On Friday, the Department of Justice seized backpage.com, the website that was once the most accessible online marketplace for sex workers. All that remains is a large banner announcing the shutdown under a row of law-enforcement logos. The site was a target for groups opposed to sex work, and for legislators, who in the last few weeks converged to pass the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, meant to remove such ads from the internet. More than a dozen websites hosting ads for sex work have since gone offline. On Monday, the criminal indictment against Backpage was unsealed; seven of their staffers were charged with money laundering and violations of the Travel Act concerning facilitating prostitution. Backpage could not violate FOSTA; the president has not yet signed it into law.
Sex workers have used the internet over the last decade to carve out some independence, safety, and community in their work. For many, advertising online is a form of harm reduction — a way to choose how to work and whom to work with. To lose online ads means different things to different sex workers: For some, it means losing the equivalent of a paycheck, and for others, it will lead to losing control over their jobs, if not losing their jobs altogether.
Friday evening, as it became clear that backpage.com was gone, I began contacting sex workers from across the United States: from a range of backgrounds, types of sex work, and years of work experience. Here are some of their stories, in their own words, as told to me on Saturday, April 7, and Sunday, April 8, 2018.
On finding out backpage.com was shut down
Trinity Collins (27, African-American trans woman working in New Orleans): How did I find out Backpage was shut down? I like to use the term “How did I find out I was fired?”
Simone (20, Middle Eastern/North African cis woman working in New York City): I was on the J train on my way to meet up with some other sex workers in the city, when I got this very frantic phone call from a friend. “Hey, I just tried to post up my ad on Backpage and I got this pop-up, do you know what’s going on?” And then immediately she just started sobbing on the phone.
Glenn Spence (37, white cis woman working in New England): I was in this motel room that I’m in right now, this exact same motel room, actually. I was freaking out because when I logged onto the site, the only payment option was in cryptocurrency.
Harpy Anna (29, white, “Female/Politically Queer,” working in Chicago): Way before I was ever an escort, I had looked on Backpage just to see what was going on on there. There was always Backpage. Then, one day it just disappears?
Sarah (30s, white and Jewish cis woman, living in Michigan): I found out on Twitter that Backpage shut down – almost two years after I left survival sex work. Backpage helped keep me safe during one of the scariest, most dangerous times of my entire life. Being homeless and under the control of an abusive man who needed an illegal substance to stay semi-functional was scary. Backpage was the best option I had for people who would give me money, so I could stay alive.
On how the site helped them make money
Harpy Anna: Our business has been declining for about a year. I feel like maybe about four years ago, it was like really, really good. Backpage was popping. You didn’t have to take clients you didn’t want to take because you were always going to get calls. But then, over the last year — whenever they took out the escorts section — that affected business. (In January 2017, Backpage removed its Escorts section, though advertisers soon moved to the Personals section.)
Trinity: When this happened, I only had $100 to my name. Backpage offered me options to do gift cards, and I would go to Best Buy and buy $150 gift cards. I had just done that the day before. That was $150 down the drain.
Natalia: I had a pending $85 in credits for Backpage. This whole weekend, which is usually the first weekend of the month after rent, is usually one of our busiest weekends. We basically lost everything because I didn’t get any phone calls whatsoever.
Harpy Anna: There is this thing that Backpage guys do, the predatory ones, not the typical client, but people that just prey on sex workers. They will wait until the end of the month and try to contact you, and try to get you to lower your rate, because they might think that you are desperate because you have to pay rent and bills soon.
I had a regular client for several years and then, he went kind of off the deep end and assaulted me. I haven’t been in contact with him at all. The day that Backpage went down, it was like within the next two or three hours, he was texting me like, “Hey, what’s up? Hey, can I come over?” Just really trying to … I don’t know, capitalize on the fact that people are going to be in panic mode.
Glenn: I’ve been helping out a couple of women who had started out working on Backpage — they were working the streets for a while and I would just run into them. And they basically begged me to help them get on Backpage. These women are living in overpriced motel rooms, where they’re charged by these opportunistic motel owners. They could be homeless and in agonizing withdrawal within like five or six or seven hours. So they have to take care of that every day, they have to take care of their habits, and that’s what I was thinking.
