Why Congress should move cautiously with online sex sites

On Tuesday, the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing, entitled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.” 

During the hearing subcommittee chairman Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanDrug company to offer cheaper opioid overdose treatment after hiking price 600 percent The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Congress to act soon to avoid shutdown On The Money: Trump touts China actions day after stock slide | China 'confident' on new trade deal | GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts | Huawei CFO arrested MORE, R-Ohio, stated that Backpage has shown it is “intent on profiting from human trafficking…at the expense of countless innocent victims.” 

Although the hearing focused entirely on sex trafficking, mostly of minors, the reality is that the majority of commercial sex advertisements placed on the website are from consenting sex workers, who claim that shutting down the online platform could put them at greater risk of victimization.

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Working as a prostitute in the commercial sex industry is dangerous. Stories of sex workers being assaulted, robbed, raped, or murdered are frequent. Since these women are themselves engaging in misdemeanor illicit activity by soliciting sex, criminals see them as easy prey, who are less inclined to alert the authorities of victimization.

Instead of relying on police, sex workers utilize online commercial sex advertisements and the virtual footprint left by their consumers as mechanisms for improving safety.

According to a recent survey of sex workers conducted by the author, prostitutes who advertise online perceive themselves as having greater agency than women who sell sex on the streets. 

According to survey respondents, sex workers utilize online marketing to screen potentially dangerous clients and negotiate the terms of sexual practices, prior to physical interaction. 

Those who responded to the survey argued that working on the street increases their likelihood of targeting by criminals, reduces their ability to vet clients, and diminishes their leverage to negotiate the terms of their interaction, which could force them into sexual activities without their consent.

Although sex workers perceive these websites as decreasing their likelihood of victimization, subcommittee ranking minority member Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Year Ahead: Tech braces for new scrutiny from Washington McCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate FEC votes to allow lawmakers to use campaign funds for personal cybersecurity MORE, D-Missouri, condemned Backpage.com for creating a lucrative virtual marketplace to facilitate sex trafficking.

The committee’s report, released in advance of the hearing, alleges that Backpage.com moderators systematically edited the commercial sex advertisements by filtering words that may be suggestive of child sex trafficking (e.g., Lolita, teenage, young, or school girl).

Following the release of the report, Backpage.com shuttered the adult sections of the website, replacing the hyperlinks with red-censored labels. However, it is highly unlikely that actors in the commercial sex industry will be deterred.

According to the sex workers who were surveyed, there are several alternative offshore and unregulated websites where they could advertise commercial sex services. Moreover, several respondents reported actively using social media platforms to advertise their services, namely Facebook and Twitter.

According to sex workers, Backpage was used, as opposed to other websites, because of its affordability and large consumer base. However, that volume could be easily displaced, just as it was after Craigslist was shut down in 2010.

According to consenting sex workers, it is a mistake to shut down Backpage.com. The website’s administrators are perceived as cooperating with law enforcement to rescue victims of sex trafficking and prosecute offenders who exploit women and minors.

According to one consenting sex worker, this will “increase the harms associated with shoving a marginalized community into the dark…if Backpage is willing to work with police to get the perpetrators of trafficking, and to save underage people from being exploited, why on earth would you want to shut that avenue down? It's cutting off their nose to spite their face.”

Another consenting sex worker described the actions against Backpage.com as “cheap political posturing” that is “tied to the fortunes of US politicians rather than any connection between trafficking and crimes committed against sex workers.”

Instead of going after websites that host advertisements for commercial sex, survey respondents argued that decriminalizing sex work would have a greater effect on reducing sex trafficking victimizations and increasing rescues of sexually exploited women.

Commercial sex workers aren’t alone in this perception. It is actually also based in evidence and shared by anti-trafficking authorities from around the world. In May 2016, Amnesty International released a policy to decriminalize consensual sex work. The policy was initially supported by 500 delegates from 80 countries, who believed that decriminalization would help ensure that sex workers are protected from harm, exploitation, and coercion.

Ultimately, although the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has condemned Backpage.com for allegedly altering the content of the commercial sex advertisements, shutting Backpage.com down is not the answer.

This will not reduce the incidence of sex trafficking and the commercial sex advertisements are likely to be displaced again, possibly to an offshore website that may be less inclined to cooperate with law enforcement. Instead of vilifying Backpage.com, legislators should focus on adapting policies that strengthen communication, cooperation and data-sharing with law enforcement, so that we can better use these websites as tools for investigation and victim rescue.

Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Follow her on Twitter @MehlmanOrozco


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