Op-Ed
Op-Ed

Sex work is safer online than on the street

In early January, law enforcement in the Seattle area seized thereviewboard.net, a website where local sex workers posted advertisements and clients reviewed their services. In related police raids, people who ran and moderated the site were among those arrested and charged with promoting prostitution, a felony.

That was just the most recent salvo in what human rights advocates call an "ongoing war against sex" under the guise of fighting sex trafficking.

Last August, federal and state law enforcement officials in New York City shut down the gay escort site Rentboy.com and charged seven of its employees with promoting prostitution and laundering money. Earlier in 2015, the sheriff of Cook County, Ill., pressured MasterCard and Visa to stop processing financial transactions for backpage.com, a classifieds site, because it published ads for sex workers. (Backpage has since sued the sheriff.) And in 2014, federal authorities shut down myRedbook.com, a California-based site that allowed sex workers to post ads and share tips about doing sex work safely.

These closures represent a crusade to stamp out advertising outlets for sex workers. But that's not how law enforcement portrays it. They claim to be fighting sex trafficking, which federal law defines as the recruitment, harboring, transportation or obtaining of a person for commercial sex through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

Shortly after the Seattle raids, for instance, Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said that his men, working with the King County Sheriff's office and the FBI, had broken up a "well-organized ring promoting sex slavery." Likewise, the Cook County sheriff called backpage.com a haven for pimps and traffickers.

There's one big problem with that narrative: There's little evidence that these web sites abet sex trafficking. But we do know that shutting them down these makes life more dangerous for sex workers.

The ability to advertise online allows sex workers to more carefully screen potential customers, negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms), and work indoors. Researchers conclude that when sex workers can't advertise online, they are often forced to work on the street, where they are more likely to encounter violent clients. They also are more likely be dependent on exploitative pimps to find customers.

"Now these women have one less safe advertising venue," Savannah Sly, a Seattle sex worker and president of Sex Workers Outreach Project, said after thereviewboard.net was shuttered. Ditto for the sex workers who advertised on Rentboy.com, myRedbook.com and Backpage.com. "What the removal of these advertising sites do is remove low-risk clients from the client pool," Sly added. "And because you have reduced demand, you're more likely to agree to see the guy who is more dangerous."

That appears to be what happened in Sweden, after that country made it illegal to purchase sex services (but not to provide them) in 2000. Sex workers there were exposed to more violent clients when they lost many of their regular low-risk clients. Transactions with remaining clients also became more rushed, so sex workers had less time and ability to negotiate safe sex and assess potentially dangerous clients.

And in the end, criminalizing sex clients in Sweden actually increased the overall number of sex workers, and did not reduce trafficking in the region at all.

Countries that have decriminalized sex work and regulated it to some degree (such as the Netherlands and New Zealand) also report no increase in the sex trafficking of minors and illegal immigrants. At the same time, sex workers in those countries are better able to protect themselves — from physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases. Because they don't fear police harassment, legalized sex workers are also more comfortable working with police to target traffickers and abusive clients.

Targeting websites advertising sex work is also short-sighted for U.S. law enforcement. Websites like Backpage.com have, in fact, cooperated with law enforcement efforts to identify those advertising underage prostitutes or other trafficking victims. If Backpage.com is driven out of business, traffickers will simply gravitate to off-shore websites that are not so amenable to working with American law enforcement and trafficking victims will be forced further underground.

If the American public wants to spend taxpayer dollars to prosecute people for operating adult websites, that's one thing. But it's disingenuous for law enforcement to wrap these raids in the mantle of combatting sex trafficking because that is not what's going on here at all.

Alison Bass is the author of "Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law" and an assistant professor of journalism at West Virginia University.

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