It’s been a bad week for Backpage.com, all thanks to one man in Cook County, Illinois. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart took his grievances with advertisements for prostitutes on Backpage.com straight to Mastercard and Visa. His letter got results — with a quickness — as Backpage got blacklisted from both, effectively leaving sex workers without an affordable and accessible platform to advertise. Backpage has now shifted to Bitcoin and is offering temporary free listings in the "adult services" section, but it is unclear how long that will last or if their online classified ad service will survive at all.
Backpage.com isn't glamorous or fancy. It's a sleazy online classified page that picked up the slack when Craigslist ditched its Erotic Services section in 2010. For sex workers looking to get off the streets, though, it's a solid option with few barriers to entry and a tiny extra slice of safety.
As sex workers' rights advocates across the globe began to fret that Dart’s move would push workers back onto the streets, politicians around the country began to call out Backpage for its proximity to murders involving prostitutes
and instances of human trafficking. Just last week a woman in Massachusetts was shot and killed by two armed robbers masquerading as Backpage clients. Calling on Backpage to close, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued a statement indicating that most human trafficking cases prosecuted by her office involve Backpage, too. Former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna tangled with Backpage back in 2011 after a rash of incidents involving underage girls selling sex via the site.
Dart has gone up against the online sex advertisement game before. In 2009 he sued Craigslist over their Erotic Services section. That effort failed, but Craigslist stopped allowing the advertisements a year later anyway, at which point Backpage became the hub of easy entry into online sex-work advertising.
In Spokane, we’re all too used to this shifting of prostitution from one forum to the next. The 2012 spa raids in Airway Heights
led women to head back to East Sprague. The signs along Sprague push street-based workers onto side streets and into residential neighborhoods where they are less safe, says Spokane Regional Health District Outreach worker Lynn Everson.
There's no clear substitute for Backpage like there was for Craigslist, either. Other online forums are more complicated to use and produce less immediate results.
“You can grab a prepaid Visa from a supermarket or gas station and put up a Backpage ad; it's not anywhere near as easy with bitcoins,” says Bella of Spokane’s Sex Workers Outreach Project. “Those are the workers who are most likely to be raped, robbed or murdered. They're being driven out onto the streets, where they are most vulnerable, because they have no other choice.”