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Is Bitcoin the future of sex work?
Sex workers can no longer use credit cards to place their Backpage ads. Is Bitcoin ready for the rush?
Visa announced on Wednesday that it would cease to process any transactions made through the Craigslist-like online classifieds site Backpage. The credit card giant followed Mastercard, which announced the same split from Backpage on Tuesday, and the move has seriously rattled the sex worker community, many of whom are suggesting that the entire adult industry could become intrinsically entwined with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Both companies were responding to pressure from law enforcement, who claim that Backpage is a tool used by sex traffickers.
“Visa’s rules prohibit our network from being used for illegal activity,” said Visa spokesperson John Earnhardt in a statement. “Visa has a long history of working with law enforcement to safeguard the integrity of the payment system and we will continue to do so.”
Visa and Mastercard had received letters from Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart, who claimed that child sex trafficking makes up some portion of the million-plus monthly escort ads posted to the site.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dart’s office said they’ve made more than 800 arrests in his county — which includes Chicago — since 2009 in connection with the site. There was no clarification on how many of those arrests were connected to sex trafficking versus arrests of voluntary sex workers based on prostitution’s illegal status.
Because American Express had already cut ties with Backpage prior to Visa and Mastercard’s announcements this week, sex workers are now left with only one option to pay for their ads on the site: cryptocurrency.
Sex worker advocates quickly responded to the credit card news by posting cryptocurrency explainers. An escort named Corrine posted a detailed guide to using Bitcoin for sex work that was quickly passed around by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a national umbrella group with chapters in several cities.
SWOP also tweeted and re-posted a June 2012 statement written by a New York chapter member, Pink. The sex worker wrote in defense of the website, saying that Backpage had kept her and her children from becoming homeless.
In the past there were government programs that I would have had to rely on while finding someplace else to live and in order to stay off the street. But at the time I needed them the process had changed. The government was no longer providing assistance to families that needed help paying the first month’s rent, a broker, or a security deposit. I was working at a shoe store for $9 an hour, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. Backpage allowed me to pay all of those things.
When I turned to Backpage it was not the first time I had faced homelessness. I was a single parent with no support system. If I had gone to Backpage before, I may have been able to avoid situations like having the utilities turned off or getting behind on my rent. Backpage has helped me to not be destitute.
On Twitter, people used the hashtag #chargeisdeclined to express dismay at the credit card companies’ decision, saying that it was likely to increase poverty among lower-wage sex workers and their children. They even compared the morality policing behind the decision to the actions of the Taliban.
Others called out Visa, Mastercard, and American Express for hypocrisy. They asked why the companies were divesting en masse from the sex business, while continuing to process payments for products that are tied to high statistical levels of violence and death, like guns and cigarettes.
Outside of the U.S., sex workers and advocates wondered if the credit card companies’ refusal to work with Backpage was even legal, given that sex work is legal in many other countries. In Australia, attorney Kathryn Adams posted a call for a class action complaint against Visa and Mastercard on her website. She invited affected workers to contact her for more information.
Some Twitter users even directed their questions and concerns directly to Sheriff Dart, who is credited with convincing Visa and Mastercard to break with Backpage. One escort even suggested that Dart was the same person who made Craigslist break with its erotic services section.
Sex workers have long explained that sites like Backpage actually help law enforcement track sex traffickers and their victims. By sending them deeper underground and forcing them to use untraceable, anonymous cryptocurrency, law enforcement would seem to be making its own job harder to do.
At an April 2012 rally outside of the Village Voice New York headquarters (the newspaper once owned and operated Backpage), a SWOP representative told Jezebel that the backlash against Backpage made no sense. She and others were there to try and reason with protestors that surrounded the Village Voice office with signs that read “Village Voice: stop profiting from sex trafficking.”
“We believe that closing Backpage will lead to sex traffickers scattering to smaller sites that aren’t monitored by a full-time staff like Backpage is,” Sarah Elspeth-Patterson of New York’s SWOP chapter told Jezebel. “Closing Backpage will result in less ability to monitor the sex trade in NYC, not more, which is how sex trafficking is prevented.”
Backpage has not yet commented on the Visa and Mastercard situation.
Correction: Backpage was sold to a Dutch company in December.
H/T USA Today | Illustration by The Daily Dot
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.