What the moralists who are trying to close down sex ads don’t get is that working the ads is the safest form of sex work.
Close them down without offering alternatives to sex work that pay a decent wage equal to that which sex workers make and they wind up working the streets which is suicidal.
By Michelle Chen
Friday Nov 11, 2011
In a perfectly “free” labor market, everyone theoretically has the right to exchange work for commensurate compensation. But a free market is not necessarily a just one. And when the commodity is sex, how free is too free?
Sex work, and its attendant culture wars, have moved over time from traditional brothels of urban lore to online marketplaces, raising new questions about private and public freedom. In the digital world, how should trust and power be negotiated between provider and client, both encircled by systemic gender and economic inequities?
On this slippery battlefield, anti-trafficking advocates are campaigning against Village Voice Media’s Backpage, an ad portal featuring “adult” ads notorious for facilitating sexual services involving minors.
Village Voice Media’s editorial side has mounted a counterattack with reporting aimed at debunking popular myths (those familiar salacious tales of powerful men exploiting innocent youngsters). Reporter Kristen Hinman cites research on underaged prostitutes that undercuts the stereotype of the classic prostitution ring, writing that “the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp,” and that “Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.”
That doesn’t mean the sex business is squeaky clean. Critics are unconvinced that Backpage can police itself (or “cover its collective arse,” as neofeminist blogger Maggie McNeill put it). Clergy and women’s rights groups dismiss the company’s free speech defense as window dressing.
“If I tried to sell crack online through Backpage,” Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights told the Daily Beast, “the Village Voice would not stand up and say this is about the First Amendment… It’s convenient and politically easy for them to frame this as a free speech issue and it’s not. It’s a human rights issue.”
Sex workers agree that it’s a human rights issue. But they see the war on Backpage (and before that Craigslist) as the wrong answer to a wrong-headed question.