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Cutting Off Sex Work Advertising Sites Disrupts Communities, Not Trafficking

Shutting down advertising sites used by sex workers silences peer-to-peer harm reduction channels that help sex workers in the absence of formal services and does little to address trafficking.

International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers demonstration, San Francisco, 2010. (Photo: Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

The June 25 seizure of the website MyRedBook (MRB) by the FBI has been heralded by some as another win in the war against a grisly and sophisticated network of child sex traffickers. With CNN headlines like, “FBI Shuts Down Web Site Linked to Child Sex,” and coming on the heels of a sweep of arrests nationwide of “pimps” that were allegedly using the site to advertise children for sex, law enforcement has presented a formidable trump card to those that might question the ethics of the seizure.

But while the FBI and CNN are quick to point out that sexual services were advertised on MRB, they fail to mention that the site also functioned as a critical exchange for sex workers looking to reduce harm and share best practices. This fact and the accessibility of the site as a free source of advertising for sex workers with limited financial resources made it unique among advertising sites for workers in the San Francisco Bay area. Conversations with sex workers and their allies reveal that the seizure has not only cut off a source of income for sex workers, but also a source of information and community. With evidence that working collectively can reduce the risk of HIV infection among workers, muting the voices of an already marginalized community functions to drive the most vulnerable workers further to the margins more than it functions to stop traffickers.

In the popular imagination, and particularly among crusaders committed to criminalizing sex workers and the people who purchase their services, there are two spaces where sex workers can be situated. They are either trafficked girls shackled to beds when they’re not servicing sadistic ghouls, or they are thrill-seeking degenerates blissfully unaware of their privilege or the male privilege of their clients. The former daydreams of a police raid that will liberate her from her waking nightmare while the latter feverishly supports the “Pimp Lobby” from Twitter and lefty conferences hosted in ivory towers when she isn’t brainstorming sex puns for her planned memoirs. The massive gulf of silence between these two caricatures gives space to a convenient narrative that sex work activism is the exclusive purview of the privileged and that the overwhelming majority of sex workers require intervention by benevolent law enforcement agencies.

The exchanges on MRB flew in the face of that narrative as workers from a variety of backgrounds used the site to help each other in the absence of formal resources and even more limited legal recourse to deal with dangerous clients or police abuse. The FBI press release uses scare quotes to describe these “private forums,” perhaps to insinuate that they had more salacious purposes than serving as the decidedly unsexy home base for information on everything from free condoms to non-judgmental hair stylists.

Journalist and author of Playing the Whore Melissa Gira Grant recalls that when she was in San Francisco in the early 2000s, MRB forums often saw more activity than the advertisements did. “It’s a huge loss from a community standpoint,” Grant said in a phone interview, noting that the forums functioned to connect workers from sectors of the sex industry that wouldn’t normally interact and even served as a starting point for activist work.

For many sex workers, both geographic and social isolation caused by factors like limited transportation options and fear of stigma, prevent them from engaging with fellow sex workers in-person. This makes online communities their first and only connection to peers in the industry. Sabrina Morgan, a sex worker rights’ activist in the Bay Area confirmed that the forums were especially useful to workers with limited experience in the sex industry:

Sex workers who were new to the site or to the industry, or in several cases, workers who were moving from street-based work to potentially safer indoor work, would receive advice and safety tips from more experienced workers. It was a safe place to post dangerous client warnings, sting announcements, safer sex and harm reduction workshops, activist meet-ups, even messages asking for community support after a rough day – especially important in a marginalized industry.

Maxine Duggan, an organizer for sex workers, noted that it is these newer workers that are now without networks of clients on whom to rely for work or peers to rely on for information and resources. “They’re the ones that are going to go to the street,” Duggan said in a phone interview. The website for the Sex Worker Outreach Project of the Bay Area posted a statement that notes the importance of engaging with clients online prior to meeting: “Now that the only free local online female sex worker ad hosting site is gone, where will people go to work? We are very concerned for those who may be forced into more dangerous working conditions at this time.”

Programs director Cyd Nova of St. James Infirmary, a clinic serving sex workers in the Bay Area, echoed concerns about street work leading to more street and police harassment. Nova noted in an email that increased access to technology was making it easier for marginalized sex workers to work more safely. “Many of the folks who come into St. James who are homeless or transitionally housed are still advertising online,” Nova said. St. James’ outreach coordinator Mia Tu Mutch explained via phone that regular outreach for sex workers was done through those advertisements to alert workers to available STI screenings, doctors’ appointments and even massages. “What was great about MyRedBook is that it allowed clients, community members and social service organizations to contact people who are in the industry because increased criminalization means that people are no longer accessible via the street outreach we used to do,” Tu Mutch said.

Claims that the ends will justify these remarkably dangerous means in the effort to end trafficking also hold little water when one considers that the seizure and subsequent arrests were not related to child trafficking, but to money laundering and facilitation of prostitution. “The FBI, if they were interested in doing stings against individual workers, they could have done that. But if they’re trying to send a message, that message is, ‘Your work just got more dangerous,'” Grant noted.

And to whom is that message being sent? It is not to the nefarious gaggle of sex work activists occupying the morally panicked public imagination. Those phantoms can advertise on more expensive sites. The message is instead being sent to those that relied on free and informal services because formal services and economies have proven inhospitable time and again. In place of that informal exchange is the terrifying silence of a lifeline cut off at its source, and the even more dangerous isolation that follows.

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