Any choice made out of a place of desperation is accompanied by enormous sacrifices. Working for Backpage changed everything.
Content warning: sexual violence
Istarted advertising on Backpage in 2015, when I had just been fired from my job after my employer found out I was an addict in recovery. Advertising on Backpage saved my life.
I started in the sex industry under duress. But I have worked in the industry for 10 years now by choice. Anti-trafficking activists will have you believe that the sex industry is black and white but in reality, personal and sexual agency exist on a very, very long spectrum. I am a trafficking survivor and a sex worker — both can and do exist in a single person at the very same time.
Backpage’s adult section was shut down in late 2016 after pressure from the federal government, which alleged the site was deleting code words for underage prostitution on individual ads that were useful in tracking the sex trafficking of minors. Ironically, as the Washington Post pointed out:
“Experts suggest that allowing sex to be advertised online makes it easier for police to identify these victims — who would otherwise be on the street or on other Web sites that are more difficult to monitor.”
In essence, the result of the shut down was displacement of sex workers everywhere, driving any potential sexual exploitation exponentially further underground and making it considerably more difficult to identify. When I began advertising on Backpage in 2015, I had already been in the sex industry for 11 years.
I started as a teenager in New York City, working for the Latin Kings gang in Washington Heights and the Bronx. Even after I escaped the gang, however, my exploitation did not end. Several years later, I was pimped out by my then- fiance, who worked for the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful and feared of all the Mexican cartels.
Living with my fiance, I remember being raped every day — being strangled with towels and old clothes, being kicked, punched, body slammed, and assaulted with weapons. I’ve experienced a lifetime of violence from men who were supposed to love me — a lifetime of alienation from “legitimate” economies, because I have Bipolar Disorder, because I’m an addict and alcoholic, and because I have complex PTSD, which makes it hard for me to work a job where I have to have a boss telling me what to do.
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I’ve been fired from a job in social work for being an addict in recovery and I’ve been fired from a job in social work for being an “out” sex worker who would not recant her support of the profession.
When Backpage came into my life, I had decided that this time I was going to engage in the sex industry by choice. It was a way for me to re-write my past trauma and reclaim my body for myself. I am not a valued member of American capitalistic society. I am what capitalism might call “useless.” But a “useless” mentally ill person still needs to make money under capitalism somehow.
After placing an ad under the now defunct “escort” section, my phone immediately began ringing off the hook. Every single day I easily got at least a hundred phone calls, which meant I had the power to cherry pick who was worthy of my time — and my beautiful pussy — and who wasn’t.
I’ve experienced a lifetime of violence from men who were supposed to love me.
Society throws marginalized folks in the trash then gets angry at us when we do what we got to do to survive. I would love for anyone to tell me where a marginalized person can have more autonomy — physically, fiscally and otherwise — than in the sex industry. Anyone? Anyone? Didn’t think so.
I loved advertising on BP. Backpage gave me the ability to be contacted by clients and screen them in the ways that felt the most safe to me. Some sex workers I knew took client inquiries exclusively by email and demanded proof of employment and legal identification — demands that are all but impossible if you’re hustling on the street to survive.
BP was also extremely accessible — even for low income workers such as myself. Advertising prices were on a kind of sliding scale — $12 to see your ad regenerate at the top of the list for three days — that sort of thing. After I left BP, it was free for a while too. But more than anything, BP allowed me to have total control over my employment. Not being told what to do or forced to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with was unprecedented and incredibly liberating considering the history I’d had in the sex industry.
The majority of clients I worked with from BP were — by and large — very kind and respectful. There were, of course, a few creeps here and there, but I always managed to leave a trick when my hooker spidey senses told me something was off. Because BP gave me a huge clientele to choose from with minimal risk compared to street work, I didn’t feel as pressured to take every single client that came my way.
My sex work ceased to be marked by sheer desperation to make money. If there’s one thing I know for sure, any choice made out of a place of desperation — a place predicated on the barest bones of survival — is usually accompanied by enormous sacrifices. In terms of my health and safety, Backpage changed everything.
The war on BP and online sex work claims its battles are waged in the name of trafficking victims. But arguably, the most common factors contributing to this kind of vulnerability are poverty, displacement, and alienation from resources.
I would argue that the government is, in actuality, facilitating trafficking by driving it further underground, making it more clandestine, and actively preventing sex workers from freely choosing — for themselves — what is and isn’t safe.
I will forever have fond memories of my time on Backpage. Together with the recent seizure of other sites used by sex workers, such as Eros, it has been difficult to find a safe entry point back into the industry after taking a break for several years. One night last year — I hadn’t eaten in three days— I ended up walking the track in desperation.
Online, sex workers are given a tremendous platform to express their agency and autonomy — two things that the “anti’s” think we can’t possess. But my life on Backpage represented — for the very first time — a life led completely on my own terms. This safety and freedom is a true rarity for marginalized folks trying to work within American capitalism; it helped my healing immensely.
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My answer to the trafficking problem is not simple, but it’s necessary if we want to truly address the systemic destruction of vulnerable populations. We have to decriminalize prostitution, removing the legal penalties; this is not to be confused with removing all government regulations. This decriminalization must, in turn, be combined with an overhaul of state and federal policies aimed at dismantling institutional oppressions such as racism, poverty, sexism, and transphobia.
I realize these are huge meta-goals, but I believe they can be broken down into several direct, actionable steps.
As a start we have to examine American policies affecting access to health care; poor folks cannot feel like our only options are risking our lives on the streets or risking our lives by not taking necessary medical treatments — because we can’t afford them. Under the current administration, food stamps and other public benefit programs are shrinking, which means low income folks — particularly people of color, people with disabilities, and gender nonconforming people — will have fewer places to turn for financial help.
Yes, it’s exponentially simpler to shut down BP and hope everything goes away. (Or simply watch as the death toll and rates of poverty crimes rise, and blame sex work in a kind of twisted feedback loop). But the belief that eliminating BP will in turn eliminate underground economies of their accompanying risks and problems is not only foolish, it’s dangerous.
In short, trafficking has no simple solution. As a trafficking survivor, I feel the need to say that again. TRAFFICKING HAS NO SIMPLE SOLUTION. The minute you think it does, you have failed. Politicians — the bulk of whom are rich, cisgender white men — have little to no interest in dismantling the systems which keep them in power, which is in fact, the real “solution” to the trafficking issue.
We must stop looking to them for answers when they are deeply and personally invested in a system that keeps people on the margins at risk of being trafficked. The first place we can start in the war on trafficking is to acknowledge this uncomfortable truth. Speak it out loud. Give it life.
We can’t change what we aren’t willing to acknowledge.