The problem with the New York Times’s war on Internet sex trafficking

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Nicholas Kristof’s quest to shut down Backpage.com shows the destructive effects of the anti-trafficking prostitution “rescue” industry.

Last Sunday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed about the recent lawsuit against Backpage, a classifieds website that features an adult jobs section for escort advertising, among other services. The piece discussed two separate lawsuits filed in federal court by alleged underage sex trafficking victims, who claim they were sold on Backpage and raped thousands of times as a result.

In his op-ed, Kristof, an ardent anti-sex trafficking activist, accused Backpage of turning a blind eye to and financially profiting from the trafficking of minors, claiming the company plays an enormous role in the trafficking of “an estimated 100,000 underage boys and girls in America each year.” Kristof wrote that while the suit doesn’t call for Backpage to be shut down, seeking action against the website is not about censorship of free speech, but “human rights,” as no child deserves to be “peddled like pizzas.”

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the fact that Kristof has been going after Backpage for years, writing no fewer than eight op-eds since 2012 and successfully pressuring former Backpage owner Village Voice Media to terminate its relationship with the site, despite the fact that Backpage says it regularly cooperates with law enforcement to get underage prostitution ads off the site and employs people to screen listings for child trafficking-related codewords.

Let’s also put aside, for a moment, that his reporting on sex trafficking has been found to be riddled with inaccuracies and statistics lifted from biased anti-sex work rescue organizations. (The “100,000 underage boys and girls” figure falls into that category: Although it’s difficult to gauge precise statistics on sex trafficking due to its illegal nature, one Village Voice investigation based on official law enforcement data puts the actual number of underage prostitutes at closer to 800 per year.)

Let’s focus, instead, on what Kristof said in his op-ed: that the issue with Backpage is not that it facilitates prostitution, but rather, that it facilitates coerced prostitution and underage sex trafficking.  “Whatever one thinks of legalizing sexual transactions among adults, we should all be able to agree that children shouldn’t be peddled like pizzas,” he wrote. Sure, we can all agree on that, Nick, but I don’t think we can all agree on what’s best for the women and children for whom you claim to be speaking.

While Kristof says his ultimate goal is not for Backpage to be shut down, he clearly considers it a haven for pimps and peddlers of underage children (and maybe delicious pizzas, though that’s unclear.) And this goal comes at the expense of the safety of the hundreds of thousands of of-age sex workers who legally use the website to advertise their services.

“It is disingenuous to say [Kristof] doesn’t want sites like Backpage.com shut down,” escort and cam performer Diana Hemingway told me via e-mail. “He holds them culpable for rape and sex trafficking. Kristof has been attacking Backpage.com for years. What he wants is to play God with the lives of hundreds of thousands of sex workers, while holding himself out as a hero/advocate for underage victims of trafficking.”

For many sex workers like Hemingway, an adult directory like Backpage is not merely an advertising platform; it’s nothing short of a saving grace. Because it costs relatively little to advertise on Backpage, and because the website requires a valid credit card on file for someone to post an ad, it’s viewed as a low-cost resource for sex workers to protect themselves on the job.  

In a 2012 blog post written during Kristof’s previous efforts to get the Village Voice to drop Backpage, one sex worker, Vivan, writes about how Backpage allowed her to advertise her services cheaply and effectively, while simultaneously allowing her to leave dangerous and threatening work conditions at a BDSM dungeon.

“With the agency and autonomy Backpage afforded to me, I was able to leave an uncomfortable and unsafe workspace,” Vivian wrote on the advocacy group SWOP-NYC’s blog. “Because I could work for myself and control my working conditions, I was able to screen clients for the first time. I was able to define, declare, and stick to my boundaries and limits while demanding that they be respected.” This doesn’t sound like the words of someone being “peddled like a pizza” to me.

Because Backpage is cheaper to advertise on than other, higher-end escort directories like Eros, shutting it down would directly target the lower-income, marginalized sex workers that anti-trafficking advocates like Kristof seek to protect. “Backpage is not an advertising platform that affluent workers use, it’s a platform that is accessible for people who can’t spend a lot on advertising,” community organizer Sarah Elspeth-Patterson told Jezebel in 2012. “No one has asked workers what would happen to them (or their families) if they couldn’t advertise there.”

