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This anti-sex trafficking group is going after your office computer

It's the newest tactic in the war against sex workers.


Mary Emily O'Hara


Posted on Nov 5, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 4:56 pm CDT

If you block them, they can’t come.

That’s the idea behind a new public-private coalition that aims to have sites like blocked in offices and other workplaces. Called the BEST Employer Alliance (BEST stands for Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking), the group has partnered with the City of Seattle, King County, and a slew of private companies in an anti-sex trafficking effort. However, free speech advocates and those who work directly with sex workers and trafficking victims are critical of the BEST Employer Alliance’s methods, warning that it errors on the side of censorship and endangers sex workers. 

“This is the first public-private partnership in the U.S. that works across industries to prevent sex trafficking and sex buying by working with employers,” said BEST Executive Director Mar Brettman in an interview with the Daily Dot just days after the initiative launched in September. “We have partnered with both the county and the city of Seattle, which are both significant employers in the region. And we have 18 employers total representing 125,000 employees.”

That’s a lot of people who can no longer access Backpage during working hours. And according to a study that King County prosecutors conducted in collaboration with Google last winter, most sex work clients book appointments during the afternoon hours while they are at work.

“We wanted to see employers realize that this is such a prevalent issue,” Brettman said. “There’s so many people doing this, and it’s illegal activity that’s taking place during work hours.”

What did Backpage do wrong?

Backpage, a Craigslist-like classifieds site that houses ads for free couches and rooms for rent in addition to adult services like domination and erotic massage, has been under fire for years. A slew of law enforcement and political figures, led by Chicago-area Sheriff Tom Dart, point to instances of sex trafficking that have been linked to ads on Backpage.

Ever since Craigslist gave in to pressure and dumped its own erotic services section in 2009, Dart and friends focused their efforts on Backpage. Earlier this year, the website received a serious blow when Visa and MasterCard dumped Backpage and announced they would no longer process payments made to the site—an international policy change that infuriated sex workers in countries where prostitution is legal and where Backpage is a primary source of legal advertising.

In the U.S., Backpage itself isn’t illegal and breaks no law by merely hosting ads placed by third parties. If third-party Web hosting were akin to aiding in criminal activity, then Facebook and Twitter would quickly cease to exist due to the plethora of illegal gun and drug sales on the platforms, not to mention the fact that almost every sex worker has a separate work profile these days. So the tactics of the people who seek to smudge sex work out of existence have to be more cleverly designed. By pressuring credit card companies to divest, and now by pressuring employers to block the site en masse, the anti-Backpage set hopes to slowly choke the site out of its users.

According to Nadia Kayyali of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this kind of chokehold coming from private companies and organizations, rather than from law enforcement or the courts, is a plain censorship issue—one that compares to the way credit card companies were pressured to block donations to WikiLeaks in 2010.

“What Visa and MasterCard have done with Backpage and in countless other instances, is a censorship that is sort of quasi-governmental, and that’s what I would call this,” said Kayyali told the Daily Dot. “I also think the important point about financial censorship, which sort of bleeds over into our work with sex workers, is that they’re using this threat of one type of user [traffickers] and using it as a blanket cover for shutting down something they just don’t like.”

Similar framing has been used to challenge the heightened-privacy browser Tor, Kayyali said, noting that people who just don’t want it to exist have claimed that Tor is most commonly used for viewing and disseminating child pornography. In fact, Tor has been heavily funded by the U.S. government: In 2013, 75 percent of the company’s expenses were paid for through federal grants. Much of the funding Tor receives now is channeled through military projects designed to prevent cyberattacks. And while anonymous browsers like Tor have undeniably been used for illegal practices such a drug sales and the distribution of child porn, they are just as frequently used to access sites like Twitter in Turkey and other countries where government regimes have blocked them, as well as by human rights activists in places like China.

“What we’ve seen over and over is that [for] people who want to take down sites like Backpage,” said Kayyali, “there’s nothing they’ll stop at to get those sites taken down.”

Does Backpage hurt women or keep sex workers safe?

Before launching the BEST Employer Alliance effort and focusing on website blacklists, BEST was involved in a Seattle campaign called Buyer Beware that targeted the clients of sex workers.

“We’re doing a whole lot more than just focusing on websites,” said Brettman. “We’re educating employers on harm reduction. We really want to reduce harm to people who are trafficked and make sure that they are reaching services. The Web part is actually a very small part of what we’re doing.”

Before taking on websites, BEST worked with local hotels and larger hotel chains, running educational workshops on how to recognize signs of sex trafficking in hotels. “We do our training, and tell [hotel employees] that if someone is suspected to be a minor engaged in prostitution and sex trafficking, to call law enforcement,” Brettman said. “We tell them that if someone is an adult, they have more choice in terms of how to handle it. They can call law enforcement—and as far as I understand it, they can’t really arrest them for prostitution without actually witnessing it.”

Buyer Beware, like the new Web-blocking initiative, operates with the intention of saving sex trafficking victims. (For clarity: all minors involved in prostitution are immediately classified as trafficking victims by law.) But sex workers themselves and advocates who work with victims say that the methods employed by BEST and other groups do more harm than good.

Kate D’Adamo of the Sex Workers Project told the Daily Dot that pushing sex workers out of hotels—by creating a threat of arrest or of being monitored by staff—only forces them to work on the streets in less safe areas.

“If you are working out of a hotel, it means you don’t have a more stable place to work,” said D’Adamo. “The safety of a hotel means that you have someone around if you do need to scream for help. Taking that away increases vulnerability for people working in the sex trade, including trafficking victims.”

D’Adamo also had harsh words for the hotel industry itself. She said that well-meaning organizations like BEST often misunderstand the statistics of trafficking, which show that other forms of labor trafficking into fields like kitchen work, domestic work, and agricultural labor are even more prevalent than sex trafficking.

