Would intervening with adult advertising actually stop sex trafficking?

Kasumovic's research shows the men most likely to harass women online are also most likely to have their own problems.

Kasumovic's research shows the men most likely to harass women online are also most likely to have their own problems. Photo: Stocksy

You know you're living in strange times when a law enforcement officer living in Illinois can influence the livelihood of sex workers in Australia. Last week, news broke that Visa and MasterCard would no longer be available as payment options for advertisements placed in the 'adult' section of Backpage.com, a classified service website that operates in a similar manner to Craigslist. With limited avenues available to sex workers advertising their services, Backpage.com has been an invaluable resource - yet this has come under threat from a curious mix of morality, probable good intentions and basic corporate fear.

There are legal provisions in place that protect a website like Backpage, so there should be no discernable reason for companies like MasterCard and Visa to withdraw services. What has prompted their decision seems to be the actions of Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Illinois' Cook County. A spokesperson for the sheriff's department, Benjamin Breit, stated that since 2009, "We've closed more than 50 cases of either sex trafficking or human trafficking or involuntary sexual servitude." Breit said that most of those cases had incorporated Backpage.

Understanding that federal law was on Backpage's side, Dart opted to write to MasterCard and visa to urge them to withdraw their services in what he claimed was a bid to prevent further victims of trafficking. Both companies chose to follow through with Dart's recommendations, a move no doubt prompted by the fear of being accused of corporate endorsement of criminal activity. In a follow up statement last Tuesday, Dart said, "Backpage has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for would-be sex traffickers, giving them easy access to millions of johns while cloaking them in anonymity and putting all risk on the shoulders of their victims. Raising that barrier will lead to less would-be sex traffickers entering the business and ultimately less victims." Unfortunately, all this move has done has left countless sex workers around the world reeling and frightened at the prospect of losing business opportunities and being forced further into poverty.

It seems obvious that Dart and his department are motivated by good intentions, especially considering their work with non-consenting victims of the sex trade. Yet good intentions are not always based on good information, as Sydney based sex worker Lucie Bee told me in a recent conversation. Nor does she think that denying independent agents the options to advertise their services will be effective in shutting down illegal and abusive trafficking operations.

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"I just feel like this constant battle against Backpage instead of using them as a potential resource in tracking these people down is so unhelpful," she told me. "Why aren't they working with [the site] as opposed to trying to bring them down? It baffles me. This 'us and them' mentality that the Cook County Sheriff has with Backpage is affecting workers in Australia, and it doesn't help stop trafficking."

Adelaide based sex worker Sarah* agrees. "Limiting the options for sex workers to advertise won't stop the sex trafficking trade. No criminal intent on trafficking people to scumbags for profit is going to be discouraged by a lack of visible advertising sources. It will just move it further underground."

As well intentioned as Dart and his department might be towards the victims of trafficking, Bee thinks that he has a problem with the industry as a whole that's being reflected in his dismissal of sex worker autonomy and agency. "I can't begin to tell you how hopeless it makes me feel when it's this constant battle, where everyone wants the same thing but don't want to work together to get there. [Dart] won't be willing to work with us to help these women."

Trafficking aside, MasterCard and Visa's decision is already having a detrimental impact on sex workers in Australia - who, unlike sex workers across many US states like Illinois, are not breaking the law by using Backpage to advertise their services. Sex worker Mia Darling believes this will especially affect "sex workers starting out with little to no capital, or sex workers providing unique experiences or services that other avenues might not cater for."

Additionally, there are larger questions about precedents set by the pick-and-choose 'morality' on display here. If companies like Mastercard and Visa can buckle to pressure from one law enforcement officer, what does that mean for the future potential to withdraw support or access based on personal belief systems as opposed to facts? As Darling says, "It's absolutely ridiculous for a financial institution to take this kind of governing control over how people use their money. These cards are used for these types of services every day, and the fact that they allowed this ban to be put in effect worldwide is disheartening."

Darling raises a good point. MasterCard and Visa's most valuable customers - ie, their wealthiest ones - are unlikely to ever be impacted by this kind of moral policing. Let's face it, there's a reason the sex trade is so abundant up on Capitol Hill. The kind of wealthy people who keep Visa and MasterCard in business will never have a problem purchasing sex services. So why is the punishment being directed towards the people who provide them?

For now, Backpage have announced a temporary reprieve on charging for ads placed in their adult section. The news has brought some level of relief to sex workers concerned about the demolition of their businesses. But for those at the coalface of the world's oldest profession, anxiety over the future remains. And in this economy, nobody can afford to be out of work.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

To read first person insight from sex workers on this issue, check out the #chargeisdeclined hashtag on Twitter