I was appalled to hear of THE ARREST OF BACKPAGE'S CEO this week for pimping. My question is: will the CEO of Craigslist be arrested for murder? The CEO of Angie's List arrested for explotation of labor? MacDonald's for childhood obesity? If these claims sound ridiculous, the Backpage situation should trouble you.
Backpage is a neutral advertising venue used all over the world, both in places where sex work is decriminalized and not. Because of its reach and reasonable cost compared to other sites it is a popular choice for independent providers of all stripes (I've used BP and have friends who swear by it), but most importantly those who are most marginalized and at highest risk of experiencing violence on the job. BP can be the difference between allowing a sex worker to work indoors and screen and having to work outdoors with much greater risk of experiencing violence as well as police harassment and arrest. Here is what was found in A STUDY OF 30 NYC STREET BASED SEX WORKERS:
- All were 19 or older and engaging in work consensually
- 26 reported unstable housing situations
- 17 would prefer to work indoors entirely
- 9 reported threats of violence by police
- 5 reported sexual harassment/assault by police
- All 30 had been arrested at some point for both prostitution and non prostitution offenses
Sounds like criminalizing sex work has had a real positive impact on these people's lives huh? And clearly these people were lying about engaging in work consensually so as not to anger their pimps/traffickers. Let's get the facts straight: shutting down Backpage is not going to stop sex trafficking any more than shutting down Craigslist will stop murder and rape. But it will do these two things that concern me deeply:
1. It will make it harder for marginalized sex workers to work safely and independently, and potentially force them into unsafe situations or ironically into the arms of shady pimps and agencies. Isn't that what we are trying to prevent here?
2. Rather than making trafficking go away, it will make it harder to track. We don't blame credit card companies and banks for tax evasion and embezzlement, but they make those crimes much easier to track and persecute.
So what would I like to see come from this? Ideally I'd like all charges against Carl Ferrer dropped and BP allowed to remain up and running. From there we need to start having a national conversation about sex work and sex trafficking, the difference between the two, and how to help both populations. This conversation should have SWs at the forefront, as we are the ones directly affected and who actually know how Backpage operates. However in a world where the head of a site that provides many women, minorities and transfolks their livelihood gets arrested for crimes he did not commit, I am not optimistic these reasonable goals will be achieved anytime soon. Which is exactly why we must continue to have these conversations anyway.