The U.S. government's crackdown on prostitution has forced sex workers to adopt desperate measures for survival -- and it's rousing them to rebellion
Seated in a McDonald’s in Phoenix, picking at a burger and fries with long, nervous fingers, Raquel, a trans woman of 29, recounted the horror of street prostitution that has followed the demise of the online listings giant Backpage.com.
“It’s pretty rough,” she told Front Page Confidential in a recent interview. “I’ve already been raped. I had to go to the hospital.”
Tears briefly interrupt her narrative.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” she resumed, wiping her eyes. “After it happens so many times, you just become numb.”
Raquel’s curvy figure and feminine features weren’t an asset in the male prison where she served several years on forgery charges before she was freed on parole earlier this year. She says she was brutally raped while behind bars. When authorities were late once with her hormone shots, she castrated herself with a razor, tying off veins to keep from bleeding out and flushing her testicles down the toilet for fear that prison doctors might try to reattach them.
Out of prison, she returned to the profession she’d known prior to her incarceration, one that her status as a transgender convicted felon did not disqualify her from. All it took was a few dollars to place an ad on Backpage — an avenue to income that was “way safer” than street prostitution, and one that allowed her to work indoors.
“Everybody’s trying to stop and pick you up. They could do anything to you. You just don’t know what you’re getting into.” –Raquel, trans sex worker
In fact, she’d just placed a new Backpage ad when the U.S. Department of Justice seized the site on April 6, filing a 93-count indictment against seven current and former owners and executives of the company, alleging that the defendants “facilitated prostitution” and engaged in money laundering.
Among those arrested: veteran newspapermen Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, who had sold their interest in the company in 2015 to CEO Carl Ferrer. The CEO entered into a plea agreement with the government before the indictments were unsealed. (Editor’s note: Larkin and Lacey cofounded Front Page Confidential in 2017 in order to cover issues related to the First Amendment and free speech.)
The shuttering of Backpage coincided with a widespread federal crackdown on the world’s oldest profession, including Congress’ passage this year of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). President Trump signed the measure into law on April 11, thereby making websites liable when third parties use them to post advertisements for prostitution.
Ostensibly, the new law had been intended to combat “sex trafficking” — a crime federal statute defines as involving minors in the sex trade or bringing adults into prostitution through force, fraud, or coercion. But as passed by Congress, the legislation also outlawed online ads for consensual, adult commercial sex. That’s because it comprises a Frankenstein-like hybrid of two bills: FOSTA (the House version) and the Senate version, a hot mess known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).
Even before it went into effect, FOSTA/SESTA’s coming assault on the First Amendment prompted a wave of self-censorship online. Craigslist shut down its entire personals section, and two less-prominent adult-oriented sites, CityVibe and the U.S. version of the Erotic Review, went dark.
Backpage’s seizure by the FBI completed the tsunami, causing widespread panic among sex workers, some of whom have referred to the fallout from this new prohibitionism as the “SESTApocalypse.” Those who rely on commercial sex for subsistence have had to scramble to stay afloat; some have been pushed back into the arms of pimps — i.e., the very traffickers that backers of the new legislation had promised to protect them from — or onto the street, where they cannot screen clients as they did through Backpage or Craigslist.
Those sex workers who are able to do so have been organizing, increasing their activism online and in the streets: marching, lobbying elected officials, making their voices heard in first-person journalism, and demanding the decriminalization of all sex work, popularizing slogans such as “Sex Work Is Work,” and Twitter hashtags like “#LetUsSurvive” and “#Decrim.”
Raquel said she has had to fork over a “tax” to pimps in Phoenix. In exchange, they allow her to work and offer a modicum of protection.
But once she climbs into a john’s car, she’s on her own.
“Everybody’s trying to stop and pick you up,” she said. “They could do anything to you. You just don’t know what you’re getting into.”
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Other activists and sex workers paint a similarly bleak picture. No matter whom you consult, the message seems to be the same: FOSTA/SESTA and the demise of Backpage and similar sites have left sex workers suffering financially and unable to vet potential clients, propelling them into riskier scenarios than before.
Juliana Piccillo, filmmaker, former sex worker, and the director of the Tucson, Arizona, chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), called the current situation for sex workers “catastrophic” and said marginalized communities — trans people, people of color, and those struggling economically — are being hit harder than most.
