Sex workers across the globe say Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart and two major credit card companies just made their jobs more difficult and potentially dangerous.
Last week, Dart, whose jurisdiction includes Chicago, convinced Visa and MasterCard to stop processing credit card payments for adult services on Backpage.com, a site frequently used by workers in the sex industry to find and screen clients, share safety information and advertise a variety of services ranging from traditional escorting to fetish sessions and body rubs.
Dart claims the effort is part of a crackdown on illegal businesses run by sex traffickers who "prey on the weak and vulnerable." But people who work in the sex trades say that web services like Backpage allow workers to avoid pimps and abusive clients in the first place.
In letters to top officials at Visa and MasterCard, Dart wrote that the use of credit cards in the "violent" sex industry "implies an undeserved credibility and sense of normalcy" to illegal transactions and increases the demand for "women and girls" who are often supplied through "coercion and violence."
Citing corporate policies that prohibit the use of their credit networks for illegal activities, Visa and MasterCard both announced that they would discontinue processing transactions for Backpage within days of receiving the letters. American Express had already cut its credit network off from Backpage.
The announcements outraged sex workers from New Jersey to Australia and not just because they lost a convenient way to get paid. Web forums like Backpage, they argue, allow adult sex workers to discuss safety tips, rate and screen clients, and find work without walking the streets.
"These efforts are misguided and will cause significantly more harm to those in the sex trade, including trafficked individuals,” said Kristen DiAngelo, a trafficking survivor and advocate with the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) in Sacramento, California.
Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking
Backpage is structured much like Craigslist and includes classified sections for selling goods and finding roommates, but Dart claims that its primary revenue stream comes from the "trafficking industry" that uses the site's adult services section to market women and girls who are often under the control of violent traffickers.
"Backpage has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for would-be sex traffickers, giving them easy access to millions of johns while cloaking them in anonymity and putting all risk on the shoulders of their victims," Dart said in a statement. "Raising that barrier will lead to less would-be sex traffickers entering the business and ultimately fewer victims."
Advocates for sex workers, however, say Dart is doing exactly what human rights groups have warned law enforcement against for years - lumping sex trafficking, which involves a trafficker manipulating or coercing someone into selling sex, in with prostitution deals between consenting adults.
"It's a common conflation, backed by the idea that women are such brainless, innocent creatures, we're unable to have sex for reasons other than pleasure or romance; the idea of actually profiting from men's desire to have sex with us would never enter our fluffy, pink little brains," wrote former sex worker and blogger Maggie McNeill in a response to Dart, published at Reason.com.
Advocates like McNeill claim that prostitution among consenting adults is much more common than sex trafficking, and data from Dart's office appears to back that claim up, at least in the Chicago area. The Cook County Sheriff's Department reports it has made more than 800 arrests since 2009 of alleged prostitutes and their clients in sting operations set up with fake ads on Backpage, but officers only made about 50 arrests for sex trafficking, involuntary servitude or promoting prostitution in the same time period, including one arrest for child sex trafficking made last month.
The illicit sex industry exists as a black market, so there is little reliable data on the number of trafficked individuals versus those who are selling sexual services of their own volition, and an arresting officer may interpret a situation differently than, say, a human rights advocate.
Ben Breit, a spokesman for Dart's office, said the department does not want to wade into a debate over the numbers or legalizing prostitution. He said that women arrested in Sheriff Dart's Backpage stings are offered counseling and services like substance abuse treatment and are rarely incarcerated, and the Cook County jail holds group therapy sessions for a number of women who have been traumatized by sex traffickers but were jailed for other minor crimes such as drug possession and theft.
"We are staying laser-focused on the traffickers themselves," Breit said.
More Harm Than Good
Advocates say that chipping away at web services like Backpage, however, could actually drive people with few options for survival, beyond selling sex, into the hands of traffickers instead of operating independently.
