Backpage, Commercial Sex and Women's Rights

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April was a big month in the sex industry. Backpage WAS an online site (like Craigslist) that was largely used to sell sex (an online sex marketplace). The New York Times reported that by 2014, Backpage brought in $135 million in revenue with affiliates spanning the globe. In 2016, Texas and California authorities raided the company’s Dallas headquarters and arrested chief executive Carl Ferrer and other former company executives on pimping-related charges. The judge in the case ruled the website was protected by the First Amendment, and it was not liable for the speech of third parties. In 2017, three young women brought a lawsuit against the company accusing Backpage of facilitating their forced prostitution.  But, on April 6, 2018 U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies shut down after many years of complaints and finally an all out investigation where criminal charges of human trafficking brought the house down.  “California's attorney general, Kamala Harris, says that Backpage was ‘purposefully and unlawfully designed’ as an online brothel. Her office alleges that the ‘vast majority’ of Backpage's profits come from fees paid by users posting ads in the "adult" section.”

Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, an anti-slavery group that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline said, “Shutting down the largest online U.S. marketplace for sex trafficking will dramatically reduce the profitability of forcing people into the commercial sex trade, at least in the short term”. 

You could practically hear abolitionists rejoicing everywhere on April 6th. Anti-trafficking orgs, social justice ministries, and concerned individuals shared and reposted the exciting news of Backpage’s shutdown. But the next day, another voice rose up, and it came from women, mainly the voice of feminist, politically left, white women. I’m talking about The Women’s March.

On April 7, 2018, the day after Backpage was seized,  The Women’s March, tweeted: “The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women’s rights. Follow @SafeSpacesDC @melissagira @swopusa @KateDAdamo @supporthosechi @anaorsomething for more info.”  

Five days after this Backpage endorsement, CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, pled guilty to money laundering, facilitating prostitution in Texas, and human trafficking.

But many pro-sex work advocates are saying that the human trafficking narrative and abolitionist movement is a conservative sham that harms women. For 20 years, Laura Agustin, an author who studies the field of sex work and trafficking, told The Motherboard, an online media magazine,  “There's no federal prostitution law, but US authorities can use trafficking law to hunt people down,” meaning investigations can be done under federal human trafficking laws, while the actual charges are brought under state prostitution laws. “However, trafficking offences are hard to prosecute. Facilitating prostitution is easy. Thus the charges are made in states where prostitution is illegal.” Trafficking is often used as a “social justice facade,” she said.

There is no doubt that women in the commercial sex industry have rights, and indeed they are human rights because all humans have rights now matter what they “do”. And yes, some workers we know through the ministry of JSL, have told us, they used Backpage (along with many other online apps) to sell sex and contact clients safely.  So for the women who are choosing to engage in prostitution through Backpage, its shutdown created a bind. 

However, the crisis isn’t that Backpage shut down, the crisis isn’t even that Backpage was a platform for prostitution AND human trafficking. The crisis is that we are living in a culture where both women and men can sell their bodies for cash, and that many are calling it “okay”. 

There is absolutely a difference between prostitution and human sex trafficking. Is there a correlation? Certainly. Is it difficult, especially in an adult victim who’s been in the “life” for years, to know how to define “force, fraud or coercion” into the sex industry? Absolutely.  Are there women who call themselves strippers, prostitutes, and adult escorts who are also trafficking victims? Yes. Are there women who were pimped out at a young age, broke away from their pimp and chose to “work for themselves” by becoming a prostitute, stripper, escort, or pimp themselves? Indeed. But, there are also women who claim to like being purchased for sex and enjoy what they do. For these women, the shutting down of Backpage has imposed a problem. 

I received a message from one woman who told me, “Emily, now that Backpage has shut down I have no choice, I have no hope, I will be broke and have no money. Guess I’ll have to go find a pimp and work the streets. That is my only option.”

I reminded her that she had a choice and that we were here to help. That selling her body for sex is, in fact, an illegal act in our state and she didn’t “have” to do it. But what are her options? I will tell you. Last year she tried to leave prostitution and when she was released from jail, getting sober, and ready for life change she had a slew of hurdles to jump. She had been involved with some really violent people, she was also violent herself and racked up an assault charge and a charge of a terroristic threat. All forms of her identification had been stolen. She needed a job so we helped her to find one (talk about pulling strings), but she was severely overweight and could not handle being on her feet all day long. She found a willing friend to live with because she didn’t qualify for many shelters or recovery homes due to her violent charges, and she had zero documentation to apply for housing. She was also smoking weed daily which booted her out of the one place she could have applied to live. She didn’t want to go to rehab. She broke down to me, “I’m used to doing my make-up and lying in a bed all day long, I’m not made for this kind of work. This sucks. I don’t want to do it. Adulting is too hard. Plus, this minimum wage job is shit, I am used to making $200 an hour.” So, she quit her legal job. She didn’t want a back brace, new shoes, or a new bra that would give her back support. She didn’t want to lose weight, she wanted to return to the life: smoke and sell sex all day from a hotel room. And she did. Now that Backpage has shut down, she is back at square one.