Sex workers are being contacted by their old pimps, sketchy johns are demanding more dangerous services (sex without a condom, for instance), and some sex workers have had to turn to the streets.
Piccillo said she has seen people lose their apartments. Those with the wherewithal, she said, flee to legal brothels in Nevada.
“People are in crisis and freaking out and scared,” she explained. “Their entire way of business has been pulled out from under them.”
Kristen DiAngelo, sex worker, sex-trafficking survivor, and the co-founder of SWOP Sacramento, told Front Page Confidential that FOSTA/SESTA has led sex workers in Sacramento to transition from assignations inside to those outside.
“You have tons of girls now on the streets,” DiAngelo said. “Which, honestly, is a heyday for the pimps.”
DiAngelo has seen this all before. After the FBI shuttered the free online escort site MyRedbook.com in 2014 and arrested its operators, SWOP Sacramento and fellow nonprofit Safer Alternatives through Networking and Education (SANE), a group that distributes clean needles and offers other health services to intravenous drug users in the Sacramento area, collaborated on a “needs assessment,” in part to study the impact of MyRedbook going under.
The study found that 18 percent of interviewees had gone from the internet to the street “as a direct result of the closure of MyRedbook.”
The report also revealed that 59 percent of those surveyed had been raped at least once.
DiAngelo has yet to do another needs assessment, but she doesn’t doubt that the number of women on the street has increased since FOSTA/SESTA’s passage. With that increased street activity has come more competition and lower prices for the working women on the “stroll.”
“This thing is really hindering people’s ability to communicate. And when people are not able to communicate, that’s dangerous.” –Celestine Pearl, outreach coordinator for St. James Infirmary
Some advocates for sex workers’ rights have cited a considerable uptick in street prostitution as reported by St. James Infirmary, a clinic that serves the sex-worker community in San Francisco. Celestine Pearl, the group’s outreach director, told Front Page Confidential that in the city’s Mission District, home to a perennial sex market, she initially witnessed an increase of “young women out on the street” after the Backpage seizure but that the spike has since “leveled off.”
Pearl cautioned that this was merely her observation, not a scientific survey, and that an increased police presence could account for the spike subsiding. Still, she agrees that the situation is more dangerous, in part because sex workers can no longer screen clients. The lack of online forums also makes it more difficult for sex workers to “blacklist” dangerous customers and “whitelist” good johns.
“This thing is really hindering people’s ability to communicate,” Pearl said. “And when people are not able to communicate, that’s dangerous.”
So far, St. James Infirmary has not taken down its own “bad date list,” but Pearl concedes that even activists worry that “anyone who is supporting a sex worker in any way could be criminalized.”
Pearl said there’s also a concern in the community that some providers have gone missing or may have been murdered because they cannot communicate with each other and share information.
Piccillo said she has been privy to “ten or fifteen reports” of sex workers disappearing since FOSTA/SESTA, and DiAngelo believes some slayings of sex workers have been the result of the “era of prohibition,” in which the U.S. now finds itself. DiAngelo shared that SWOP Sacramento has been inundated with calls from suicidal sex workers.
That fear is not unfounded. A study coauthored by professors at Baylor and West Virginia universities and published last year reported that Craigslist’s erotic-services section reduced the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent in the cities where it was offered, from its inception in 2002 until 2010, when Craigslist did away with the section in response to pressure from the federal government,.
P.J. Vogt, cohost of Gimlet Media’s Reply All podcast, interviewed one of the study’s coauthors, Baylor economics professor Scott Cunningham, for a recent episode titled “No More Safe Harbor.” Cunningham told Vogt that the internet had given female sex workers the ability “to not work with coercive people.” But now, he said, the “safety mechanism” Backpage once offered is gone.
Vogt asked Cunningham whether he believed that FOSTA/SESTA would lead to sex workers’ deaths. Cunningham answered in the affirmative.
“Yeah, I do actually,” he said. “If [sex workers] end up having to go back to the streets — if they end up having to work with clients that they were not able to check out before or screen in any way — they are going to die…. There’s going to be violence committed against them.”
* * *
Violence against sex workers is not a new phenomenon. Cunningham told Vogt that prostitution is the most dangerous job for a woman in the U.S., with a murder rate of more than 200 per 100,000 persons. (The second-most-dangerous job for a woman, liquor-store employee, yields a homicide rate of 4 per 100,000.
