Last April, two successive tremors shook the business of sex on the internet. The first was the dramatic FBI shutdown of Backpage, a website for posting online personals that had attained outsize importance among sex workers. Days after that, President Trump signed two new bills into law, the Stop Enabling Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which together make websites that knowingly allow sex trafficking to happen liable for hosting the illegal activity—thus making it much easier for prosecutors to go after the proprietors of sites like Backpage. Both of these moves were meant to help some of the most vulnerable people impacted by the availability of sex online: individuals, often minors, being trafficked by pimps who sought out customers on sites like Backpage. Other venues took notice: Craigslist, for example, took down its personals section for fear of being held liable for activity on it. But like so many well-intentioned policies, these actions to help victims harmed another group in the process—people engaged in consensual adult sex work. When Backpage shuttered, “I was like, I’m fucked,” a sex worker who calls herself Raven told me. “For me, I was like ‘this has been the only way I have known how to survive.’ ” Raven, 27, has been a sex worker in some form or another since she was kicked out of her parents’ house at 18. She relied on Backpage to find and vet clients—and most importantly, work for herself without an agency or pimp.
Cracking down on the forums where pimps solicit sex on behalf of trafficking victims was probably always going to affect a broader group. It’s an unfortunate irony that while FOSTA and SESTA were supposed to make it harder for pimps to coerce or force people into sex work, the websites they targeted were favored by sex workers who wanted to avoid pimps. What’s clear, 10 months after the passage of those laws, is that a solution that will safeguard both those who are being trafficked and those who are engaged in consensual adult sex work remains elusive. An array of Band-Aid–like solutions for vetting clients online only illustrates the depth of the problem—that until the law sees consensual adult sex work differently, it’ll remain dangerous no matter what ingenious solution or policy emerges.
Given what happened on it, few would argue for restoring a site like Backpage. A lengthy Senate investigation into the site’s founders, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin (who also previously ran Village Voice Media, a chain of alt-weeklies that included the Village Voice), found internal emails that allegedly showed how the site’s administrators edited posts with software that scrubbed words from ads that signaled illegal work with minors, like “amber alert” and “Lolita,” rather than passing the information on to law enforcement.* Lacey and Larkin, along with the site’s CEO Carl Ferrer, were all charged with money laundering and pimping. That investigation brought to light terrifying stories of young trafficking victims whose pimps relied on Backpage and who were raped hundreds of times, which gave momentum to the passage of FOSTA and SESTA.
Without Backpage, Raven has mostly left sex work, save for rare jobs with friends who need a partner because a client requested one—perhaps a positive outcome in the view of the laws’ authors, but for Raven, who suffers from chronic pain and mental health issues, it’s been “the only job where I could feasibly do a lot of work when I can. At times when I’ve had steady jobs with a schedule I always get suicidal and fuck it up.” Others who previously relied on Backpage or Craigslist have gone to work for escort services, pimps, dungeons, or massage parlors that are known for offering a little extra, which all generally take a hefty cut of what clients pay. One sex worker I spoke to from New York told me some women she used to work with now drive for Uber. Some have returned to street work. And others still have tried to replace Backpage with other online services so they can still work independently. One newer option is Switter, a “sex work-friendly social space” made in Australia, where the sex business is largely legal. There are also sites like TNA Board, Tryst, and Eros, which all cost money to be on.
Importantly, most of these sites are not based in the United States, though Americans are able to post on them. The new laws chip away at the immunity enjoyed by websites under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a bedrock internet law that has ensured online forums, including social networks and news sites with comments sections, generally aren’t liable for what users post. Without that immunity, the legal risk of running a website that allows sex workers to advertise but could also attract sex traffickers is much, much higher. “It’s become more of a buyers’ market,” a sex worker based in the Bay Area who goes by Chloe told me, explaining that without having as many potential clients to pick from, many in her community are returning to men they’d rather not see again. “When you look at screenshots that have surfaced from some of the client forums, you can see some of these guys who are real monsters celebrating about how now that the sites are down women can’t charge whatever they want,” Chloe said.
