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Defending Backpage, Sex Workers Say Removing Online Ads Does Them More Harm

One woman’s story reveals why recent crackdowns on websites like Backpage, where sex workers post ads, do more harm than good.


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Monroe didn’t get arrested until she started working outside, but she caught six charges after she was forced to start working on the streets of an undisclosed city in California. She was typically charged with loitering with the “intent” to solicit prostitution, a crime that seemed to precede any actual crime and basically amounted to “just being outside in stilettos and booty shorts.” For all the cops knew, Monroe could have just been walking to the store to buy cigarettes in a flashy outfit, but she had a growing rap sheet and fit the profile, so she ended up in handcuffs.

One time, Monroe said, police officers threw her cigarettes on the floor of a hotel room, took all of her money out of her pockets and kept it. They told her she wouldn’t need her belongings “where she was going,” which was, of course, jail.

Monroe’s pimp didn’t treat her any better.

“I had a blade to my throat; I got beat up; I got robbed,” Monroe told Truthout. “Some pimps can look out for you, and that’s good, but some are stupid.”

Trafficking did not magically disappear after MyRedBook shut down.

Monroe, who cannot reveal her real name out of fear of retaliation from her former pimp, said they would be “boxing in the room” if she didn’t bring in at least $1,000 in a night. Making that much money became difficult after law enforcement shut down, an erotic services forum where sex workers and potential clients could meet and review each other.

On MyRedBook, Monroe could book gigs with clients from her home or a hotel room. There was no need to walk the street, where she could be harassed, robbed and arrested. Special forums on MyRedBook allowed erotic service providers to review clients and flag those who were abusive or simply pimps posing as clients to find women to work for them. Monroe had time to sit back and decide whether taking a client was in her best interest.

MyRedBook was used by plenty of consenting adult sex workers and their clients, but the FBI seized and shut down the website in the summer of 2014 amidst allegations that it was also used by sex traffickers to sell women and minors they had forced or coerced into selling sex. (MyRedBook’s operators, Eric Omuro and Annmarie Lanoce, were charged with facilitating prostitution and Omuro with money laundering, but they did not face any charges related to child endangerment or sex trafficking. A federal court in northern California sealed the case from public view.)

Monroe entered the sex business of her own accord, but eventually fell under the control of an abusive and manipulative pimp, so she is considered a survivor of sex trafficking. Human rights and sex worker advocates are quick to point out there is a difference between sex work, which is done by a consenting adult, and sex trafficking, which involves forcing someone to work through coercion or manipulation. Monroe said trafficking did not magically disappear after MyRedBook shut down. In fact, the shutdown put both trafficked people and consenting sex workers at greater risk because Monroe and others like her were forced by their pimps to hustle on the street.

“When [My]RedBook got taken down … I couldn’t post an ad and be safe in a room.”

Monroe said that on the street, she had to charge hundreds of dollars less than she did online, so she took more clients to satisfy her pimp and pay her own bills at home, where she was raising a child as a single mother. All the safety benefits MyRedBook provided – the client reviews, the health and safety forums, the ability to negotiate rates and the use of condoms with clients over the internet instead of in a hurried consultation on a street corner – were gone.

“When [My]RedBook got taken down … I couldn’t post an ad and be safe in a room,” Monroe said. “I had to hop in a car with who knows who.”

Monroe is sharing her story as sex worker advocates rally in defense of, a classifieds website that hosts an adult section for services ranging from body rubs to fetish sessions. Certain anti-trafficking advocates and their allies in law enforcement are putting mounting pressure on Backpage to shut down its adult services section, but sex worker advocates say that will do more harm than good.

Backpage Crackdown

On July 1, two men met an escort at a hotel in Burlington, Massachusetts, and allegedly robbed her at gunpoint. Shortly after midnight, they met another escort, 34-year-old Sanisha Johnson, at a hotel only a few miles away. They allegedly robbed and fatally shot her at close range. Both men were apprehended by police within days of the shooting and charged with robbery and murder.

“When we look at ending trafficking in the sex trade, we need to focus on the lives and needs of those being exploited.”