I learned that she was orphaned at an early age and her adoptive family never “got” her. She rebelled early on but said that she had a hunger for spiritual things. Her family was conservative, church going, but eventually cut her off because of her choice to use drugs. The sex industry was appealing because she could make quick money to fund her habit. It doesn’t take long for the line between who you are and what you’re doing become blurred, it can for anyone in any job. But the implications of identifying yourself as a human commodity does something different on the psyche, the soul.  

1978, the year I was born, the term “sex worker” was coined by Carol Leigh, a.k.a The Scarlot Harlot and author of “Unrepentant Whore”. Coining the term sex work was a pro-sex work movement to help legitimize the industry. It argues that using the term “sex worker” rather than “prostitute” shows ownership over the individual’s career choice. That sex work is different than sexual exploitation, whereby a person is coerced into committing sex acts. 

Some people use the term sex worker to avoid invoking the stigma associated with the word prostitute. Using the term sex worker also encompasses a variety of occupations rather than deeming all people in the sex industry prostitutes. In addition, it is argued that choosing to use the term sex worker rather than prostitute shows agency in the career choice. This movement to legitimize the sex industry is pushing to legalize prostitution, claiming to make it safer for women. 

But here’s my issue with legalizing sex work or prostitution: even if we deem it an acceptable choice, regulate it, and destigmatize it, in the end, prostitution still harms women, and therefore all of us. Why? We have tried this. Prostitution, from ancient to modern times, has been legalized then criminalized, stigmatized and even spiritualized through temple prostitution - all to serve the lopsided system of patriarchy. Name one society that has thrived by legalizing prostitution. Tell me how girls’ education and sexual assault stats are doing in that country, city, and community. Tell me how STD’s, infertility, and reproductive cancers are going. Tell me how mental health issues related to women are faring. Talk to me about poverty and who is at the bottom. Tell me about drug addiction and drug crimes. Talk to me about California and the porn industry and the nightmare they are currently in as they are attempting to regulate it (not to mention STD rates among girls 15-25). Or let’s take a look at modern city who legalized brothels and is now in a societal collapse: Amsterdam. “The Dutch legalised their brothel industry in the year 2000. The government promised that this would result in safety for the women and put an end to trafficking. It claimed that everything would be above board, safe, and clean. The opposite happened. Sex tourism is now a major industry, with British men being one group of Europeans visiting the city to pay for sex. A number of punters I have interviewed told me that they wouldn’t have dreamt of using prostituted women back home, but that being in Holland gave them permission to do it.” 

I think about my daughters, their generation already culturally conditioned to believe that their body is an object for sex. What if I told them that while an education is of some value, the way they’ll make the most money in the future has everything to do with their anatomy?  What if this entire time that I have been telling them not compare themselves to Kim Kardashian, not to worry about their thigh gap, make-up, hair, social media; but instead to focus on her mind and heart?  What if a decent living in their future relies on sex work?  What if all the women who have grown their brains, earned degrees, run companies, created businesses, fought in court and in pulpits, or pounded the pavement of their communities to serve in public office were told by our culture: “Actually, you’ll make more selling your body.” 

Who does this serve? Men, but only the short site, not in the long run. It would be a regressive step for women and all of humanity, not progressive. Our eyes need to be watching The Netherlands (Amsterdam), Dominican Republic, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Spain. These countries have some form of legalized prostitution and are top sex tourism spots, their economic structures are largely influenced by the sex industry. What is the condition of women in these countries? Do they have political agency? 

As long as sex is for sale, there will be women in need of services, and Jesus Said Love will be about meeting those needs as best we can. We don’t judge a woman for “why” she “chose” this line of work - we look at the context of those choices to see more clearly. When a woman wants out, we want to provide a path and help undo what’s usually been done to her over and over again. I know this to be true, of all the women we work with and learn from, none of them believe that sex work is their best life. All of them believed or still believe, it’s just what they have to do to make ends meet. Where is the power in this choice? 

As we look to the future for JSL and our women, we will continue to stand for women in the industry but against the sale of our bodies as commodities. After 15 years of walking with women in the industry, we still aren’t convinced sex for sale is beneficial to anyone in the long run. 

Read more on the Backpage case at this article by The Washington Post and this article from Texas Attorney General's office.  

Emily Mills
JSL Founder and CIO