A grand jury in Phoenix, Arizona has indicted seven Backpage.com officials, alleging conspiracy, facilitating prostitution, and money laundering. The indictment was unsealed Monday afternoon, days after the FBI seized the Backpage website and its affiliates, a move that many sex workers say only makes them less safe.
Backpage was a classifieds site like Craigslist, and was founded by Village Voice Media in 2004. For some time, the site had an “adult” section, where sex workers advertised their services. The site shut down the section in 2017, but similar ads continued to populate the “dating” section.
According to Monday’s indictment, the seven officials have been accused of facilitating prostitution, and the indictment cites 17 alleged instances of people being trafficked using Backpage, including some as young as 14 years old. The officials are also accused of having laundered some of the half a billion dollars in revenue that Backpage has made over the last 14 years.
“Many of the ads published on Backpage depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking,” the indictment released Monday says. “Although Backpage has sought to create the perception that it diligently attempts to prevent the publication of such ads, the reality is that Backpage has allowed such ads to be published while declining — for financial reasons — to take necessary steps to address the problem.”
But in the wake of Backpage’s seizure, many sex workers and their allies have expressed concerns that losing access to the site will only make them less safe.
Nona Conner, a former sex worker and current program manager at Safe Spaces DC, said the shutdown was “like the great depression for transwoman of color.”
my @SafeSpacesDC colleague & former sex worker Nona Conner may not be on Twitter, so I got permission to share her words. she referred to the shutdown of Backpage & Craigslist as being like “the Great Depression for trans women of color.” pic.twitter.com/JkjXs0F18V
— Jessica Raven (@thejessicaraven) April 7, 2018
One woman, Sarah Fenix, recently shared the story of how Backpage saved her life as a sex worker who needed a way to screen clients.
“Backpage didn’t turn me into a sex worker, any more than Youtube can turn people in musicians or comedians,” Fenix wrote. “It was just the medium. A really good, really helpful medium that was free and accessible.”
Fenix also said she is scared for sex workers’ safety in the wake of Backpage’s seizure, writing, “I’m sad backpage is gone. But more than sad, I’m scared for all the other sex workers who are where I was 2 years ago, who are going to go knock on semi truck doors or walk along the highway, with no way to screen clients.”
Fenix is far from the only sex worker who has found a safe haven in Backpage and other online services. A recent study found a 17 percent decrease in homicides with female victims after Craigslist’s erotic services were introduced.
The most likely explanation, one of the study’s authors told ThinkProgress last fall, is the simplest one: sex workers make up a large percentage of female homicide victims, and when sex workers are safer, female homicide rates fall.
While the allegations against the Backpage officials are quite serious, experts emphasize that the reason sex workers are forced to use such sites is because their work is criminalized, leaving them no better options.
“There would be no market for such a shoddy online platform as Backpage if sex work wasn’t a crime,” writer Melissa Gira Grant tweeted Saturday. “No one need defend that. There are no martyrs here, just increasingly poorer sex workers.”
Notably, the shuttering of Backpage comes just two weeks a former Playboy model alleged President Donald Trump tried paying her after sex in 2006. When BuzzFeed asked the White House Monday if Trump supports the Backpage shutdown, how he responded to allegations that he tried to pay for sex, and if he believes sex work should be criminalized, a White House spokesperson said to ask Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Cohen’s office was raided by the FBI Monday. A $130,000 payment Cohen made not long before the 2016 election to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, are among a number of topics reportedly being investigated.