Joy (40, African-American trans woman working in East Texas/Louisiana): I am originally from Southern California. My professional background is in TV and film production. While living there as a gay male, I was assaulted when I was 19 — and since then have had post-traumatic stress disorder. Being a sex worker, I do erotic massages. That has provided a certain amount of income for me, as well as freedom, to pursue my writing goals as well as to just be able to pretty much be with myself and by myself. I have been coming down here since November and I kept coming back because it was like sitting on an oil well and it was just gushing and gushing, the amount of money I was making.
Simone: I am a Middle Eastern, Muslim 20-year old woman from a very poor part of the South who has been living independently in New York for about two years now. I primarily work out of a massage parlor in the West Village but also do full-service sex work and fetish stuff occasionally. Backpage is currently — or it was — my sole source of income. Backpage is a lot easier than running a website or using Eros. It has the lowest pay barrier. I’ve been told that I need to start posting on Eros, and that’s fine and that’s cool, but it’s also $200 per ad as opposed to Backpage’s $7.
On how the site gave them stability
Natalia: I am a grad student; my internship does not pay. I have no financial help from anybody whatsoever. I attended one of the top schools in my program, and this is the only way that I could keep attending school.
Sarah: I became homeless in March of 2016 when I abandoned my home, marriage, job, my entire life, because I was manic and under the spell of a charismatic abuser, “Barn Cat.” Barn Cat was a $100–$300 a day heroin user. Barn Cat needed heroin. Heroin costs money. Barn Cat had no money. I had to get money, somehow. From somewhere.
Natalia: I share a workspace with one of my closest friends. She works as a massage therapist. So, in our work, that is what we go under and we do post on Backpage as that. She is being burdened in a completely different way because … she doesn’t go to school, but she is a single mother with no other source of income whatsoever, because she got married very young, so she has zero experience. Her situation is completely different because there is a child on the line.
Sarah: We were stuck at a gas station on US 23. Barn Cat, throwing up blood. Me, panicking. I walked around the parking lot, from semitruck to semitruck, asking in broad-ass daylight if any truckers would like to have sex with me. Yes, really. When none of the truckers took me up on my super-appealing, totally not suspicious offering, I started approaching men on motorcycles. BECAUSE I WATCHED SONS OF ANARCHY OKAY, I thought it would work. It did not.
Simone: I worked at a record label for about a year before layoffs, in like August 2017? So I haven’t hit my full year since I started doing sex work, which has been my shtick, my gig. Ideally, if I make enough money it’d be nice to go back to school, but priorities are priorities.
Joy: I did work in the streets for quite some time when I lived in Los Angeles, and then, I stopped, once there was Craigslist, Backpage, Eros … I have been on there since the inception. When I worked in the streets in Hollywood, Santa Monica Boulevard where the trans are, I was arrested several times and placed on probation for several years.
Sarah: Someone on Twitter told me about Backpage. I took my laptop to a coffee shop, took a picture of my boobs, and posted a free ad. An hour later, I made $100, bought $20 worth of food, and gave the rest to Barn Cat. After that, we got into a routine. Barn Cat would yell at me to post ads three times a day. I would do out calls until I could convince a man to get me a cheap hotel room, then I would do in calls. In three months, I estimate I made around $10,000 for Barn Cat. AND I’M STILL GRATEFUL AS FUCK FOR BACKPAGE, because without them, I would have still been knocking on semitruck doors.
Trinity: I started college long ago. I owe on my student loans. I started my own business about two months ago, the Bomb Agency, and I am trying to get that off the ground because I knew this day was coming. I developed a passion for photography. And part of my business plan was to go on Backpage and offer the photo shoots to the girls because we always need new pictures.
Glenn: I’ve had this uptick of business, but it feels very calm-before-the-storm-y. Like because I have a lot of regulars, and because I’ve been around a while, I’m a known presence, I’m somebody secure that people can turn to, like oh well I still have this girl’s number even though Backpage is down. So I have this weird juxtaposition of feeling financially secure in the moment but not knowing what my business plan is gonna be and not knowing how I’m going to be making money a month from now.