"This policy effectively disenfranchises thousands of sex workers across the country who do not have access to any other means of online advertising," said Lindsay Roth of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. "Those who may have worked independently prior to the policy change may now have to rely on third parties, including traffickers, in order to meet their needs."
Similar concerns were raised last year when federal authorities seized and shut down MyRedBook.com, an erotic services forum that, in addition to providing affordable space for adult sex workers and potential clients to meet and review each other, allegedly hosted ads for trafficked minors. Anti-sex trafficking activists cheered the website's demise, but sex workers lamented the loss of a free tool for finding safe clients while flagging pimps and abusive clients on MyPinkBook, a private part of the website used only by sex workers.
Similar services on other sites are only available for a fee, but the "bad-client list" on MyRedBook was free and well known among sex workers who used the forum as an avenue to look out for each other.
"There was safety in there, and it was free," DiAngelo told Truthout. "It was truly a service that helped keep people safe."
In addition, outreach workers at health centers like St. James Infirmary in San Francisco that often cater to people who sell sex for survival said that forums on MyRedBook provided a crucial platform to reach out to those in need.
"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," St. James Infirmary Outreach Coordinator Mia Tu Mutch told Truthout last year.
After holding a conference call with several sex workers who said they were "out of a job" and had "nowhere to turn" without MyRedBook, DiAngelo and SWOP Sacramento surveyed 44 local street-based sex workers and found that 18 percent had returned to working on the streets after the website was seized.
Working on the streets can be dangerous, and more than half of those surveyed by DiAngelo reported being raped and beaten on the job. The internet, on the other hand, provides a barrier between sex workers and potential clients, giving workers a chance to evaluate potential risks before taking a gig.
"I don't think people actually understand the dynamics of what happens on the street," DiAngelo said. "You have 60 seconds to assess whether this person is going to harm you or not. If you talk for too long, something is going to happen or you are going to lose them."
DiAngelo said that pimps and traffickers did not go out of business after MyRedBook shut down. Instead, they forced those working for them to find clients on the street.
"A website cannot create an abuser," DiAngelo said.
The risk of experiencing violence is multiplied for workers who belong to other marginalized groups, according to Derek Demetri of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, a group of activists and allies that fight for the human rights of sex workers. The group reports that the seizure of MyRedBook caused a spike in street-based sex work on the East Coast as well, and the loss of payments options on Backpage could have similar impacts.
"[Visa's and Mastercard's decision] will especially impact women of color, queer youth, transgender women and immigrants who will no longer have access to web-based safety tools like client screening," Demetri said.
Breit dismissed the idea that cracking down on Backpage would force both sex workers and trafficking victims into risky situations and could even make it easier for sex traffickers to recruit people who had previously used the website to find clients independently.
"I think that is a point we are going to have to agree to disagree on," said Breit, who added that that removing credit card services from Backpage would ideally make it more difficult for traffickers to enter the sex trade.
Sex worker advocates say there are better ways to combat sex trafficking than shutting down web services that sex workers rely on.
"If there is a genuine desire to end human trafficking, then there needs to be a focus on key factors that increase vulnerability to trafficking," said Kate D'Adamo a policy advocate at the Sex Workers Project in New York. Among those factors, D'Adamo listed youth homelessness, lack of access to public services and rampant youth unemployment.
Initiatives to address homelessness and unemployment among people who sell sex receive less media attention than sensational stories of sexual exploitation used by anti-trafficking groups to fuel their large-scale fundraising initiatives and push policy agendas centered around police intervention, which often results in human rights violations and unnecessary incarceration, according to international human rights groups. As Truthout has reported, some high-profile sex trafficking tales (along with their victims' "rescues") later turned out to be fabrications.
Sex workers and their allies are currently circulating an open sign-on letter to Visa and MasterCard requesting that the companies "appeal to reason" and reconsider their decision to pull services from Backpage. In the meantime, Bitcoin, the open-source internet currency, is the only way to pay for adult services on Backpage.