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What’s Behind the Backpage Prosecution?

The attacks on classified advertising website Backpage do little to address exploitation of sex workers. They simply make it harder for them to work at all.
(Photo: orangesparrow/Flickr)

(Photo: orangesparrow/Flickr)

The men in orange jumpsuits standing in a cage in a California courtroom, the Associated Press and the local Sacramento Bee told readers, were charged with “sex trafficking,” connected to running the online advertising directory Backpage. Most news outlets reported that prosecutors have long sought to hold Backpage responsible for sex trafficking. But now it appeared Backpage was being tried in the press as well: These storiescharged Backpage with crimes that even prosecutors had not.

So the nearly decade-old fight against online sex ads has gone. But it would be a mistake to believe the fallout is confined to misinformation alone.It is actually not that difficult to learn the facts of this latest case. Understanding the politics behind it requires digging deeper.

Those who read the nine-page long criminal complaint against CEO Carl Ferrer and principal shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin would learn that what they had been charged with is violating several California laws against pimping — that “knowing” a person “to be a prostitute,” they “did live and derive support and maintenance in whole or in part from the earnings and proceeds of said prostitution.” None are accused with forcing anyone into prostitution. None are even accused of having had any physical contact with anyone in the sex trade. What the complaint claims the men did was earn money from a website where users could place advertisements for what Backpage categorized as “adult” services.

Though the charges against Backpage are not for trafficking, this did not stop the prosecutors who announced the charges from asserting a link. The prosecution is an unusual partnership: California Attorney General Kamala Harris, herself on the verge of a Senate win, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, currently under indictment and facing disbarment. While Harris has a progressive reputation as a criminal justice reformer, Paxton is a Tea Party favorite fighting to roll back women’s and LGBT rights. In a press release, Paxton’s office deemed their actions against Backpage proof that “Texas Doesn’t Tolerate Human Trafficking.” Harris, too, said the Backpage investigation would “bring the operators of this online brothel to justice and protect thousands of victims of trafficking.”

It is not that difficult to learn the facts of this latest case. Understanding the politics behind it requires digging deeper.

On the other side of the country, the morning after Paxton and Harris’ press releases linking Backpage to charges neither of their offices had brought, in a federal court in Brooklyn, the CEO of escort advertising website entered a guilty plea. It had been 14 months since Rentboy’s Manhattan offices were raided, its business and financial records seized, just as Backpage’s were. Along with Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant, six other staffers were arrested. By October, Hurant’s was the only prosecution the Eastern District of New York sought against the site, which had ceased operations. Some observers suspect this was the aim of the prosecution.

Hurant ultimately pled guilty to the violation of an antiquated federal law, the Travel Act, due to having violated New York state law against promoting prostitution — which is how the operations of Rentboy were now characterized by the state. This is how Rentboy’s prosecution went federal, and why Hurant faces up to 24 months in federal prison. He will be sentenced in February.

At the time of the Rentboy raids, sex worker rights advocates and LGBT rights organizations — even the editorial board of the New York Times — came out against the prosecution. It was an attack on sex workers’ right to work; if an ad site is seized, that’s a direct attack on sex workers’ livelihood. Removing an ad website didn’t address exploitation or violence sex workers may face at work. It simply made it harder for them to work at all.

This is the largely uncontested logic driving attacks on any website that takes sex workers’ ads: from Backpage, to the much smaller MyRedbook, which shut down in 2014 and whose owner was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison, to Craigslist, which ended its adult services listings under pressure from prosecutors in 2010. Each time a site is targeted, sex workers — if they can — move to another website, knowing it, too, is likely to be targeted in the future. In the meantime, federal investigators raid offices, courts preside over the seizure of assets, and prosecutors issue press releases and use the media to reinforce their claims that all this is meant to protect vulnerable people.

“Taking down Internet advertisement space for sex workers often keeps them from being able to engage in indoor work, forcing workers into unsafe situations on the streets,” the sex workers’ support and advocacy organization HIPS said in a statement condemning the Backpage raid. “Taking that space away is misguided at best and dangerous at worst.”

It’s been seven years since “the war on online sex work” kicked into full gear, when Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced his (eventually, thwarted) intentions to sue Craigslist. As new targets are swapped in, after each sting, raid, and prosecution, the same rhetoric recurs, and sex work goes on, just under heightened risk.

Even Backpage, as of this moment, goes on: It is still online. In the last week, it was used by law enforcement as part of a coordinated international anti-prostitution sting. Police also exploit this access to sex workers. According to local news reports, in this latest sting an Oklahoma City cop was accused of “contacting an accused prostitute … through her ad on and warning her about the undercover sting operation.”

Backpage’s Larkin and Lacey already have lashed back at Harris, claiming the prosecution is politically motivated, timed to her election bid. They want to see the charges against them dismissed. But if prosecutors’ own records are a guide, this will not be the last attempt to use the courts (and the press) to drive Backpage out of business. This fight isn’t about Backpage, just as it wasn’t about Craigslist. It is about striking a public blow against commercial sex. That goes far beyond a media stunt. That blow lands directly on sex workers.