New Internet Law Yanks 'Oldest Profession' Back to Streets
Fed shutdown of sites like Backpage could push the sex trade onto streets and out of sight
By Tristan Dufresne 7/12/18 7:03PM
NORTH CAROLINA — New federal legislation has disrupted the illegal sex trade in North Carolina, that which occurs between consenting adults as well as trafficking that exploits the vulnerable and forces entry into sex work.
Regulations intended to prevent trafficking could have the effect of forcing such activity deeper underground, some experts and sex workers say.
U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina's 6th District cosponsored the bill that President Donald Trump signed into law on April 11, which pushes for the shutdown of Internet sites where sex for money is advertised.
This resulted in the federal shutdown of Backpage.com, a personals forum used by many sex workers to connect with solicitors — and, feds say, as a vehicle for the exploitation of minors and others pressed into sex work.
Sex workers in North Carolina, including a woman interviewed by the Sundial who advertises "escort services," used Backpage to advertise.
All states but Nevada outlaw prostitution, and state and federal laws prohibit the exploitation of minors and nonconsenting adults in the commercialization of sex. In North Carolina lawbooks, prostitution and solicitation are categorized as Class One misdemeanors. North Carolina Judges may consider specific circumstances in meting out punishment, and state law prevents a jail sentence exceeding 120 days if convicted.
Despite laws, a market for sex persists. Data on the number of current working escorts in North Carolina is hard to come by, but FBI statistics show a significant drop in state arrests for prostitution between 2001 and 2016, from 1,566 to 182 people. It is possible that the downturn in arrests reflects the industry's move to cyberspace. It could also represent shifting priorities among local law enforcement departments.
According to anti-trafficking advocacy group Project No Rest, North Carolina remains in the top 10 states for most human trafficking. Trafficking victims are defined as those underage and/or coerced or deceived into prostitution.
North Carolina and the Triangle have a population of sex workers also: people of legal age who consent to exchange sex for money, distinct from trafficking victims.
An Orange County law enforcement professional who did not wish to be named states that online escorts tend to concentrate in sections of Raleigh and around RDU airport because there are more motels and hotels in which to conduct business.
The western Triangle sees fewer activity because "there are only a couple of hotels in Chapel Hill [and] Carrboro, and the risk of [clients] being spotted is high."
The Sundial spoke with a woman who has made her living as an escort in Raleigh for the past five years, who said sites like Backpage allowed women to pursue sex work independent of some aspects of the business
"I'm independent, so I don't do pimps or services," said the woman, who advertises as Carmen. She said it was her impression that Backpage offered girls a way to work for themselves "because of the large amount of traffic" that the site generated.
When news of the shutdown hit the streets, she said, "All the hoes panicked, because that is how we pay our bills. [Not] everyone is…on drugs. Some do it to pay for college and many of us have families to feed."
Carmen herself is a graduate of North Carolina Central University, where she majored in psychology. "I also had a corporate job but still make more money [escorting] tax free... I love what I do, in other words."
The Sundial spoke by phone to Charlene Reese, a representative for the Durham Crisis Response Center. Reese criticized a dearth of local media coverage on trafficking. "When I tell people I work in human trafficking services and they say, 'Oh, that's not happening in Durham,'" she said. "They don't realize that it is happening here to young people in our community."
Victims of trafficking are her focus, but Reece also works with women who entered the profession by choice. She disputes the notion that independent escorts such as Carmen aren't being misused too.
"There are probably some women who say [they aren't being exploited]…and choose to do sex work because they feel fulfilled," she said. "But for probably most people who are doing sex work, they are doing it because it is the best option for them because other options are limited."
Does that make them trafficking victims? No, Reese said, but that does not turn sex work into a legitimate option.
"If you have limited education, or you have a criminal record, and you have a child or two that needs to eat and you know that the only way you can get money is to sell yourself, then you can choose to do that," said Reese. "And then you are not being trafficked, you are choosing to do that. But are you doing it because you are fulfilled or because it's the only choice you have?"
A Safe Space?
Clinical sexologist Laurie Bennett-Cook, who studied at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, delineated between sex work and sex trafficking, or the exploitation of people by forcing them into sex work.
Bennett-Cook spoke by email. Backpage may have been a place for both trafficking victims and sex workers, but she emphasizes the difference, and the impacts upon each of the recent move by the government to shut down the site.
"Trafficking and voluntary sex work are quite different from one another; lumping them together does a disservice to actually ending sex trafficking," Bennett-Cook said. "Making sex work a crime does not help people get out of it any more than decriminalizing sex work traps people in it. At its core, sex work is a transaction between consenting adults — an agreed payment for an agreed service."
She emphasized that not all women engaged in prostitution are doing so as a last resort. "There are many people who choose this line of work who are educated, not abused, not addicts, who do this work because they enjoy it and believe themselves to be offering a much-needed service," she said.
Economist and associate professor Scott Cunningham of Baylor University recognizes prostitution as the single most dangerous vocation for a woman in the United States, citing a 2004 study by John Potterat and other scholars that found the profession's homicide rate to be 204 per 100,000 people in the United States. The gross female homicide rate was 2.2 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the CDC.
A 2017 study co-authored by Cunningham found that in the years between 2002 and 2010, whenever Craigslist made their erotic services section available to a new city, the female homicide rate there dropped by an average of 17.4 percent. In summarizing their findings, Cunningham and his colleagues John Tripp and Gregory DeAngelo stated, "Our analysis suggests that this reduction in female violence was the result of street prostitutes moving indoors and matching more efficiently with safer clients."
