It’s 2018 and the internet is at the center of so much of what we do and how we do it. These days, even prostitution makes the list on websites like Craigslist and Backpage—portals that long have served as online classified advertisement for goods, services, work, and lodging.
While neither of these companies endorses illegal activity, they have been known to facilitate commercial sex by not enforcing their policies. The sites have not just been a hotspot for prostitution, but also human sex trafficking—with victims ranging from children to adults; some cases allegedly resulting in the victims’ deaths.
In an attempt to combat these crimes, last month President Trump signed the anti-trafficking law Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which requires websites to effectively monitor and enforce content on their websites. And in the short time FOSTA has been in existence, it already has had a huge impact on the online sex industry.
While Craigslist was allowed to stay in business after being forced to shut down its “Personals” section where prostitution ads were placed, Backpage wasn’t as lucky. The latter’s landing page was replaced with a message from several U.S. governmental authorities, including the FBI, citing action taken and advising that the website and associated pages have been “seized” as an “enforcement action.” Seven Backpage creators and associates were indicted for 93 alleged crimes of conspiracy and money-laundering.
The website was benefitting from the financial flow of these trades, making as much as $500 million. One CEO, Carl Ferrer, plead guilty and confessed to the company knowing and enabling sex trafficking crimes.
While these enforcements have mostly been met with support across the board, the bill has several detractors—with some concerned about the consequences of banning these sites.
These new enforcements can bear negative consequences on sex-workers by forcing them to turn to more illicit activities and even street prostitution, which is considerably more dangerous. Without these websites, sex workers are unable to screen potential clients. The argument against FOSTA is the same as most others when it comes to banning certain acts: the behavior may continue on a smaller scale, but more illicitly.
“Backpage gave me a basic screening tool, which led to money, food, and shelter,” said Sarah, a sex-worker in Michigan, during an interview with The Cut. “Backpage didn’t turn me into a sex worker, any more than YouTube can turn people in musicians or comedians. It was just the medium. An accessible and free medium.”
The fine line here is whether voluntary sex-work should be allowed online or if it should be treated the same as sex-trafficking, a debate that goes way beyond the scope of this new bill.
By Aura Altamiranda