The creator of Switter wanted to create an option so sex workers could avoid such situations. Sensing that the Backpage investigation was coming to its end and that the passage of an anti-internet trafficking law was imminent, Lola Hunt, a sex worker based in Australia who was also a Backpage customer, decided to collaborate with a friend on creating a new platform for sex professionals to congregate. Switter launched at the start of April, about a week before Backpage and Craigslist closed and FOSTA was signed into law. By May, the site had ballooned to around 70,000 users. But Switter’s growth—the site now counts more than 209,000 users, according to Hunt—hasn’t been free from turbulence. Within 10 days of FOSTA being on the books and less than a month of being operational, Switter’s content delivery provider, Cloudflare, gave it the boot, forcing Switter offline and in search of a new option. The reason, according to Cloudflare’s general counsel, was “related to our attempts to understand FOSTA, which is a very bad law and a very dangerous precedent.” Whatever they felt, Cloudflare was treading cautiously around the new status quo.
And it wasn’t the only company unwilling to support a site for sex workers after Backpage and FOSTA. In order to cover the costs of running Switter, Lola and two other colleagues launched Tryst, a paid platform for sex workers that allows them to maintain anonymity and still verify they are the person in posted ads. (Switter, by contrast, is more a Twitter-like social feed.) The lowest package on Tryst starts at about $35 a month for sex workers. But building a way for the site to accept money has been nearly impossible, according to Hunt. “In Australia we’ve been rejected from multiple banks without reason. And they have every right to because sex work is not protected by anti-discrimination rules,” says Hunt. Widely used American payment companies like Stripe and PayPal were out of the question, Hunt said, because “we can’t use a company that stores our users’ data in the United States. That’s out of the cards.” Still, Hunt and her colleagues have managed to find workarounds, and Switter and Tryst are currently operating.
Jenny, a sex worker who also runs a nude housework business in Seattle, told me she lost all of her old regulars after Backpage and Craigslist because, she figures, they’re afraid of getting busted. She now uses TNA Board, an online message board with local forums that costs money to use, but that hasn’t been as steady as Craigslist and Backpage. “I’m in the red now. I don’t have any savings,” she told me. “I usually like to keep a few hundred cash in the house. But right now, I’m worried because I’m not getting as many calls or emails. It’s dead.” Switter has certainly worked for some—but not all. For one thing, it operates like an open social network, and to ensure your posts are visible requires social-media savvy and regular use. It sorts posts using hashtags, which can make the site feel cacophonous, with some posters cramming in long strings of keywords. But the biggest problem is scale: None of these alternatives has as many clients as Backpage did, which means the sex workers have fewer of them to vet.
What all of these annoyances and limitations add up to is a greater likelihood of sex workers turning to the streets to solicit sex. In San Francisco, people who live in neighborhoods that are adjacent to strolls where street-based sex workers pick up clients have been complaining to the police about the uptick in prostitution in their neighborhoods, as one resident of the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco told CBS 5 KPIX earlier this month: “We’ve had recently sex workers performing their trade in our front yard, under our daughter’s window.” Pike Long, the deputy director of St. James Infirmary, a health and safety clinic for sex workers in the city, told me the clinic estimates the number of sex workers now doing street work in San Francisco alone has tripled since Craigslist’s personals section and BackPage went offline. The uptick led to the creation of a “Sex Workers Abatement Unit” within the Mission police station, which often gives sex workers the choice of either going to jail or going through a diversion program. In Long’s view that’s coercive, since many sex workers often choose jail over going through a police-sanctioned program.
While there have been other anecdotal reports of upticks in solicitation for sex on the streets around the country that some police departments have attributed to the closure of Backpage, it’s hard to get a full picture. One problem is that police generally lump sex workers and victims of human trafficking into the same statistics, making it hard to tell if there have been more arrests due to one or the other.
Consensual adult sex work and sex trafficking will likely always operate in overlapping spaces—whether online or offline. And just as the crackdown on Backpage has changed the landscape for sex workers, it’s also pushed more sex trafficking onto the streets, where there’s no telling who a client is before getting into a car. The internet certainly made it easier for everyone to sell sex, but it made it safer for a lot of people, too. If the goal is to improve outcomes, lawmakers should consider the reality that sex trafficking victims and sex workers aren’t the same. And in such a criminalized area, built on informal economies and fragile business arrangements with often deeply imbalanced power dynamics, any crackdown that attempts to help one community could be a tragedy for another.
Correction, Feb. 15, 2019: An earlier version of this article misidentified Jim Larkin’s first name as John.