For years, hundreds of thousands of American sex workers have depended on Backpage.com to post advertisements for their services, connect with clientele, and earn the income necessary to pay their bills and feed their families. But as of today, after years of fighting accusations from members of Congress that it facilitated child sex trafficking, the site shut down its adult advertising section.
The site’s disbandment was largely considered a victory for law enforcement and members of the Senate, who believe that Backpage knowingly concealed criminal activity by removing words from their ads that would have exposed child sex trafficking and prostitution. But for the countless sex workers who depended on the site to earn a living, eliminating the platform has endangered their safety, their source of income, and their quality of life.
“This is just another attack in the war against the adult industry,” says Domina Elle, a professional sex worker, BDSM performance artist, and activist in the movement to decriminalize sex work. Domina Elle sees the site’s censorship as a severe violation of the human rights of sex workers. She’s felt painfully silenced in the conversation about how the site’s shutdown could harm workers in her industry, and candidly shared with The Rooster the many threats that they now face.
For years, online advertising has helped prostitutes avoid the dangers of walking the streets to find clients, where they are easier targets for criminals. By meeting online first, sex workers could better weed out customers who seem suspicious. The workers who were advertising on Backpage could now be forced to return to the streets to find customers — putting themselves in danger and losing an important opportunity to vet their clients before meeting them.
What’s worse, Backpage’s shutdown essentially delivers sex workers into the abusing hands of pimps. Under a pimp’s control, a sex worker isn’t free to negotiate the terms of their service. They can no longer establish their own working conditions or control their own wages. But with Backpage, anybody could become their own free agent by posting their ad to a web forum. Pimps were essentially being outsourced by the internet.
In the eyes of erotic service providers, their profession offers the flexible work environment necessary to raise their children and earn a proper wage for their family. “Without it, what can we do?” Domina Elle asks, “Get on welfare, get food stamps, get a part time job? Without a degree, we can’t even find a job that offers us a living wage. This has put so many people in distress, including mothers who just want to give their families a better quality of life,” she says.
But the movement to defend the thousands upon thousands of workers being displaced is aggressively suppressed by powerful public forces. “Government officials, law enforcement agencies, and the faith-based nonprofit organizations that support this action are playing dirty – using unscientific data and false narratives to forward their agenda without question,” explains Domina Elle.
The false narrative Domina Elle describes is an underhanded attempt to abolish prostitution by refusing to differentiate between forced and consensual sex acts. By putting two very different practices under the same umbrella, they’ve successfully morphed public opinion to perceive all sex work as “trafficking” and all sex workers as “victims.”
But this misunderstanding is easy to fall into. The groups who have been pursuing legislation against sex workers have a very effective tactic at their disposal – something Domina Ella calls “trauma porn.” Essentially, a few senators will find one victim of human trafficking. They’ll bring this broken soul before a congressional hearing, where they’ll share their traumatic story and bring the representatives to tears. The result is unanimous bipartisan agreement: the legislation is passed.
Domina Elle explains, “Of course people are going to react to a case involving an underage person being exploited. This has been their tactic from day one. The truth of the matter is that none of these government officials or organizations have an evidence-based gauge for what the scope of sex trafficking really is.
But it only takes one case to pull at everyone’s heartstrings. Totally ignored in the discussion are tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people who are not trafficked and who have used Backpage for years to establish a safe means of working independently. These people have rent to pay, children to feed, tuition to pay, etc. and now are being hugely negatively impacted. Many don’t have a safety net and live month to month or even day by day.
Apparently, driving thousands of people and their families into homelessness and desperate circumstances is merely collateral damage those representatives who voted for this action are willing to write off.”
But while the loss of Backpage is a temporarily devastating blow to many sex workers, the silver lining lies in the inherent nature of the internet. When a site is shut down, two more sites exactly like it will pop up. Law enforcement and legislators bent on destroying online adult advertising now find themselves in an endless game of internet whack-a-mole that’s always rigged against them. In other words, the death of Backpage certainly will not be the demise of online adult advertising.
It’s true that Backpage edited their adult advertisements to remove illicit phrases. The site had an automated ad-filtering system that deleted numerous terms such as “teenage,” “amber alert” and “school girl” that might suggest the person being advertised was underage. But was it so malicious for the site to prohibit the explicit advertisement of minors? On the contrary, it was essential.
And if Backpage truly did have an abundance of child sex ads, the site could have been used as a tool to find these victims, who would otherwise be on the street or on other websites that are more difficult to monitor.
“This isn’t only an issue regarding sex trafficking,” says Domina Elle. “This is an issue of human rights for the countless erotic service providers who have been surviving by using Backpage to offer their consensual services. While addressing trafficking is an important task, the lives and well-being of sex workers should be no less important.”
“But in attempting to help a handful of people, they’re harming thousands more,” laments Domina Elle. Of course, the legislators who shut down Backpage likely think they’re supporting the greater good. But, as they say: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.