Whore Next Door: Sex and Workplace Safety

Why the Backpage.com prosecution matters for sex workers.

(Photograph by Isabel Dresler/Isabeldresler.com)

On Oct. 25, a small but earnest gathering of sex workers and their allies convened on the steps of the California Supreme Court in San Francisco with signs reading, “Keep your laws off my body” and “Decriminalize sex work NOW.” It took a moment for members of the group to find their rhythm, but by the second round of “No bad women, just bad laws,” they found their momentum — even as Tuesday afternoon business-as-usual bustled past their cries.

To protect their identities, several participants wore wigs, dark sunglasses, and even masks. They were protesting the arrest of Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, who was taken into custody earlier in October on pimping and conspiracy charges. The popular website, which allows users to post ads for everything from used furniture to erotic services, remains live, but several workers have reported having their ads flagged, and worry that further attacks will bankrupt the company and leave vulnerable workers with fewer options once again.

Since the fall of Craigslist’s Erotic Services section in 2010, Backpage has been a crucial tool for sex workers to advertise, screen clients, build community, and work independently. Erotic-services ads on the site are not, and never have been, free, but they were substantially more affordable than other advertising options — which can cost upward of $200 a week.

Just over a year ago, Visa and Mastercard decided to cease doing business with anyone who purchased advertising space with Backpage’s erotic services. This created yet another barrier for sex workers who use online advertising as a way to put valuable and potentially life-saving time and space between themselves and their potential clients.

Since last fall, it has been possible to purchase erotic services ad space only via Bitcoin, ensuring that only those erotic-service providers with at least some working knowledge of crypto-currencies could access the service. This is not the best way to make a life-saving mechanism widely accessible.

Unfortunately, many people, including those at the state and federal levels, conflate the monstrosities of forced sexual labor — often referred to as “trafficking” — with consensual, adult sex work. And by limiting their options, the crackdown on sites like Backpage only puts workers in greater danger.

Though Backpage’s executives don’t face human-trafficking charges, the sex workers who made their voices heard last week had some harsh critiques for Attorney General (and U.S. Senate candidate) Kamala Harris, saying that she is going after a community that is an easy target in order to look tough just before an election.

Backpage is not alone in its plight. Over the past decade, we’ve seen law enforcement target and take down MyRedbook.com, Rentboy.com, and TheReviewBoard.net.

“They’ll come after every single website,” says industry veteran Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP), which helped organize the protest. “They’re not going to stop.”

The Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) has another action and press conference planned for Nov. 16, outside the Sacramento courthouse on the day of Ferrer’s next hearing.

“I am so upset,” SWOP Sacramento’s executive director Kristen DiAngelo said in a press release. “Those who are engaged in survival sex will end up on a street corner, with increased violence and risk if Backpage is taken down.”

The charges against Ferrer set a dangerous precedent for free speech by suggesting that publishers are responsible for the actions of advertisers. Moreover, the charges are predicated upon the criminalization of prostitution. So, while protests are important, Doogan will fight California’s prostitution laws all the way to the Supreme Court, if she has to.

ESPLERP and some 36 other human rights organizations — including the ACLU and Equality California, and even anti-trafficking organization Children of the Night — are moving forward with a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case that could strike down some of California’s existing laws criminalizing people who do sex work.

“The criminalization of prostitution is unconstitutional,” Doogan said at the protest. But it will take more than a dozen protesters and a few handmade signs to make the highest court of our nation see that.

Litigation is incredibly expensive, and Doogan wants to ensure the case is adequately funded so it can have the best chance possible for victory — but at press time, her organization’s crowdfunding campaign was less than 30 percent funded.

“I can’t believe I have to protest just to have a safe workplace,” a sex worker disguised in a white bunny mask shouted into a megaphone.

The entire issue is just that surreal. It’s hard for people to understand, but shutting down the tools that sex workers use to work safely will not protect us.

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