Cunningham, who spoke with the Sundial by phone, said that in his opinion, "The government isn't providing the right incentives to these companies [such as Backpage and Craigslist] to report trafficking."
The bill Rep. Walker sponsored was part of a broader federal attempt to curb the trafficking and coercion of vulnerable populations into the illegal sex trade.
The law amends the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and is the combination of two bills: the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the Senate. The package of both passed with broad majorities of 388-25 and 92-2 in House and Senate respectively.
Until recently, Backpage was a popular destination for those looking to buy and sell sex in its many derivations. Section 230 of CDA was commonly claimed to prevent website operators from being held liable for what other people posted on their site.
Backpage.com was a subsidiary of Dutch conglomerate Atlantische Bedrijven CV. Feds seized Backpage's domain name in April.
Prior to that, numerous American lawsuits accused Backpage of willfully ignoring the trafficking of underage girls. The Netflix documentary "I Am Jane Doe" featured extensive interviews with sexually exploited young people that also implicated Backpage.
In 2016, Texas state authorities raided Backpage's corporate headquarters and arrested CEO Carl Ferrer. Ferrer eventually pled guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution as well as money laundering. He did not admit to pimping or sex trafficking.
The "Flash Press"
The Backpage advertising model came from the free alternative weekly newspapers that sprouted up in cities during the 1970s and '80s, who subsidized their youth-targeted reporting with classified and personal ads. These ad sections soon came to be dominated by individuals offering sex in the guise of "escorting" or romantic connections, and the more numerous they became, the less willing traditional advertisers were to purchase copy space alongside them, thus generating more space for such ads.
A history of government action to regulate printed advertisements for sex predates Internet days. In 1907, for instance, personals in the New York Herald were exposed by a rival Hearst newspaper for offering services that went a step beyond "ladies as masseuses and as companions for elderly gentlemen" (to quote former Hearst editor Jack McPhaul). Publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr. was convicted of sending obscene matter through the mails and fined $25,000."
The Internet was a new frontier. Economist Scott Cunningham, an associate professor at Baylor University, said, "When Craigslist first started its erotic services section it was free to post an ad.
"But, under pressure from state-level officials [most notably current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was the state's attorney general at the time] and negative press coverage, they began charging five dollars. Then they were accused of making money off of prostitution."
Craigslist's "erotic services" section had been the go-to destination for online sex listings. But Craigslist discontinued the "erotic services" section in 2010. The gap was filled by Backpage.
Feds seized the Backpage.com domain name on April 6, shutting down the website.
While Backpage may have been the Web's most recognized classifieds page for sex solicitation during its eight years, in its absence there have emerged new websites for sex workers that look and function identically to their predecessor.
Carmen said she makes use of these new sites, though it may take some time before the traffic volume reaches Backpage numbers. In that same time, they may be shut down. She does not worry about the dent in her income after Backpage's loss, and she made it clear that that she will not be looking for new clients offline.
"Not an easy issue"
The Durham City Police Department's public affairs manager, Wil Glenn, affirmed that no homicides involving female victims in their jurisdiction were reported for two months after Backpage's shutdown.
When asked if the department has noticed a reduction in escort advertising within the same time period, he replied, "Possibly, but it is hard to quantify in numbers because of the difficulties in enforcement prior to the shutdown."
Glenn emphasized that illegal sex work "is not an easy issue for law enforcement to solve. An operation has to be put together to catch one [online classified] poster. Even then, that helps to catch the person selling sex, but not a pimp that may be involved."
The police also understand that they may find victims of trafficking or other coercive situations. "When we run into someone involved in sex work, the goal is not always criminal charges. Sometimes the goal is to get them connected to appropriate resources, such as Project FIGHT [Free Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking] or the Durham Crisis Response Center."
Change of Venues
The federal government's takedown of websites like Backpage.com has pushed sex trade advertising offline and back to physical locations where sex workers are more vulnerable to exploitation and law enforcement.
Working street-level is actually worse, Carmen said, because "pimps...prey on the younger females that are in f---ed up situations."
As for reports of minors being trafficked on Backpage, it was Carmen's opinion that criminal activity "can happen on any site, and shutting them down makes it harder to find."
She added that the most vulnerable might not be able to access Web forums. "I'm not sure that those women who are most at risk for being abused by clients and pimps really have the resources" to navigate the internet and sell their time, she said.
Runaways and drug addicts might not have access to reliable Wi-Fi internet or smartphones, for example.
Those "who are ignorant to the internet [have] been forced to the streets," Carmen said.
Whether new websites will come to fill the space of dismantled forums like Backpage, or shall be pulled down in turn, is still unclear. The new legislation affects only websites hosted in the United States, so foreign domains may step in as hosts.
"People always say that," said Cunningham, "but I really think that FOSTA-SESTA will be the end of accessible online classified ads for sex workers. I hope that I'm wrong."
The new law may drive criminal behavior underground — but, Cunningham questioned, to what end?
"Is the goal to prevent human trafficking? Or is the goal to disrupt the sex market? If the goal is to find these lost women, then sites like Backpage really help that by making them visible."
Project No Rest provides help to victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. For resources or information go to PROJECTNOREST.ORG