Are sex workers who engage in prostitution criminals? Technically, yes: In most of the United States, prostitution is considered a crime, and workers who sell sexual services—even, in many states, underage workers—are subject to arrest. But more and more law enforcement personnel argue instead that sex workers are victims, and that the real criminals are pimps and traffickers.
Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, is one such law enforcement officer who's driving this shift in perspective. Dart, a former prosecutor and legislator, has long maintained that websites advertising adult services, such as the Dutch-owned Backpage.com, provide a haven for traffickers and pimps. “You cannot operate a business that its primary function is to facilitate prostitution and trafficking,” Dart told me. “It’s recklessly irresponsible, and people are getting hurt.”
After unsuccessful lawsuits against the site, he devised a plan to damage Backpage's business model by appealing to credit card companies: He sent letters to Mastercard and Visa informing them that ad purchases on Backpage.com were funding adult services, and both companies announced this week that they would end transactions with Backpage. That means sex workers can no longer use credit cards to pay for ads on the site and have to use more complicated, less widely available methods like Bitcoin—or else they have to give up on the site altogether.
Dart is pleased with the result. Sex work is “outrageously dangerous,” he said, and claimed that life expectancies for sex workers were comparable to those in “a Third World nation”—though such statistics are notoriously unreliable. It’s certainly true that putting up barriers to Backpage makes sex work more difficult. But that doesn’t seem like it will help sex workers. Instead, sex workers who use Backpage.com say Dart’s successful campaign will make their jobs more dangerous, not less.
The Internet makes sex work easier and more anonymous—in other words, safer. Dart told me he has talked to sex workers he’s arrested, and many say that without access to the ease and convenience of the Internet, they would never have done sex work in the first place. For other women, though, driven by economic necessity, the changes to Backpage may mean that they have to work on the street—or find a manager or pimp who has developed alternate payment methods. “Our concern … is that traffickers and third parties are going to be able to switch to different payment processors,” Katherine Koster of the Sex Workers Outreach Project told me. “Women (and men) using Backpage, especially those most vulnerable to exploitation with the greatest barriers to transition out of the adult industry, aren’t.” That concern is shared by many sex workers, who have been speaking out for years about the dangers of eliminating adult services sites, most recently on the hashtag #chargeisdenied.
Eve, a fine arts graduate student in Chicago who does escorting and fetish work, says the change will not necessarily affect her that much. Though she uses Backpage.com, it’s not her only source for business, and she figures she can find alternate payment methods as well. But she volunteers at trafficking outreach programs where many people are economically disadvantaged. “When you work on the street and you don’t have Backpage to use,” she said, everyone will tell you “it’s way more dangerous and more difficult.” You can’t profile clients, even to look at them through a hotel room keyhole before letting them in; you just get in a car and hope for the best. And sex workers generally make less money on the street than on Backpage—a serious issue for people who have turned to sex work out of economic desperation.
Silas X, who works as a male escort, told me that “for any male sex worker outside of the major cities … backpage is the only reliable way to advertise.” He said, “I'm particularly concerned by younger queer male sex workers outside of major cities because they will be severely hurt by this policy change, and this is coming from someone who was in their position only a few months ago. Many may have to resort to street-based work where they are vulnerable to forms of violence, especially in homophobic neighborhoods.” Eve added that she knew a woman who had started out with a pimp, but then realized that all she really needed to go into business by herself was a credit card. So she left the pimp, left the state, got a credit card, and went independent. Mastercard and Visa had liberated her—even if they now have been convinced that they should regret having done so.
Monica Jones, a trans rights activist and a social work student at Arizona State University, was arrested once for “manifesting prostitution” because she was walking outside. Her conviction was overturned, but the incident demonstrates the prejudice and stigma trans woman face from police. Losing Backpage.com, Jones said, “will force trans woman to do street based sex work. Trans women are more likely to be arrested by police. Trans women are more likely to be the target of violence.” And that violence, she says, comes not only from johns, but from police themselves.
Dart acknowledged that some people might be forced onto the street by the change at Backpage.com. But he emphasized that the new policy could discourage some women from being sex workers, which he believes will protect them from danger. And he added that “from a law enforcement standpoint, when you try to get at the bad guys, the pimps and traffickers having to expose themselves on the street, it's a lot easier to catch them.”
Dart uses the rhetoric of harm reduction, and he told me he has managed to reduce prostitution charges in Cook County to misdemeanors. But ultimately, he's still looking at sex work from a “law enforcement perspective”: his focus is to catch bad guys, and maybe scare some people straight. If vulnerable women and men have fewer economic options, or face more coercion and greater risk—well, for him, they’re in the wrong business anyway. Dart says sex workers are victims, but his actions suggest he intends to make sure they’re victims, one way or the other.