Shutting Down Online Prostitution Sites Didn’t Hurt Sex Trafficking, Just Sex Workers

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Anyone who ever visited Backpage or the personal section of Craigslist could attest to the fact that it was largely a cesspool of humanity. People with the most bizarre fetishes and strict requirements would post multiple paragraphs ranting about their desired sexual encounters. Others would spend hours every week both visiting sex workers and then writing elaborate reviews of their performances online.

To many people who failed to truly and deeply consider the issue, it may have seemed like both Backpage and Craigslist promoted prostitution. In reality, these websites were merely platforms that allowed individuals engaged in certain activities to network with one another.

Craigslist personals made it easier for sex workers to screen potential clients and keep themselves safe. Similarly, Backpage provided a means by which sex workers could screen and vet potential clients. Instead of actually walking on the streets, working out of motel rooms, or hanging out at truck stops, sex workers could choose the time and location of their meetings, as well as their clients.

With the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), the federal government gave itself the power to seize control of any website allowing illegal activity related to prostitution and sex trafficking. While on the surface that seems reasonable, in actuality it is ludicrous.

Platforms like Craigslist exist in no small part because they provide a free resource for the public that they can use in any manner. Craigslist does not review individual posts unless people flag them for violations of the terms of service or law. Backpage may have had a more legally gray stance in the prostitution world, but there is still no question that their services benefited sex workers as much as, if not more, the johns that hired them.

Shutting down personals on Craigslist and Backpage didn’t stop sex trafficking. It just made it infinitely more abusive and dangerous for sex workers. It had the opposite of the intended effect. It pushed independent sex operators out of the market, increasing the demand for illegally or non-consentually trafficked sex workers. A recent study out of San Francisco showed a 170% increase in sex trafficking in 2018, likely because fewer sex workers could operate safely on their own after FOSTA and SESTA.

We live in a culture where it is somehow okay in many cases for law enforcement officers to arrest prostitutes after hiring them and using their services. We penalize the people who provide sex work more often than the people who hire sex workers. This skewed and backward approach does nothing to decrease demand for sex work. Shutting down the websites that sex workers use for their trade will not stop them from engaging in sexual activities for money. All it will do is make them more vulnerable to predation by underhanded law enforcement and clients that mean them harm. Our society should take steps to defend them comma as some of the most underserved and underprivileged members of society.

For previous Ladybud articles about sex work, click here.