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Sex Workers Say Credit Card Bans On Online Ads Do More Harm Than Good

"It’s the more marginalized and poorer workers who are hit hardest by this."

07/30/2015 10:41 am ET | Updated Jul 31, 2015

Sex workers and their advocates say major credit card companies’ recent decision to cut ties with Backpage.com -- ostensibly to curb sex trafficking -- will make the work more perilous for many escorts.

American Express announced in April it would no longer allow its cards to make payments on the classified ad site, and Visa and MasterCard followed suit in June. They did so after receiving letters from Illinois’ Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who said Backpage's popular “adult” ad section facilitated sex trafficking.

Dart said in a statement at the time that Backpage “lowered the barrier to entry” for sex traffickers. “Raising that barrier,” he said, would lead to fewer traffickers and fewer victims. 

People who work in the sex industry are condemning the moves as misguided and dangerous. Backpage last month filed a lawsuit against Dart’s office, contending that his requests to credit card companies violate the free speech rights of Backpage and its users. A judge on Friday ordered Dart to cease campaigning against Backpage's revenue sources, Consumerist reported.

“It’s the more marginalized and poorer workers who are hit hardest by this,” said Caty Simon, an escort and co-editor of Tits and Sass, a blog by and for sex workers.

“Backpage is one of the cheapest options for sex workers to work independently while also having access to a large pool of clients,” she told HuffPost.

Without that option, Simon said, sex workers who lack the resources to advertise on more expensive websites -- or learn to use alternative payments like bitcoin -- may have to work on the streets, which carries a higher risk of violence or arrest. Backpage is temporarily allowing ads in its “adult” section to be posted for free.  

 The new credit card policies, which also affect Backpage users in countries like the U.K. and Australia, where selling sex is legal, will likely increase some escorts’ dependency on the very people it’s meant to protect them from, according to Maggie McNeill, who's worked on and off as an escort since 1997 and writes about the industry on her blog "The Honest Courtesan."

Without easy and affordable access to a client base, “what are you going to do?” McNeill asked. “Hitting the streets is what you’ve got to do. Or you might run into some guy who says, ‘I can get you work if you give me a cut.’”

“Backpage is one of the easiest ways for low-income sex workers to avoid being exploited by third parties,” Simon said.

Sex worker advocacy groups had similar concerns.

“This policy effectively disenfranchises thousands of sex workers across the country who do not have access to any other means of online advertising,” Lindsay Roth, board chair of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, told nonprofit group Project Safe Philly.

The Sex Workers Project issued a statement earlier this month criticizing credit card companies for the decision:

“Access to online advertising can be a basic safety mechanism for many people in the sex industry,” said Crystal DeBoise, Director of the Sex Workers Project. “The ability to advertise online gives sex workers the ability to screen clients, to negotiate for services and condoms use, and to have more control over the interactions and environment in a sex work exchange. These are all safety strategies people in the sex trade need to survive. Visa and MasterCard trying to end this avenue will only cause harm to those in the sex trade, and will not stop trafficking.”

The Sex Workers Project said the moves make it harder for law enforcement to prosecute sex traffickers, because credit card information collected by Backpage had in the past been used as evidence.

“Any pimp or trafficker using bitcoin or [online payment service] paysafe is impossible to trace,” a U.K.-based sensual masseuse who wished to be identified only as “Pauline” told HuffPost.

If cutting off Backpage's access to credit cards isn’t the answer to curbing exploitation, what is? Simon and McNeill said decriminalization of sex work is the most important step.

“Criminalization, marginalization, isolation and poverty -- all things sex workers suffer from under current policy -- are all factors that make us more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Simon. “Decriminalizing sex work would not only help voluntary sex workers, it would also help those of us who are coerced.”

A woman in an abusive situation, Simon said, may be afraid to leave for fear of being “outed” as a sex worker. “Criminalizing sex work is what makes trafficking survivors unable to seek support,” she said.

Criminalization and stigma also make it harder for websites to root out trafficking. Pauline said her advertising site of choice screens sex workers by asking them to provide ID and contacting them to determine whether they can hold a conversation in English.

McNeill noted that a screening process is a major barrier to entry for women in the U.S., who fear they will be recorded as sex workers in a database that can later be used against them.

McNeill emphasized that “decriminalization” should mean decriminalization for both sex workers and their clients, a stance supported by Amnesty International and Open Society Foundations.

“Independent sexual behavior of humans is not an appropriate subject for criminal law,” she said, referring to consensual acts. Laws against rape, assault and abduction, she said, should stand -- but not those outlawing the acts of selling or paying for sex.

McNeill added that minors who have run away from abusive homes -- one of the biggest demographics of minors who wind up selling sex -- would benefit greatly from widespread 24-hour “drop-in” shelters, where any young person could receive a meal, shelter and a bed “with no questions asked.” Much of the money spent on police and prisons, she said, would be far better spent on that.

She also said many underaged people who sold sex might not do so if minor emancipation were made easier for older teens. In that case, minors who otherwise might feel like they had no options other than selling sex could more easily obtain other jobs without parental permission.

Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com, told HuffPost, "Speaking for myself, I believe humanity and civil rights should be priorities in society's treatment of all persons."
 
The Cook County Sheriff’s Department was unable to comment due to pending litigation from Backpage. 
 
Visa, MasterCard and American Express did not immediately return a request for comment.
 
This story has been updated to include comment from Liz McDougall.
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