A local prosecutor said the men “ran a joint venture to rob escorts at gunpoint” and used Backpage to arrange meetings with their victims. The backlash was immediate: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey demanded that Backpage drop its adult services section, calling and the internet “popular vehicles for commercial sexual exploitation.” Both victims were adult escorts, but instead of advocating legal reforms such as decriminalizing prostitution that would allow sex workers to operate more openly and seek help without fear of arrest, Healey switched the conversation to a different issue – sex trafficking.

“Websites that actively facilitate human trafficking should be held liable for this serious and widespread problem in the Commonwealth,” Healey said in a statement. “Backpage is known for advertising commercial sex, and its recent growth and dominant position in the market call into question its supposed efforts to curb prostitution and child exploitation.”

Healey then filed a brief in support of a lawsuit against Backpage, which was filed on behalf of three women who were sold for sex as underage teenagers through ads on the site. The plaintiff’s complaint is a tidy wrap-up of the anti-trafficking movement’s longstanding criticisms of Backpage. It argues not only that the site facilitates sex trafficking, but also that the site’s administrators intentionally botch their own programs aimed at preventing trafficking, to keep revenue from traffickers coming in while convincing law enforcement and the media that Backpage is doing the right thing.

A judge agreed with Backpage and internet freedom advocates and dismissed the lawsuit in May because hosting a classified section for escorts is not illegal. Plus, the judge said, it was pimps who were responsible for the trafficking of the women, not Backpage. The plaintiffs are currently appealing to have the lawsuit reinstated.

As Backpage was making headlines in Massachusetts, Visa and MasterCard announced that they would be pulling their credit networks from the adult services section of the site after coming under pressure from Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the nation’s largest jail, located in Chicago. American Express had already removed its services from the site, and Bitcoin is now the only payment option on Backpage. Advertisers can also buy credits for ads with checks, cash and money orders in the mail.

“It’s the same thing as caregiving – taking care of older people – except people are getting their sexual needs taken care of.”

Backpage has long argued that, under federal law, the website cannot be held liable for posts made by third parties, and the website actively encourages users to report child abuse and sex trafficking to authorities. The company that owns the website, which split from Village Voice Media in 2012 after the parent company came under pressure from anti-trafficking activists, has made few public statements about the recent controversies. After Visa and MasterCard pulled their services, Backpage made more free ads available in the adult section and lowered prices for its premium ads.

Sex workers across the country have rallied in defense of the website, taking to social media and launching petitions to demand that Healey stop her “attack” on the website, and that Visa and MasterCard reinstate their credit services. Sex worker advocacy groups also set up trainings for their members on digital currencies like Bitcoin, but that technology can be challenging for those who have limited access to the internet, according to the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City.

Sex workers commonly run their own websites and blogs and advertise their services on multiple forums that require memberships, but low-income sex workers and those under the control of pimps may not have access to the funds and technology to have such a broad web presence. After Craigslist dropped its adult services section in 2010, Backpage, which offers free ads with upgrades for purchase and is typically more affordable than membership-based sites, became one of the most popular sites to post ads. Advocates argue that cutting web services like Backpage will not stop trafficking. In fact, it has the opposite effect of driving sex workers who can’t afford more expensive web services out into the streets and sometimes, into the hands of traffickers.

Here’s a tweet Truthout received from one sex worker (quoted with permission):

Dart’s office told Truthout that cracking down on Backpage would deter potential traffickers from going into business in the first place. Kristen DiAngelo, an advocate with the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Sacramento, said Dart is using “broken logic” and warned that abruptly cutting off a source of income can be devastating for people in the sex trades who are trying to feed their families.

“[Dart] believes that by impeding [Backpage] from taking MasterCard and Visa, the workers will shift to another site instead of being dumped onto the streets, but the traffickers will be dissuaded?” DiAngelo asks. “How is this so? Are we smarter than them? Or will he then say that they will follow us and then target those sites? If so, what happens to us then?”