Joy: The money that I earned over pretty much the decade was just money for me to live comfortably, for me to travel, for me to do things in my personal life like laser hair removal, which cost thousands of dollars.
Natalia: I felt safe with it. I choose whether or not I want to do something. The way that I work is, “You come here and you get a massage,” and if I think the client is going to be cooperative and he is going to have the means to pay — if I feel like I want to do something, I will do it. If not, I will just finish the regular massage. If I go work somewhere else, whether it is the street, whether it is for somebody else, I won’t have the freedom to do that and I won’t feel safe anymore.
Sarah: With Backpage, I could post my phone number, and I could talk to these dudes a little bit, to weed out the worst ones. If Barn Cat was really dope sick, sometimes I had to go anyway. But if I had a polite, respectful dude on the line, I could choose him over another.
On what’s next
Glenn: What I’m really concerned about is the loss of screening information and the loss of community blacklists is going to mean. I have enough shaky social capital and have enough latitude that I can say, “Give me some employment verification,” whereas, most workers who are even a degree or two below me on that hierarchy can’t afford to spook clients by asking those questions. The only thing they can rely on is shared community information.
Simone: Right now, the focus is on finding the next Backpage. Once there’s a vacuum like this, something will come to fill it. The demand in the market for commercial sex is never going to stop.
Joy: I am working on my memoir Shooting Range. Sometimes I will get a grant here and there. I enter writing competitions. Now I will be entering a whole lot more of those. But, I have resources, financial resources. I would like to believe I’m an expert budgeter. I am okay in that sense.
Harpy Anna: I, personally, am going to probably look for a part-time job. Several of us have some regulars, but that is probably 25–50 percent of people’s business. That is not enough to sustain you. I have been exploring the idea of freelancing in the bars.
Sarah: Backpage gave me a basic screening tool, which led to money, food, and shelter. Backpage wasn’t at fault for Barn Cat being abusive, or for the few men I ran into who really got off on hurting me in ways I don’t want to describe. Backpage didn’t turn me into a sex worker, any more than YouTube can turn people in musicians or comedians. It was just the medium. An accessible and free medium.
Joy: This has just changed everything. I know girls are going to be struggling because everyone is saying, “Those streets are going to be packed.” We have been working out of the privacy of our homes for over a decade and hotels and motels and extended-stays. I am sure people have probably been working out of campers and RVs, too. But now, where are they going to go?
Natalia: I am definitely scared. I don’t want to not finish school. It is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear, a lot of frustration mainly because that was the way we felt safe. I don’t think I have the courage to go on the street and do this kind of work. Ever.
Trinity: Well, I am still here. I am still in New Orleans. I have been doing this for a long time, maybe about ten years. I am thinking about going back to the streets, but it is just so dangerous, and the police don’t understand getting a job isn’t easy for everyone. New Orleans has just installed a bunch of new crime cameras. They are criminalizing everything … They have always criminalized being transgender and walking the streets late at night.
Sarah: And yes, I tried to get out. On three occasions, I walked up to police officers and said “Help me, I’m a prostitute, that man makes me post ads and takes my money, please take me or him to jail” and they laughed at me and turned me away. I’m white, that’s all that saved me, I think. I’m still mad at those cops. HELLO OFFICER I AM DOING CRIMES RIGHT NOW PLEASE SAVE ME. Nothing.
Glenn: I knew someone who had, you know, she was mostly street-based, but she had a side hustle doing the Craigslist personals, and even that just makes you able to say no to maybe one dicey street client that week, you know?
Simone: I’m in a Facebook group where one woman is going as far as to reaching out to her software and dev friends about moving Backpage onto a Tor browser, onto the dark web. It’s really inspiring but also makes you think, Why aren’t I doing more?
Joy: Who is going to benefit off of this now? All of the police stations when they are out there arresting the sex workers. This has nothing to do with morals. This has nothing to do with Christianity. Don’t give me that shit. You can go on down the road with that. This is real life.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.