According to a 2009 United Nations report on human trafficking, sex trafficking cases make up the bulk of identified trafficking busts overall at 79 percent. But although forced labor trafficking—the kitchens and other areas that D’Adamo referred to—make up about 18 percent of busts, the U.N. report stated that number “may be a misrepresentation because forced labour is less frequently detected and reported than trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

For example, another U.N. agency, the International Labour Organization, estimates that 21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor—but only 4.5 million of those are victims of sex trafficking. Why are the numbers so variant between the cases being pursued and the estimated victims? According to a 2015 Truthout special report, it’s because millions of dollars are being poured into nonprofits that combat sex trafficking. Some of those nonprofits, as in the explosive case of the Somaly Mam Foundation, have been exposed as fraudulent funding mills that inflate victim numbers to get money. When it comes down to it, sex trafficking is a hot topic, a “sex” cause—whereas regular labor trafficking, despite its many horrors, just doesn’t seem to pull on the heartstrings the same way.

“Hotel cleaning staff often is underpaid and depend largely on tips, and they are often connected to restaurants where trafficking in kitchens is a widespread and serious problem,” said D’Adamo. “If you want the hotel industry to deal with trafficking, that’s incredible. But that means they need to pay their staffs equal wages. Focusing on sex trafficking is a way to deflect that responsibility.”

When these statements were read over the phone to Brettman later, she swept past the larger trafficking issue and refocused even more pointedly on the possibility of saving minors.

“I understand the concerns. I just think it’s shocking that people would want children to be abused in hotels,” Brettman said. “Here in Seattle we’ve had 300-500 children being trafficked. We do not want hotels to look the other way at this kind of abuse.”

Savannah Sly, the director of the national organization SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project), has been in talks with organizations like BEST before. Sly describes her group as harm reduction-focused, while referring to BEST as prohibitionist. She said that it’s hard for her to imagine someone thinking they can eradicate prostitution altogether: such prohibitionist efforts haven’t worked with abortion, alcohol, or in the war on drugs. So why would they work with sex?

“That’s their party line: save the children,” said Sly after being read some of the BEST statements. “Sex workers rights groups are absolutely anti-trafficking and against the abuse of children. We would like to see all harm in the adult industry reduced or abolished. But it’s really hard to get prohibitionists to talk about anyone else in the industry. The majority of people in the industry are consenting adults or adults who are there by circumstance. Those people aren’t necessarily trafficking, they are there to get their needs met.”

Sly and Kayyali both cited the example of, the male escort social network and advertising site that was raided by the feds this summer. The Rentboy shutdown was notable for its utter lack of anti-trafficking rhetoric—the classic image of the trafficking victim stems from ‘white slavery’ mythology of a young, shivering white girl trapped in a harem in some foreign land—but it rattled the gay community regardless. The Rentboy shutdown seemed to be more about “acceptable” kinds of gay lifestyles than about trafficking fears. But Sly noted that the current war on sex workers’ online advertising has parallels in the gay sex panic as well.

“This painting of all clients as pedophiles reminds me of how we use to paint all homosexual men as pedophiles. That’s the same kind of stereotyping we’re seeing,” Sly said. “Decent men who are wanting to have consensual affairs with a provider who is of age are in a great position to see unethical behaviors or practices, and given the space to do so they’d be in a great position to report human rights violations.”

How far can the Backpage wars go?

In May 2014, two ACLU legislators wrote a blog post warning of the potential effects of a continued crusade against Backpage. The Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, H.R. 4225, had recently been introduced into Congress and was the third bill in two years to target Backpage.

“Online classified services, such as, have become the vehicles for advertising the victims of the child sex trade to the world,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) upon the bill’s introduction. “Companies that base their business models off of profits made by selling sex with children should not be allowed to operate.”

On Wagner’s website, a summary of the SAVE Act includes a provision that states, “The SAVE Act is designed to close Internet marketplaces that host advertisements for the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children.” The SAVE Act was signed into law by President Obama in May 2015, as part of the controversial Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which was opposed by most of the major nonprofits working with trafficking victims and sex workers alike.

Just three months after the JVTA and SAVE Act were signed into law, the feds raided Rentboy—proving that the legislation was going to be used to target website that host escort ads.

But even if the abolitionist crusade against the sex industry were to move away from Craigslist and Backpage and only target explicitly sex worker-focused websites—like Rentboy and MyRedBook, both of which have been shut down by federal authorities—the repercussions would still be experienced largely by struggling workers, not gangster networks of evil sex traffickers.

“If you shut down Backpage adult listings, you aren’t just denying pimps access,” Sly said. “You’re denying thousands and thousands of workers who need money. And if you shut down all of Backpage, you’re punishing hundreds of thousands of people who want access to roommate listings, sale items, general classifieds… all for the crimes of a very, very small few.”

The sex worker community already feels “totally harassed,” said Sly, emphasizing that campaigns like Buyer Beware and End Demand are a chokehold on the economy that sustains them and their families. But ultimately, as both D’Adamo and Sly said in interviews with the Daily Dot, targeting sites like Backpage and Rentboy are futile acts. After all, those who want to buy and sell sex are just going to go somewhere else.

In the case of the BEST Employer Alliance, Sly said that most clients of sex workers are already unlikely to use company equipment to troll ads and set up dates. In an era in which the typical office worker owns multiple types of personal electronics, there’s simply no need to rely on the office computer for anything.

“People have smartphones,” Sly said. “Clients are smart enough to not use company equipment to conduct their illicit affairs. I think that taking something away and saying ‘no, you can’t do this at work’ is not going to be effective. But it will impact sex workers the way things like this always do—by increasing stigma.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Nov 5, 2015, 10:00 am CST