How America's FOSTA laws impact the lives of Canadian sex workers

Photo: Sarah Mann

On Friday, April 6, 2018, a coalition of American law enforcement agencies seized the classifieds site Backpage. Shortly thereafter, US President Donald Trump signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which is intended to target advertising websites like Backpage by opening them to civil and criminal liability if they knowingly facilitate human trafficking. 

Both of these events have affected Canadian sex workers because, after the closure of Craigslist's "Erotic Services" ads in 2010 and the criminalization of advertising hosts in 2014, we have largely been dependent on the infrastructure supporting the sex industry in the US. 

As Tits and Sassco-editor Caty-Simon writes:

Alas, poor fucking Backpage. I'm not crying any crocodile tears on your grave -- your owners can sit and stew in the hundred charges in their indictments and take that instead of true justice for cynically profiting off a criminalized population -- but I will lament what you meant for us.

Advertisers' and other internet businesses' responses to FOSTA have been telling. From social media, to communications apps like Skype, to sex industry websites, we've seen tightened terms of service, account suspensions and even U.S. branches of businesses shuttered. For example, the advertising and review website The Erotic Review (TER) has stopped letting people with US IP addresses access the site at all, citing FOSTA as their reason. 

TERand similar sites have never really been friends to sex workers. While reviews can help some workers attract more clients, the culture of client-run websites is misogynistic, and it empowers clients to vent their racist and sexist beliefs, to give workers poor reviews for not providing services like anal sex, and to try to blackmail workers by threatening bad reviews. TER's founder Dave Elms was convicted of attempting to hire a hit man to kill a sex worker whom he had harassed and to assault another a person who had published online the fact that Elm and other TERmoderators regularly attempted to extort money from sex workers. 

While the company is no longer associated with Elm, it's not an accident that this brain child of misogynistic scum continues to be a misogynistic cesspool. The speed with which TERand similar sites shut down says something telling about what they themselves think their role in the sex industry is. If things were fine under the same U.S. laws that brought down Backpage, but the party's over now that they're open to liability, that suggests that what these businesses truly can't stand isn't violence or exploitation -- it's accountability to victims. 

Since 2010, Backpagehas been one of the go-to advertising sites for sex workers, especially those with low incomes. Although Backpage's only revenue source was sex ads, the ads themselves were dirt cheap. In many small, rural and Northern communities, sex ads were free. But that doesn't mean Michael Lacey and James Larkin, Backpage's owners, aren't scum who built far more wealth than they deserved on the backs of some of North America's poorest sex workers. It just means we depended on the site to get by. 

It seems clear that Lacey and Larkin were in the business of keeping revenue flowing, not helping sex workers. The indictment against them alleges that they didn't participate in good faith in efforts to stop human trafficking. Instead, they edited ads to remove illegal content, like suggestions of sex with minors. This editing ensured continued revenue, since Backpage could run the ads rather than forward them to authorities. Furthermore, the site's operators are alleged to have artificially minimized the number of child sex-trafficking cases they reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Backpage was for generating profit, not for making the industry safer. I'm not saying they're the evilest evil that ever evil-ed, but it would be foolish to consider them allies.

Sex workersare great people. The sex industry is shit. I understand "the sex industry" to mean capital organized around the exploitation of sex, sexual labour, and sex workers. Whether that's clients organizing review websites or incredibly wealthy men organizing advertising infrastructure, the point of their organizing is to get us to work more and harder for their own enrichment. 

I come to this conclusion after about 15 years of prostitution, from letting an illegal taxi driver feel me up for booze, to "escorting" by the hour. The sex industry is a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal wet dream that I have been trying to escape for almost a decade.

I hate selling sex. 

But I need the income. 

I'd love to say I'm in favour of dismantling the whole sex industry, but as long as I'm dependent on its infrastructure for my survival, I can't do that. While there was certainly trafficking on Backpage, just as there are certainly willing workers in the sex industry, most of us fall somewhere in between. If we're coerced, it's by circumstance and deprivation. 

Importing abolitionist policy to the Canadian and U.S. contexts of colonization and austerity, where there are much larger populations living with much less support from the welfare state, is not good enough. In the month since Backpage was seized and sex industry sites began to shutter because of FOSTA, sex workers have reported an increasing need to work the streets, calls from pimps offering to find us clients, disappearances, having to lower their rates and crises related to food and housing costs. We had all those problems before, too, but now we have one less resource for dealing with them.

Do you want to shut down advertisers? Fine clients? Tell Roxanne not to sell her well-dressed, poorly-lighted body to the night? Super. I might not think those are the best policies, but I've lived with demand-side criminalization for four years, and we could do worse. 

But plan ahead and make sure Roxanne can still afford to feed her kids. Fight for sex workers' criminal records to be expunged. Challenge NIMBYs who blame your community's problems on us and hold police to account when they ignore the spirit of our laws by finding new and creative ways to arrest sex workers (e.g. for stopping traffic). Hire sex workers who want to leave the industry. Help us solve the immediate problem of lost income: send cash and grocery gift cards designated for distribution directly to sex workers to your local sex workers' or outreach program. 

Sex workers deserve governments and movements that take the time to develop good policy and enforcement plans, ones that account for the needs of the living, breathing persons behind those Backpage ads. The closure of Backpage and the passage of laws like FOSTA may not be a win for sex workers, but a feminist critique of how governments enforce anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution legislation could be.

Sarah Mann is a writer, academic and activist from Sudbury, ON. She has been involved in the sex workers' right movement for more than ten years. Sarah's writing can be found in This Magazine, Briarpatch, rabble, Tits and Sass, the Hamilton Spectator, Canadian Theatre Review, and Digital Studies. She blogs here.

Photo: Sarah Mann

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