Sex workers acknowledge the perils of their profession each year on December 17, when they observe International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The event began in 2003 to mourn the victims of Gary Ridgeway, Washington state’s “Green River Killer,” who pleaded guilty that year to murdering 49 women, most of them prostitutes. (Chillingly, Cunningham’s study notes that “[m]ore than half of all serial killers’ victims have been prostitutes…[and] fully one third of all prostitute deaths are due to murder by serial killers.”)
And yet, an entire generation of sex workers has only known the safety of working indoors. One 24-year-old trans sex worker in Tucson, who asked to be identified as “Velma,” told Front Page Confidential that she had been doing sex work since she was 20 and has never had to hit the streets.
“Backpage is all I’ve known,” she said. “Same thing with my own little cohort of girls my age. It’s a place we all depended on.”
Since Backpage went dark, Velma has relied on two wealthy regulars to help keep her afloat. She noted that “street work requires different survival skills,” and that many sex workers who grew up relying on Backpage — which was cheap and easy to use — will be hitting the streets for the first time in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA.
Velma said she has not been coerced into the sex trade and doesn’t know anyone who has been forced. She was angered by Congress’ vote on FOSTA/SESTA, observing that even the few senators and House members who opposed the bill were not motivated by concern for her and her fellow sex workers.
“It’s really frustrating to realize how much sex workers have not been a part of the conversation,” she said. “We’ve had no presence in the public platform anywhere.”
That is changing. There has been increased activism on Twitter by sex workers and their allies, and first-person accounts of the FOSTA/SESTA fallout have appeared in Rolling Stone, Vice‘s women-centric section Broadly, the sex-worker-run site Tits and Sass, and others.
Even in the run-up to the FOSTA/SESTA debacle, former sex worker Alana Massey was taking celebrities such as Amy Schumer to task in the Condé Nast publication Allure for supporting the legislation to the detriment of those in the trade. And sex workers in general were making themselves heard on Twitter and Facebook, urging their followers to call their senators and representatives and ask them to vote no.
Now that the new law is in place, the urgency has increased anew, with a push to put decriminalization on the table. On June 2, sex workers rallied in cities nationwide for International Whores’ Day, during which thousands marched in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere.
The common rallying cries were “Sex Work Is Real Work” and “Let Us Survive,” and the recent passage of FOSTA/SESTA was much on the minds of demonstrators.
One speaker at the Los Angeles event, trans woman and former sex worker Tara Coccinelle, a drop-in resource coordinator with Sacramento SWOP, observed that everything had changed since Congress passed FOSTA/SESTA.
“Being able to advertise safely, to screen clients, to be able to compare notes on bad dates — all this now has been taken off the internet thanks to FOSTA and SESTA,” she said.
“It’s really frustrating to realize how much sex workers have not been a part of the conversation. We’ve had no presence in the public platform anywhere.” –Velma, a trans sex worker in Tucson
Siouxsie Q, a podcaster, sex worker, and activist who helped organize the LA march, told Front Page Confidential that it’s time for the war on sex work to end.
“This is the final straw,” she said of FOSTA/SESTA. “The internet was the only tool that we had to put space-time and scrutiny between us and people who are out to kill us.”
She said criminalizing sex work inevitably leads to sex trafficking, a situation that finds sex workers reluctant to approach law enforcement for fear of arrest.
Decriminalization is the answer, she and other sex workers insist. But there remains a long learning curve for politicians all across the political spectrum.
So, 24 hours before International Whores’ Day, sex workers and their advocates lobbied Capitol Hill, dispatching teams to the offices of nearly 30 House representatives, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Kate D’Adamo, an activist and a consultant for the progressive collective Reframe Health and Justice, helped organize National Sex Worker Lobby Day on June 1. She explained to Front Page Confidential that the initial response has been positive, but that it was just the beginning of a dialogue with political leaders.
SWOP Sacramento recently demonstrated the power of petitioning one’s elected representatives by mobilizing against a proposed California statute that would have expanded the definition of “pandering.” Potentially, Senate Bill 1204 could have allowed local police the discretion to arrest social workers and sex-workers’-rights activists for facilitating prostitution.
Opponents of the bill protested on the steps of the state capitol, spoke against it in committee, met with state senators, and deployed an app that allowed constituents to fax members of the committee overseeing the bill.
