Isn’t the Problem, Say Sex Workers

Sex workers are anti sex-trafficking. It seems obvious (of course they have an interest in making the industry as safe as possible), and yet you might not know this because sex workers rights activists have not gotten any air-time from the major anti-trafficking organizations.

The recent sex-trafficking controversy surrounding Village Voice Media owned (a website where escorts can advertise their services) reached a peak this weekend. About a hundred people showed up to protest the Village Voice offices with signs like “Village Voice: Stop Profiting from Sex Trafficking.” It was discovered that a number of escorts advertising on the site were minors. Anyone under 18 working in the sex industry is understood to be a victim of trafficking — both generally and by New York law.

But what about those of age who work on Backpages? Actually, they were there. SWOP NYC (Sex Workers Outreach Project) passed out pink fliers and tried to engage with the other protesters about their stance. Sex workers have a voice, and yet when it comes to the issue of sex trafficking they remain largely unheard.

In many ways the sex workers have the same goals as the other protesters, namely to end exploitation and violence especially against minors in the sex trade. But they believe in different tactics. “We believe that closing Backpage will lead to sex traffickers scattering to smaller sites that aren’t monitored by a full-time staff like Backpage is. Closing Backpage will result in less ability to monitor the sex trade in NYC, not more, which is how sex trafficking is prevented” says Sarah Elspeth-Patterson a Community Organizer of SWOP NYC.

The fear is that shutting down advertising sites will make it harder for people to engage is safe sex work. Elspeth-Patterson points out that it is often underprivelged sex workers who are using, because they can’t afford to advertise on their own. They may then be pushed into even more unregulated venues and unsafe environments. Losing the ability to conduct sex work online also means losing the ability to screen clients beforehand. As well as the important electronic trail which can be key to hunting down a perpetrator if a sex worker is attacked.

Allison, 26, uses Backpage to advertise for erotic massage. “It’s scary, you know? All this media attention on Backpage. I can’t really afford to use the other paid sites for my massage stuff, which I do on top of another job. After my hours were cut back last year, this is the only way I can make ends meet. I really don’t know what I’ll do if they get rid of it. It makes me worried about getting more work safely.”

“We are all against trafficking” says Kate D’Adamo a SWOP NYC community organizer. “And Backpage has a full time staff dedicated to screening, and works with the Center for Exploited Children to report anyone they consider in danger of being exploited. Losing that link would mean even more challenges in finding victims of exploitation.”

But companies are already pulling out. Two days ago Goldman Sachs dumped a 16% share in Backpage, and according to Reuters, a private equity firm is selling its holdings because of the controversy. Simultaneously, a Virginia representative called for the criminal prosecution of Backpage and a new law in Washington state that seeks to ID all escorts. This seems like a step in the right direction, but as Tracy Clark Flory writes in Salon, it may have too many loop-holes to be effective. “Backpage could institute in-person age verification for its adult section, but what if covert escort ads pop up in the personals? (That’s what happened when Craigslist closed its ‘erotic services’ section.)… As any rebellious teenager knows, IDs are relatively easy to fake. What’s more, it seems possible for traffickers to do a bait and switch – use an adult’s ID for the check and then sell a minor.”

Elspeth-Patterson says that in many ways shutting down BackPages is just a smoke-screen. “What really needs to happen is tackling youth homelessness in NYC in a compassionate and competent way. To end the exploitation and violence against youth in the sex trade in New York City, you need to give them basic needs, like food and shelter. When you don’t do that, youth are left highly vulnerable to exploitation and violence in any form. Closing Backpage will in no way address these issues, but it will make it seem as though councilman and politicians are addressing these issues.”

According to a 2008 census almost 4,000 homeless youth live in New York City. And according to the Ali Forney campaign funding from the city and state has provided enough money for only 200 beds. And there continue to be proposed budget cuts for these shelters.

SWOP and other sex worker advocacy groups have ideas around what could actually help trafficking. SWOP suggest that those who want to help trafficking look to organizations that are already helping youth like Safe Horizon and Streetwise and also, just to listen. “Sex workers are people, too, and sex work is a very necessary form of labor for many people” says Elspeth-Patterson. “Backpage is not an advertising platform that affluent workers use, it’s a platform that is accessible for people who can’t spend a lot on advertising. No one has asked workers what would happen to them (or their families) if they couldn’t advertise there.”