During the week of June 29th, Visa & MasterCard decided to cut ties with backpage.com over objections to the adult services section of their website. As representatives of organizations around the world that advocate for the human rights of people involved in the sex trade, we are deeply concerned with these developments. While we understand that the motivation for the policy change is to improve the lives of vulnerable women and girls, we believe these efforts are misguided and will cause significant harm to those in the sex trade, including trafficked individuals.
While some sex workers rely on street-based work, many sex workers rely on online platforms as a safer way to advertise their services, and screen potential clients. Web-based platforms give sex workers the ability to research phone numbers or email addresses and assess a potential client’s risk of violence. Backpage.com serves as a reliable, low-cost and user-friendly advertising platform for sex workers globally. In a significant number of countries around the world, sex workers operate where prostitution is legal and find themselves facing open discrimination as a result of this policy.1 Regardless of the legal consideration of sex work, many will be forced to find alternative sources of income. For many, this alternative is moving to street-based sex work where the risk to violence is much higher, notably the violence perpetuated by law enforcement. Street-based work is heavily scrutinized by law enforcement meaning sex workers must make risky and quick decisions to avoid arrest without having time to fully assess whether a potential client is at risk to be violent or not. While online-platforms do not fully protect sex workers from the wide range of rights violations that can occur, it does make it much safer for many and facilitates a greater possibility for someone to work independently. For many who may have worked independently prior to the policy change, they may now have to rely on third-parties, placing them at greater likelihood of encountering traffickers, in order to meet their needs.
With increased barriers to accessing online platforms and some sites being closed down, we should expect a rise in street-based work. In Sacramento, researchers found that the closing of the online-advertising platform MyRedBook lead to a significant increase in the number of street-based workers.2 “These efforts are misguided and will cause significant harm to those in the sex trade, including trafficked individuals,” said Kristen DiAngelo, a trafficking survivor who recently co-authored the study showing that 18% of street-based prostitutes interviewed in the last nine months had returned to the streets after the closure of MyRedBook.com.
The decision made by your company follows similar unbecoming decisions made by financial institutions in the United States to bar sex workers access to credit and banking services. These decisions are often based on principles of morality and not on the experiences of those involved in the sex trade or research evidence. Further, these discriminatory practices are not endorsed in other nations where human rights protections for sex workers are stronger, such as in New Zealand. Monica Jones, a transgender and sex worker activist in Phoenix, Arizona remarked in a recent press release, “It’s alarming when bank and credit institutions are allowed to decide how money obtained legally can be used based on their ideas of morality.” In the digital age, more and more of the national economy relies solely on digital transactions. When barriers are erected that prevent an entire class of people from accessing these financial services, these decisions push this group further underground and further away from the human and civil rights that the rest of our society get to enjoy.
One sex worker stated in reaction to the recent developments, “Since leaving the strip, changing the acts I preform during work, and advertising online (backpage) I have been off drugs for over seven years, have my child who is very smart and well mannered, all my child's teachers love her, and I have not been arrested or in jail in over seven years. I am grateful for backpage providing a safe space for me to advertise and screen my new friends."
It is also the case that sites like Backpage.com offer an opportunity for researchers and service organizations to connect with people in the sex trade, to share information, and to participate in research or offer their services. Sites like backpage.com can, when necessary, assist law enforcement in the investigation of crimes where a sex worker has been victimized. For example, a national research project, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, examined violence and resiliency in the sex trade by utilizing the online community created through Backpage.com. This project involved many community partners including people in the sex trade, health and social service providers, police officers, and representatives of all levels of government.3
What is most concerning is that the very people this policy is meant to be helping, victims of human trafficking, are going to be further marginalized as a result of this policy. There is little research to suggest that those engaged in trafficking internationally are especially inclined to use online advertising. Increased barriers drive people who are in the sex trade, either by choice or by coercion, into further isolation, making it more difficult to access services and creating additional vulnerability to violence. In fact, the traceability of online advertising where a personal credit card is involved would, by logic, be a disincentive to those who abuse people in the sex trade or engage in human trafficking. By creating more shadows for human traffickers to hide under, we are making their jobs easier. “If there is a genuine desire to end human trafficking,” Kate D’Adamo of the Sex Workers Project in New York mentioned, “Then there needs to be a focus on key factors that increase vulnerability to trafficking: access to public services, youth homelessness, and alliterative employment opportunities.”
One reason cited to discontinue a business relationship with Backpage is because the site promotes illegal activities; however, this belief is misguided. Backpage’s adult service listings include escort, fetish, massage, and exotic dancing categories. Even in countries where prostitution is illegal, companionship, fetish services, erotic dance, and sensual massage are legal. Backpage carefully reviews all content submissions to ensure the product purchased is in compliance with local laws, rejecting not only explicit ads but also those could be construed as soliciting for prostitution. Backpage ads, like any legal product (from bleach to a kitchen knife) can and sometimes are used for illegal purposes. However, the product that your card is no longer able to purchase -- an advertisement-- is legal.
We strongly encourage your company to reconsider these policies in the name of human rights of a historically oppressed class of people. If these policies are to continue, then we encourage your companies to invest in organizations that are dedicated to working with sex workers who are impacted by this change. We also encourage your company to meet with representatives of the sex worker rights movement to further discuss the implications of your policy change.
Only rights can correct these wrongs.
Sex Workers Outreach Project (USA)
Desiree Alliance (USA)
Best Practices Policy Project (USA)
Prostitutes of New York (NY, USA)
New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJ, USA)
Project SAFE (PA, USA)
Stand With Monica Campaign (AZ, USA)
Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network (CA, USA)
Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (BC, Canada) Peers Victoria Resources Society (BC, Canada)
PACE Society (BC, Canada)
Stella, l’amie de Maimie (QC, Canada)
Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Program (Kenya)
Young Professional Development Society (Nepal)
HYDRA e.V. (Germany)
1 “Neil Keene “Aussie Sex Workers Miffed After MasterCard places Worldwide Ban on Customers Placing Adult Ads on backpage.com” The Daily Telegraph July 3 2015
2 Raheem F. Hossini “Sacramento’s Red-Light District is a 9-mile trail of Violence, Disease & Hopelessness - and it’s busier than ever: A Federal Crackdown curbed Online Prostitution but Forced it Back onto the Streets” NewsReview July 2 2015