And what, exactly, would happen to them? We don’t have to look very far to find out, because we saw a similar situation unfold earlier this year, when the feds shut down MyRedBook.com, a highly trafficked escort directory frequented by escorts in the Bay Area. Although the FBI claimed it was targeting My RedBook for money laundering, the seizure came hot on the heels of Operation Cross Country, a nationwide sting that ultimately culminated in the arrests of 168 “victims” and 281 “pimps” involved in “sex trafficking,” a term that was used interchangeably with consensual sex work in most news reports of the initiative.

In the wake of MyRedBook’s closure, many Bay Area sex workers speculated that the closure of the site, which included a community board that allowed sex workers to vet prospective clients, would lead to sex work being driven underground and workers without a resource to screen for potentially dangerous clients. “[I’m] unsure what this will mean for folks with accounts on the site. In the meantime, lots of folks will be hustling hard for rent,” sex worker Alex Sabrina Morgan told me at the time. “Folks that can’t afford to post ads on the more expensive sites will likely be pushed toward less safe options.”

With the loss of MyRedBook, both sex workers and law enforcement, which regularly screens escort directories for evidence of underage prostitution activity, were robbed of a tool that made their jobs easier and, for sex workers, safer. Which is why if a much larger site like Backpage, the second most-used online directory in the country, were shut down, it wouldn’t actually reduce underage sex trafficking at all. If nothing else, it would put the lives of both of-age and underage sex workers in increased danger by driving them further underground, so police wouldn’t be able to track actual non-consensual activity.

“I think no matter Kristoff’s intention about going after Backpage, the fact remains that closing down Backpage will not address the exploitation and trafficking of minors while simultaneously doing very real harm to everyone in the sex trade, including people in trafficking situations,” Kate D’Adamo of SWOP-NYC told me via e-mail.

“We know the impact of shutting down advertisers and it is further marginalization and vulnerability to violence and exploitation. And the more space and time and word count we give to [anti-trafficking advocates like Kristof]’s intentions and not their impact, the more harm we will ultimately do to anti-trafficking efforts, economic justice, and the rights and well-being of those who will face the consequences.”

Despite the nebulous statistics and biased research associated with the phenomenon of udnerage sex trafficking; no one disputes its existence; nor does anyoen dispute Kristof’s attention that children don’t deserve to be “peddled like pizzas.” But what the grossly disproportionate focus on websites like Backpage as a conduit for underage sex trafficking boils down to is a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between non-consensual trafficking and consensual sex work.

The inability to differentiate between sex work and sex trafficking is one that many people on both sides of the political spectrum share. The inability to wrap one’s head around why a man or woman or girl would choose to engage in sex acts for money (despite the fact that such a job might pay better or have better working conditions than, say, operating a fork lift at Wal-Mart) transcends race or class or political affiliation. And it is a true and terrible fact that there are some women and girls who do not act of their own volition, who do it under the threat of violence or rape or simply to put food on the table for their families.

But when we talk about the difference between sex work and sex trafficking, here is the naked truth of the matter: While we have no way of knowing exactly how many girls and women engage in non-consensual sex work, due to the inherently illegal and shadowy nature of underground sex trafficking, we do know for sure that there are many, many women who do it because they consider it a valid form of labor, or even because—gasp!—enjoy it. We know this because they write and blog and tweet about it every day; we know this because they make their voices heard.

It is not up to Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist with the largest and most well-respected media platform in the country, to shout over the voices of the hundreds of thousands of sex workers who do not feel they are in need of “rescue,” to give priority to the voices of the small number of women who do. It is not up to Nicholas Kristof to call for the closure of what is undeniably a valuable resource for an extremely marginalized group of people, while wrapping himself in the cloak of savior and advocate for disenfranchised women. It is not up to Nicholas Kristof or the New York Times or you or me to decide what’s best for sex workers, and it’s not up to us to decide who is a victim, and who is a whore.

Photo by Mo Riza/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson is a writer and editor who primarily covers sex, dating, and relationships, with a special focus on the intersection of intimacy and technology. She served as the Daily Dot’s IRL editor from January 2014 to July 2015. Her work has since appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mic, Bustle, Romper, and Men’s Health.