DiAngelo is herself a trafficking survivor who worked as a sex worker before online forums like MyRedBook and Backpage changed the landscape of the business. Her own story is a harrowing one. The streets were “hot” one night because the police were targeting sex workers, and DiAngelo accepted a ride from a man she didn’t know in order to avoid arrest. The man kidnapped and physically abused her.

“I think the FBI is completely naive about what’s going on. They took down MyRedBook.”

DiAngelo surveyed sex workers in her community and found that the number of people selling sex on the street increased by 18 percent after the FBI seized MyRedBook. More than half of the street-based workers she surveyed had been raped or assaulted on the job at least once. On the other hand, DiAngelo said, one member of her organization has only booked sex work gigs through the internet and has never had a negative or violent experience.

The Sex Workers Project in New York City points out that Visa and MasterCard’s move also has implications for law enforcement, which commonly use financial and credit card information from Backpage to track down suspected traffickers.

“When we look at ending trafficking in the sex trade, we need to focus on the lives and needs of those being exploited, not make them more vulnerable,” said Crystal DeBoise, director of the Sex Workers Project. “While cutting off ties in the name of anti-trafficking will get Visa and MasterCard some good press, it will ultimately do more harm than good for trafficking victims, investigations and those who rely on the sex industry to meet their very basic economic needs.”

The anti-human trafficking group Polaris Project cheered the credit card companies for “making it more challenging for traffickers to profit off of the exploitation of people,” according to a press release. Truthout repeatedly asked a spokeswoman for the group to respond to those in the sex industry who say that cracking down on Backpage will do more harm than good for both sex workers and trafficking victims, but she did not provide any comments on the issue.

Stuck Between a Pimp and the Police

Back in California, Monroe is trying to find a job and figure out how to use Bitcoins. She said she worked as a caregiver for elderly people for years before she became a sex worker. She was juggling work, school and her duties as a single mother, and she got into the business through a friend to make extra money, but she found that she actually liked sex work. Sometimes her regular clients didn’t even want sex; they just wanted a date to take out to dinner or someone to talk to. Why would cops have a problem with that?

“It’s the same thing as caregiving – taking care of older people – except people are getting their sexual needs taken care of,” Monroe said. “I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t like having a pimp and catching cases.”

The pimp came first. He manipulated Monroe into working with him and threatened to hurt her and her family if she tried to leave. Still, when MyRedBook was up, Monroe was making plenty of money. As it soon as it went down, she said, the pimps “went harder” on all their girls, and Monroe was put out on the street, where she was stuck between her pimp and the police. When she tried to leave her pimp, he tracked her down and beat her up, and she couldn’t find another job to support herself and her daughter because of the charges she racked up.

“It gives us a scarlet letter,” Monroe said of criminal prostitution charges. “Once I got those cases, it ruined my whole life.”

With the help of sex worker advocates, Monroe eventually approached the FBI, which has task forces focused on sex trafficking. She told them she needed a new place to live where the pimp couldn’t find her and a new job to support herself and her daughter, but the FBI agents said they would only provide those resources if she snitched on her pimp and handed him over to authorities, which she refused to do. She knew that pimps don’t stay in jail forever, and he would eventually get out and retaliate against her and her family. Eventually, her pimp spent three days in jail for a traffic violation, and during that time she left town and escaped.

“I think the FBI is completely naive about what’s going on,” Monroe said. “They took down MyRedBook.”

Monroe and her daughter have since moved in with family. She said her criminal cases have prevented her from getting a new job, and sometimes she thinks about placing an ad online, but she is not sure that sex work is worth the risk without MyRedBook. Prices on Backpage are similar to street prices, she said, and Bitcoin is now the only way to get paid up front and digitally.

When asked what she would tell law enforcement and policy makers to do in order to make life safer for both sex workers and those who are trafficked, Monroe said cops should be in the business of protecting people and connecting them to social services, not throwing them in jail and cracking down on the websites that provide them with a livelihood. This only forces the sex trade deeper underground, where it quickly becomes more dangerous for the most vulnerable people in it.

“What they need to do, they need to realize prostitution is never going to stop,” Monroe said. “They just need to leave it alone, and when a girl comes to them when we get raped or robbed, they should come to that call and not blame us for it.”

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