Backpage co-founder. Investigators had discovered that, despite selling their interest in the site to a foreign company, the company’s co-founders still maintained control through a network of shell companies.
Last month, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a law that holds the operators of websites criminally liable for the actions of their users. The law was vehemently opposed by the ACLU, which said it would hold the operators of these websites to an impossible standard. Before that, the state of California had tried to bring criminal charges against the site, but was stymied by the Communications Decency Act, which prevented state authorities from going after the site.
Despite that, the bill – which was supported by a coalition of anti-sex trafficking groups – was passed into law. In the weeks that followed, Craigslist voluntarily shut down its personals section (the company had previously shuttered an erotic services section back in 2010, under pressure from states’ attorneys general).
The takedown of Backpage (and the probable impending indictment of its owners) is perhaps the last gasp for sex workers hoping to operate “indoors” using the Internet. Instead, many will be forced back into the street, where data collected by researchers universally shows their rates of violence and death are much higher.
In an op-ed published by the LA Times back in February – back when the debate of FOSTA was still raging – Alison Bass, author of a book about sex workers, argued that the crackdown on websites serving as a venue for sex workers was harmful to the workers, while doing little to combat sex trafficking – which is the whole point of the crackdown.
Bass uses the example of thereviewboard.net, a website where sex workers posted advertisements and clients reviewed their services. Following a police raid, the people operating the site were arrested and charged with promoting prostitution – a felony charge.
The site was shut down under the auspices of fighting sex trafficking – but there’s scant evidence sex traffickers were actively using the site. Instead, it robbed local sex workers of a tool to better screen clients and avoid dangerous environments like strangers’ vehicles and the streets.
There’s one big problem with that narrative: There’s little evidence that these web sites abet sex trafficking. But we do know that shutting them down these makes life more dangerous for sex workers.
The ability to advertise online allows sex workers to more carefully screen potential customers, negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms), and work indoors. Researchers conclude that when sex workers can’t advertise online, they are often forced to work on the street, where they are more likely to encounter violent clients. They also are more likely be dependent on exploitative pimps to find customers.
“Now these women have one less safe advertising venue,” Savannah Sly, a Seattle sex worker and president of Sex Workers Outreach Project, said after thereviewboard.net was shuttered. Ditto for the sex workers who advertised on Rentboy.com, myRedbook.com and Backpage.com. “What the removal of these advertising sites do is remove low-risk clients from the client pool,” Sly added. “And because you have reduced demand, you’re more likely to agree to see the guy who is more dangerous.”
That appears to be what happened in Sweden, after that country made it illegal to purchase sex services (but not to provide them) in 2000. Sex workers there were exposed to more violent clients when they lost many of their regular low-risk clients. Transactions with remaining clients also became more rushed, so sex workers had less time and ability to negotiate safe sex and assess potentially dangerous clients.
The closure of Backpage represents the death blow to sex workers operating more or less openly on the Internet. Those who can’t find work with an established high-end escort service (something that not all sex workers have the “look” for) will be forced back onto the street.