When she logged in to update her ad on Backpage.com website earlier this month, Sarah immediately saw the familiar multi-state listings on the homepage were covered by a message emblazoned with the logos of five federal agencies and an announcement: “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized.”
Sarah, who did not want to be identified by her real name because of a pending court case, was seized by panic. A sex worker by trade — like approximately 90 percent of the people who posted ads on Backpage, according to federal prosecutors — Sarah had marketed her services on the site for years.
“It was a genuine moment of shock,” said Sarah, who lives in suburban Cook County. “That site has supported me for the last nine years. I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”
It has been a turbulent few weeks for Backpage as well. A few days after federal agents seized the company’s websites and bank accounts, a federal grand jury in Phoenix handed down a 93-count indictment against website owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin and five other company officials, accusing them of promoting prostitution and money laundering. Former CEO Carl Ferrer on recently pleaded guilty to similar state and federal charges and agreed to testify against his former bosses.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that gave law enforcement broader power to act against websites that host sexual services ads linked to human trafficking, and to allow victims and state officials to pursue cash damages in civil courts.
The changes to laws governing online posting — cheered by anti-trafficking organizations, and decried as a dangerous overreaction by tech companies and free speech advocates — have prompted websites like Reddit and Craigslist to swiftly shutter pages that might have filled the void left by Backpage.
The Backpage indictment included the horrific tales of a dozen women and five underage girls who had been sold for sex by violent pimps or brutalized by johns. But Sarah tells a different story about the business transacted on the website — that of a single mom who has led a largely stable, comfortable suburban life with money she earns by having sex.
Around 2004, Sarah started out working for an escort service that was supposed to screen clients for safety — an arrangement she considered safer than walking the streets. But the service kept all of the $250 fee for each “outcall,” leaving Sarah to negotiate for additional tips for herself after she arrived, which often angered her clients.
And the so-called “screening” appeared to be non-existent. On one of her early bookings, she arrived at a house to find not one man waiting for her but three, who chased her to her car when she balked at going into the house, she says.
“When I called the [escort] service, they were like, ‘Oh my God, did you get the money?’ she said. “That’s all they cared about, was their fee.”
Working without a service, Sarah put ads in “gentlemen’s pages” that were sold alongside porn magazines, as well as more mainstream publications like the Chicago Reader.
Backpage launched as an online classified ads site — charging only to post ads in the various sections that, prosecutors say, were more or less explicitly selling sex — and Sarah says it was a massive improvement. A single ad might net her 100 queries from prospective clients, allowing her to be selective. The site also allowed her to contact clients initially without having to provide any of her personal contact information.
Additional websites sprang up, creating online communities where workers could blacklist customers deemed dangerous.
Many sex workers migrated onto more elaborate websites with detailed listings. Some workers, styling themselves as “courtesans” or other more glamorous terms, built their own websites, including photos, testimonials, rates and even touring schedules. A search for a few common euphemisms like #escort or even #backpage on Twitter will show that even mainstream social media websites now are platforms for sex-industry marketing.
‘What comes after?’
Not every person posting ads on Backpage was charging hundreds of dollars an hour for their services, and as federal indictments and advocacy groups have pointed out, the far more sordid side of the sex trade took advantage of technology as well, concedes Alexandra Levy, a Notre Dame University law school professor who supports decriminalization of sex work.
“There were certainly more reports of sex trafficking as the internet grew,” Levy said. “It might be the case that the number of incidents are the same, but they’re getting reported. And that’s what we want, for these things to be reported, and to be able to find people.”
Jessica, a graduate student at a Chicago university who was a sex-trafficking victim in her early teens, said she doubts changes to the law or even the shutdown of sites like Backpage will do little to stop the ugliest aspects of the sex trade.
Jessica, who asked not to be identified by her real name because of the stigma attached to her experiences, says she ran away from her abusive parents’ Lincoln Park home when she was 14. Homeless, she wound up turning to a 34-year-old friend of an ex-boyfriend for help. The man offered to introduce her to his friends who would pay her for sex, an arrangement that lasted for a few perilous months.
“One of [the johns], I didn’t want to touch, and he threatened to kill me,” she said. “I had a gun put to my head. I had to listen to men talking about how to kill me and hide my body.”
If the man who sold her to his friends hadn’t had contacts — which could have been based on internet ads, Jessica had no way of knowing — she might have wandered the streets, looking for customers the old-fashioned way.
“People are still going to exploit vulnerable people. People are still going to buy sex. Backpage gives you visibility … and it leaves a trail,” she said. “People pushing for these laws need to ask themselves, Backpage is gone, but what comes after?”