In September 2010, craigslist.com was forced to take down the “adult” categories from its listings due to the fact that many of them were being used to advertise for sex work. After the categories were removed many sex workers took to posting in other semi-relevant sections using code words. This underground system of coded language allowed some measure of safety for the workers themselves as well as allowing craigslist some measure of deniability. But it’s an easy enough system to figure out, thus still leaving many sex workers vulnerable to the law.
In February 2011 the Silk Road was launched on the darknet to the delight of agorists, bitcoin enthusiasts, and tech savvy drug dealers everywhere. Silk Road was far more than just a drug market, but many of its most important achievements were in advancing the freedom and safety for that market’s participants. The use of bitcoin, practices like tumbling, and the fact that it could only be accessed on the darknet via TOR made it that much more anonymous, while customer reviews, a larger variety of choices, and shipping guides made it both safer and more convenient for the consumer. Since the Silk Road’s forced shutdown in 2013 and the shutdown of Silk Road 2.0 a year later, many other darknet markets have shown up such as Agora and Open Bizarre, all with varying degrees of success.
In July 2015 when Visa and Mastercard put pressure on the clearnet website backpage.com to take down their “adult” sections due to the fact that they was being used to post ads for sex work. Instead of giving in to this pressure, backpage dropped Visa and Mastercard and began using bitcoin as their main medium of exchange. This move was celebrated by bitcoiners everywhere. Beginner’s guides were created to teach sex workers new to the currency how to use bitcoin, /r/Bitcoin saw a rise in the number of subscribers and posters eager to learn, and there were even coordinated efforts by bitcoin enthusiasts to reach out in various cities and hold in person one-on-one and group teach-ins.
Following the release of a recent united states senate report, backpage was finally forced to shut down these categories due to what backpage representatives claim is “unconstitutional government censorship.” Each of their adult sections bears the word “censored” in bright red letters underneath the category and when clicked on they reveal the following message:
The government has unconstitutionally censored this content. What happened? Find out
Protect internet free speech. Visit Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Cato Institute.
Use your social media to support #FREESPEECH #BACKPAGE
Donate to Children of the Night, an organization dedicated to rescuing children from prostitution.
Despite this setback, backpage.com promises to continue their fight for freedom of speech, a fight very similar to the one that Ross Ulbricht was championing in his work with the Silk Road. This is a fight that Ross’ mother and supporters, the creators and users of subsequent deepweb marketplaces, and clearweb sites such as backpage and even piracy websites like The Pirate Bay are all in together. It is not only a question of whether a website creator should be held responsible for the actions of the website’s users but also a question as to whether such things as piracy, drugs, or sex work should even be illegal in the first place.
And while the senate claims that the adult sections of backpage.com needed to be shutdown because they have been used by sex traffickers who engage in child prostitution, backpage actually has been instrumental in helping stop child sex trafficking through their work with the group Children of the Night:
“It’s a sad day for America’s children victimized by prostitution,” said Dr. Lois Lee, Founder and President, Children of the Night, a leading national hotline and shelter program for victims of sex trafficking based in Los Angeles. “Backpage.com was a critical investigative tool depended on by America’s vice detectives and agents in the field to locate and recover missing children and to arrest and successfully prosecute the pimps who prostitute children.” She added, “The ability to search for and track potentially exploited children on a website and have the website bend over backwards to help and cooperate with police the way Backpage did was totally unique. It not only made law enforcement’s job easier, it made them much more effective at rescuing kids and convicting pimps.”
And while some libertarians maybe rightfully skeptical of backpage’s history of working with the police in any capacity while claiming to fight for the freedoms of sex workers, they also have a history of editing adult users’ sex work ads to be less blatant making them harder to bust by law enforcement. This dual-pronged strategy, while imperfect is meant to help help rescue those forced into sex trafficking while protecting the rights of those engaging in sex work on a voluntary basis as a means of income.
Despite backpage vowing to continue the fight, there is still an immediate need to help those most impacted by this loss. Many sex workers relied on backpage.com as their main source of advertising. Some had even paid in advance for continuous advertising and are left with no way to get that money back. Now these workers are left without a good place to advertise that is as trusted and garners as much traffic. Many of these workers rely on sex work as their main source of income meaning that they will suffer in a huge loss of income that could leave some in financial jeopardy.
Many are turning again to posting coded messages on the dating sections of backpage and craigslist while others are taking the chance to promote and share other options.
So if you know any sex workers or even if you are a sex worker with more access to resources than your fellow sex workers, reach out and provide mutual aid. In this time of great financial difficulty, a little cash or some bitcoin, some good food, a couch to crash, and especially some help finding other means of advertising could make all the difference for the safety and relative stability of our friends in the sex trade. If you don’t know any sex workers personally, you can donate to one of the many sex worker-led advocacy groups in existence such as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and the many many more that provide resources and legal aid for sex workers in need.
While donating resources to those most impacted by this shutdown is what is most immediately needed, it is in no way a long term solution. Sites like backpage allow sex workers the independence of working for themselves instead of having to rely on pimps and other third parties. Maybe what the sex trade needs is its very own Silk Road. Maybe what the sex trade really needs is the next Dread Pirate Roberts.