How The FBI Stole Backpage: The Effects of US Policy on Canadian Sex Workers

Ever since Donald Trump moved into the oval office, we have been feeling the ripple effects of new policies (and scandals) every week. From the tumultuous NAFTA negotiations, to the undeniable and statistically-backed spike in white nationalist ideology, it is obvious that those of us North of the border have been anything but immune to the state of affairs in the United States.

This has been the most controversial presidency in my life time (and that’s saying a lot, considering I have been alive for Bush (Jr), Clinton (barely). and of course the very first black president, the honorable Barack Obama). Here are three examples of Trump’s policy-related controversies to refresh your memory:
America First policy: an approach to foreign affairs which places American Nationalism above all elseTransgender Personnel in the United States Military: Trump signed a memorandum banning Transgender individuals from serving openly in the military. (Lifted on January 1, 2018 by injunction).Executive Order 13769/13780, or as they’ve become infamously known, the “Travel/Muslim Ban”: limited travel to the United States by travelers from a list of predominantly Muslim countries and by all refugees. (It was eventually blocked by the supreme court).
This presidency and the chaos left in its wake have received more than enough news coverage, so it’s likely that at least one of the three policies on that list will ring a bell for most people. Debates from all ends of the political spectrum are held every day, spontaneously and loudly; across social media, on the train, at your grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary. There is nowhere to hide (though I plan to keep trying). Despite this, one policy has been met with radio silence and crickets. Trump signed a bill on April 11, 2018: the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and its eager brother, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). The policy holds websites responsible for what their users do and say on their platforms, under the assumption that this will end sex-trafficking activities online. The irony is that these laws are harming consensual sex workers (meaning non-trafficked, non-victimized women trying to make a living) and it’s no accident. We’ll come back to that.
The term “sex work” is relatively new, serving as a nonstigmatizing definition that covers things like prostitution, pornography and stripping. The use of the term is meant to emphasize labour rather than an all-encompassing identity the way a term like “prostitution” might. In any discussion of sex work, it is important to make the distinction between sex work and sex trafficking. While sex trafficking refers to sexual slavery (individuals being forced or coerced into providing sexual services whether it be through violence, threats, lies or debt bondage), sex work is a choice in occupation.

In Canada, we take a radically different approach to sex work than our Southern neighbors and our laws reflect that. It is legal to sell sex but not to buy it – a set of laws which are admittedly confusing, but designed to advocate for victims of trafficking rather than independent, consensual sex workers, and focus on purchasers of sex rather than sex workers themselves. Regardless, the effects of SESTA/FOSTA passing in US congress were felt here immediately. The biggest blow came from the seizure of the website Backpage.com by the FBI. The website, previously used by sex workers to find and screen clients, is now essentially dead in the water, along with these women’s hopes of autonomy and control over their own potentially dangerous and life-threatening circumstances.

In an interview with CBC, an Ontario-based sex worker by the name of Jelena Vermillion touched on this risk to safety, saying Backpage.com “gives us a filter between meeting a client and deciding whether that’s safe for us”. She also claimed that 90 percent of her income came from the site, which speaks to the crippling financial blow the shut down has dealt to sex workers, many of whom were in vulnerable social positions to begin with.
Many other websites shut down of their own accord after the backpage seizure, including the adult sections of Craigslist, as these websites now fear legal action because they can suddenly be held liable for whatever users do on their platform (a whole messy infringement on privacy and human rights that should be glaringly obvious and frightening). Women in the United States and Canada are being pushed off these platforms – and reportedly off popular social media platforms as well – back out onto the streets, where the outcome is not exactly in their favor.
Remember when I said that it was no accident that SESTA/FOSTA was disproportionately impacting consensual sex workers rather than victims of sex trafficking? After the seizure of Backpage.com, the CEO of the platform pleaded guilty to several charges, including “facilitating prostitution”. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t see the words Sex Trafficking in there, which leads me to believe that wasn’t the target of this bill at all.
Sex trafficking is a horrible epidemic in North America and across the globe. I do not for one second want to minimize this. But conflating Sex Trafficking with Sex Work is a flaw in reasoning and just incorrect. The difference between the two is agency and the capacity for free choice. As a feminist, I believe in a woman’s right to her own body and choices, and I believe in a woman’s right to hustle however she see fit. I love and respect my nail tech, my doctor, and the girl on the pole at Barefax equally (you should too!). With that being said, taking away a woman’s right to work safely in any of these jobs is a scary, slippery slope but I can’t exactly act surprised that sex workers came up next on Trump’s hit list… especially considering it might be a sex worker that brings this whole regime down in the end (see:Stormy Daniels)… I’m petty, I know).

The reason we aren’t hearing too much in popular media about SESTA/FOSTA is the same reason this bill was able to pass in the first place. Despite huge social shifts made possible by our friendly neighbourhood intersectional feminists worldwide, society still reflects social anxieties about female sexuality in its laws and how it chooses to frame issues. It is a lot easier to paint issues of sex work with one broad “Sex Trafficking” brush stroke than to understand it all for what it is. I wish I could end this article on a more positive note, but it seems we will just have to wait and see. There are thousands of feminists, some sex workers, some not, on the forefront of this issue, rallying and advocating everyday in the US for the repeal of SESTA/FOSTA. Though jurisdictions are separating us in Canada from reaching out to congress or having any real impact on the bill itself, I think it is important to be literate about the situation and do what we can to give them support on social media, and to advocate for the sex workers who have become vulnerable in Canada as a result of SESTA/FOSTA next door. Below are two local organizations on the front lines of these issues and more. If you care about women’s rights to live and work safely, you can donate to them in time, money or advocacy.
You can donate here and here.

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