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The Backpage Saga: A Symbol Goes on Trial, a Woman Goes to Jail

The war on trafficking is a war on symbols, but with real victims.
Senators question Backpage executives. (Photo: senatormccaskill/Flickr)

Senators question Backpage executives. (Photo: senatormccaskill/Flickr)

The night before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Backpage, the word “CENSORED” appeared on the classified ads website where the “adult” section once had been. That day, the rest of the Senate’s agenda was packed: a confirmation hearing for Senator Jeff Sessions, the president-elect’s nominee for attorney general; a hearing for his choice for head of the Department of Homeland Security, General John Kelly. Yet Backpage was allotted two hours of time that same week, amid debates on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and investigations into the influence of Russian intelligence on the presidential election.

The subcommittee hearing did not come entirely out of nowhere. Stories about Backpage had been in and out of the news for months. Just the day before the Senate hearing, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a Backpage case, one seeking to hold them liable for the kinds of conduct the Senate was interrogating them over: accepting advertisements for activity described by those seeking to shut them down as “sex trafficking.” Senator Kamala Harris, who had only just joined the subcommittee investigating Backpage, had brought charges against three Backpage staff members weeks before her election, when she was still the attorney general of California. This case was tossed out, so she filed additional charges against the same Backpage staff on the Friday before Christmas.

Senator Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, likened the Senate’s fight against Backpage to the abolition of slavery, name-checking English abolitionist William Wilberforce.

It was on the heels of the Senate subcommittee hearing that Backpage was in court again last week, answering the accusations Harris made before heading to Washington. As before, the Backpage executives are not being prosecuted for sex trafficking, though the charges they face were incorrectly described this way — as they have been mischaracterized before — by the Sacramento Bee and others. They are instead charged with several counts of “money laundering” and “pimping.”

Backpage has defeated lawsuits alleging their liability for ads posted on the website before, due to existing laws protecting Internet publishers from being held legally responsible for content posted by their users. Still, Harris and others pressed Backpage along these same lines when they called them before news cameras in the Senate in January. The progressive Democrat occupied a Senate subcommittee seat alongside Senator Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, who likened the Senate’s fight against Backpage to the abolition of slavery, name-checking English abolitionist William Wilberforce. Daines has couched his support for outlawing abortion at 20 weeks in the same heroic narrative. On his crusade against traffickers lurking behind lawful businesses, he has also set his sights on Planned Parenthood, who, in his words, is “trafficking in baby parts.” He didn’t even seek to shut the women’s health provider down, he merely wanted to end its federal funding.

Despite the efforts of this subcommittee to stop Backpage, Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota told those watching, there could soon be another site just like it. This is also a sentiment shared by advocates for victims of sex trafficking. One called the site’s denial of adult ads a “symbolic victory” — one that won’t end sex trafficking. The senators and advocates should all know: Six years ago, the online classifieds site Craigslist was called before Congress to answer for its Erotic Services ads. In response, it shuttered the section. What the senators left out is that it was this action that opened the door for Backpage to become host to the same ads now driven from Craigslist.

When these campaigners and their allies in Congress have staked so much on ridding the world of Backpage, it is quite something to hear them acknowledge that to win will only open another front in their fight, and another, and another. In the meantime, the anti-sex trafficking field has ballooned around them, with only more funders and more lobbying, more service providers and more awareness campaigns. By one report, the 36 top-earning anti-trafficking organizations in the U.S. together account for a budget of $1.2 billion in 2012 (the most recent year complete financial information was available).

Like the war on drugs, is the war on sex trafficking by design a war that cannot be won?

Perhaps advocates are sensing, for all the years spent in this fight, for all the money spent, it goes on, and on. And this may not be news to some of them. Like the war on drugs, is the war on sex trafficking by design a war that cannot be won?

As parents testified to the Senate subcommittee about their teenage daughters — who they said had run away from home, and who they later found after being advised to search ads on Backpage — it wasn’t clear what the war even was anymore. There was no reference to the kind of rhetoric employed by anti-sex work feminists who had a hand in putting sex trafficking on the Congressional agenda 15 years ago. Instead, they described daughters who had disobeyed them in running away from home, for getting tattoos or dyeing their hair. “Our American dream has been exchanged for a third world nightmare,” one mother told the Senate Backpage committee.

Whatever dream the parents wanted for their daughters, whatever dreams their daughters may have had for themselves, we did not hear about them. But the Senate subcommittee did hear parents tell them about the lack of support for their daughters in their communities, about how one had been arrested twice. There was no discussion of how shutting down Backpage would remedy this.

Instead, at the close of the hearing, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio announced the matter before this subcommittee closed. It would possibly be referred to the Department of Justice for further investigation. That job, they knew, would fall to a Trump administration, one demonstrably hostile to the rights of women, of LGBTQ people, of people of color, and of immigrants.

The war on trafficking is a war on symbols, but with real victims. First among them were low-income sex workers who rely on Backpage. At the sex worker-run blog Tits and Sass, Caty Simon put it like this: “two competing neoliberal agendas are clashing, indifferent to the material plight of the sex workers caught between them.” On the one hand are the policymakers who know the fight on Backpage is one unlikely to lose them any political capital, because opposition is most likely to come from groups like sex workers. But on the other side is Backpage. “What they are essentially arguing for is the First Amendment right to profit off a criminalized group of people,” Simon writes. This is the only defense available to Backpage. If they were going to mount a defense based on the ways sex workers use their site to place their own ads, they would potentially incriminate themselves. As the Backpage prosecution and defense is playing out now, those who rely on it for their basic income, and who are going to suffer from the site’s closure, are made invisible.

Sex workers have known, Simon adds, that this day was coming sooner or later. They also have bigger problems now. “Whatever the merits of their cries of censorship,” she writes, “it’s difficult for us to worry about our free expression when we’re thinking about how the hell we’re going to put food on the table.”