Ultimately, the bill failed to move out committee — a win for California sex workers.
Still, DiAngelo, admitted to Front Page Confidential that her group has decided to curtail some of its activities amid the current climate of repression.
“I do almost nothing wrong,” she said. “I don’t even frickin’ speed. But I also don’t think [former Backpage owners] Larkin or Lacey did anything wrong. I think they are some of the biggest free-speech advocates we’ve had.”
Both DiAngelo and Piccillo pointed out that the national sex-workers- rights group Desiree Alliance recently canceled a major conference planned for 2019 over concerns that the organizers could be held liable for promoting sex work.
Desiree Alliance director Cris Sardina told Front Page Confidential that the conference had tentatively been titled “Transcending Borders: Immigration, Migration, and Sex Work,” but FOSTA/SESTA and the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration made a conference focused on those issues the functional equivalent of a bull’s-eye for law enforcement.
“Because of the legislation that’s been passed, there are just too many risks,” Sardina explained. “Just because it’s a federal law and it’s online — that means jack. It’s going to trickle offline, and we’ve already seen that happening.”
The cancellation comes as a huge disappointment to the sex-worker community. The five-day conference ordinarily draws hundreds of sex workers and activists of all kinds from around the world. The organization sponsors many of the participants, offering scholarships for those unable to afford the trip. People even plan their vacations around the gathering, Sardina said.
The event has taken place every couple of years since 2006 without incident, in cities such as New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, and Las Vegas. But Sardina said too much is at stake right now. If the government chooses to target publishers and seize their assets over a website they no longer own, then who is to say the feds wouldn’t go after Desiree Alliance, which advocates for the decriminalization of all sex work?
For proponents of #FOSTA/#SESTA, the chilling effect on free speech & peaceable assembly is a feature, not a bug. You may not be a sexworker, but we know that an attack on the freedoms of one marginalized group is a threat to us all. https://t.co/Cewwjo8MDm
— Medicaid Matthew Cortland, Esq. ⚖ (@mattbc) June 13, 2018
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For sex workers, FOSTA/SESTA has been a double-edged sword: It hinders their efforts to organize, yet it encourages them, out of necessity and desperation, to make their voices heard. Thus, Piccillo speaks of the legislation’s “chilling effect,” yet notes that it has “galvanized folks” in the sex-workers’-rights movement. She cited the increased activism that preceded the final vote on the bill.
“And you know how abysmal that vote was,” she said. “We weren’t managing to sway too many people.”
New governmental threats to sex workers seem to be popping up all the time, such as the Senate’s End Banking for Human Traffickers Act. Introduced by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, the bill purports to block human traffickers’ access to financial services. Sex workers fear it will be used to deny them bank accounts.
And Courthouse News recently reported that the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime has reversed course, disallowing the use of federal money to expunge the criminal records of sex-trafficking survivors.
But there are indications that sex workers are making some headway. One day after the government shut down Backpage, the Women’s March, a mainstream feminist group that emerged after Trump’s inauguration, tweeted its support for sex workers.
“The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients,” reads the April 7 tweet. “Sex workers rights are women’s rights.”
. 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. https://t.co/S3Orx3aM8Z
— Women's March (@womensmarch) April 7, 2018
Moreover, at least three progressive Democrats running in Congressional primaries in New York and Nevada are including opposition to FOSTA/SESTA in their campaign rhetoric.
There appears to be a growing willingness to consider the decriminalization of sex work as an alternative to prohibition. After all, advocates point out, the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage were both considered liberal pipe dreams at one time.
Piccillo compared today’s sex-workers’-rights movement to the gay-rights movement “right when the AIDS epidemic hit.” The momentum of the latter seemed to have stopped, she said, but in the face of tragedy, homophobia, and discrimination, the LGBT community made great strides.
“In some ways, I liken it to that,” Piccillo said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of suffering along the way, but we could end up in a better place.”
Will that evolution from pain to progress transpire soon enough to help someone like Raquel?
Last time Front Page Confidential checked in with Raquel, she was in the parking lot of a Motel 6, preparing to hop a shuttle to Tucson, where she has friends. She still hopes to go back to online-based sex work.
“I’m just trying to survive and eat like everybody else,” she said. “If Backpage hadn’t gone down, I wouldn’t be out here on the streets like this.”