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But efforts to combat sex work under the guise of trafficking are often counterproductive to their stated purpose.

Many of the higher echelons of sex workers in the US don’t advertise on Backpage at all, and those who do are more likely to have the resources to learn how to use Bitcoin, pay high fees for prepaid cards, or move on to more expensive, less accessible sites.

Backpage has never had pretensions of being “high-end” or “upscale.” The cost and barrier to entry to advertise on the site are low, and the workers who use it are numerically more likely to be poorer, browner, and less gender-conforming than the smaller and more homogeneous populations of higher-end sites—those with fewer resources, who have fewer options.

And what the site itself was doing was legally protected, as courts had found time and time again. Anti-sex work advocates were thrilled with the response, hailing the circumvention of due process as a “progressive” way of going after the site since everything else they had tried had failed to stand up to scrutiny.

Dart himself declared it “a great day for all who are engaged in the anti-sex trafficking struggle,” since the companies pulling out would “make the average trafficker or pimp’s life much more difficult.” If anything, the new restrictions will make it easier for the few traffickers or pimps on Backpage to hide, by making it so that people can only pay for advertising via anonymous means instead of traceable ones with their names and information attached.

Although the suit was unsuccessful, the site ultimately submitted to the pressure, voluntarily shutting down its erotic services section in 2010.

The last several years have been good to anti-sex work interests, who have successfully reframed their crusade from being against prostitution to being against “sexual slavery.” The political climate has shifted from the now unpopular War on Drugs to the War on Sex Trafficking, with harsh laws such as C-36 in Canada and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in the United States funding increased policing in the name of “protecting children” and “ending exploitation.” These laws and their advocates conflate consensual sex work with human trafficking, and in practice mainly target adult sex workers and their clients, making it harder for them to do business and stay safe.

One cop can shut down a site’s ability to do business simply because it engages in speech he doesn’t like, even if that speech is legally protected. What constitutes “brand-damaging” is a matter of opinion.

Visa and Master Card are fine with doing business with the KKK, for example. Sex workers shouldn’t be the only ones who are concerned about this, even if few people seem to be concerned about sex workers.

Preventing these workers from being able to advertise makes it more likely for them to be driven onto the streets, into the hands of pimps or managers, or simply into more desperate poverty.

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