Recently the CEO of the website Backpage.com was arrested on charges related to human trafficking, a move that is being celebrated by many in the anti-trafficking world.
Once Craigslist stopped publishing classifieds for erotic services, Backpage.com became the go-to website to publish these. As the now predominant publisher of classifieds that include erotic services (though, the ads are veiled), Backpage.com has long since been the victim of gross exaggerations about human trafficking spread by well-meaning people who simply lack cultural competency around issues like human trafficking, exploitation, and the sex industry in general (I was actually one of them until studying this issue for 4 years of doctoral research). Sadly, many of these individuals who lack cultural competency are seen as “authorities” in the human trafficking world.
As a result, CEO Carl Ferrer is now out on a shocking half-million dollars bond, having been charged with a heinous crime everyone knows he did not commit. In fact, if convicted he’d have to register as a sex offender for “pimping a child under the age of 16” even though he was simply the owner of the website where these advertisements were placed. (Not to mention that these advertisements were a violation of Backpage.com’s terms of service, and are not condoned by Backpage. In fact, Backpage has rigorously blocked any classifieds that appear to be a minor, and they have actively cooperated with law enforcement during investigations.)
WHY trafficking advocates are celebrating this move, I have no idea– because this is bad for free speech, bad for the anti-trafficking movement, and is bad for those who are at higher risk of human trafficking.
First off, let’s revisit human trafficking 101: human trafficking is forcing someone into a labor situation by either force, fraud, or coercion. The CEO of Backpage.com simply owns a publishing company– he hasn’t forced anyone into a labor situation, he has not defrauded anyone into a labor situation, and he certainly hasn’t coerced anyone into forced labor. All he is guilty of is publishing advertisements for erotic services which are intended for consenting adults.
Charging Ferrer with trafficking related charges is the height of absurdity. He is not a human trafficker– he is a publisher, and he doesn’t publish classifieds known or obvious to be cases of human trafficking.
In order for human trafficking to actually be a case of trafficking, there must be a 3rd party who is actively forcing or coercing the laborer to do what they do. Advertisements for erotic services do not give us enough information to know if someone is being forced or coerced– but we do know that even if there were a 3rd party doing this, it’s certainly not a publisher who only allows advertisements for consenting adults.
This arrest is just plain dumb.
And worse than dumb, this arrest and the potential demise of backpage.com will actually lead to more human trafficking, not less.
Contrary to urban legends spread by those in the trafficking world, it is not true that the majority of individuals in the erotic services industry are “forced into it.” In fact, the most recent data we have on this topic (presented last month at the International Human Trafficking Conference at the University of Toledo, a conference at which I presented my doctoral research) showed that the percent of sex workers who are legitimately “forced” into the industry are likely in the single digits. This means that the vast majority of sex workers are either engaged in trading sex by choice or by circumstance.
For those who trade sex or other erotic services by choice or circumstance, Backpage.com is a friend, not an enemy. It allows them to more thoroughly screen clients, and helps them to take precautions in deciding what clients they will accept, and which ones they will decline. It also allows them to conduct business from positions of safety, instead of on the streets where they could easily become victims of violence, exploitation, and trafficking– the very things the trafficking world claims they want to stop. Online business also helps them to avoid local law enforcement, one of the main groups of people known for sexual violence and exploitation of sex workers (my doctoral study on this issue showed the majority of trafficking aftercare programs are treating clients who were victimized by local law enforcement during their trafficking experience.)
And then of course, there’s the kids of sex workers. What does going after a critical place like Backpage.com do to them? Well, it forces their parents to choose between putting herself in a more risky situation or feeding them today.
Bottom line? If you’re celebrating the arrest of Ferrer and rooting for the end of Backpage.com, you’re advocating for something that will harm far more people than it will potentially help– it’s a hollow “victory” that’s only a victory if you’re not actually concerned with the safety and welfare of people who sell or trade erotic services. Websites like Backpage.com are critical in harm reduction because they make business for those in the erotic services industry safer, and make it less likely that these individuals will end up the victims of human trafficking. Going after this website– and God forbid, if they get it shut down– will potentially throw thousands of people into situations where they are far less safe than they are now.
The ridiculous arrest of Backpage.com’s CEO and subsequent celebration by anti-trafficking advocates is a black eye on the whole movement, because it reveals a profound lack of cultural competency in human trafficking and the many overlapping issues that surround it. It also reminds us that our apparent lack of access to well-rounded information continues to lead us to adopt positions that further stigmatize, marginalize, and criminalize individuals, making us part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
If we truly want to reduce cases of human trafficking and protect the vulnerable, we will denounce this attack on Backpage, not celebrate it.