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Not to be deterred by small things like the Constitution, Dart decided to attempt an outside the box tactic.
He wrote letters to the top executives of Visa and Master Card, asking them to suspend payment processing to Backpage for “moral, social and legal reasons…to help protect vulnerable and victimized women and children.” This tactic worked, faster than even Dart could have dared to dream.
Although the suit was unsuccessful, the site ultimately submitted to the pressure, voluntarily shutting down its erotic services section in 2010.
The last several years have been good to anti-sex work interests, who have successfully reframed their crusade from being against prostitution to being against “sexual slavery.” The political climate has shifted from the now unpopular War on Drugs to the War on Sex Trafficking, with harsh laws such as C-36 in Canada and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in the United States funding increased policing in the name of “protecting children” and “ending exploitation.” These laws and their advocates conflate consensual sex work with human trafficking, and in practice mainly target adult sex workers and their clients, making it harder for them to do business and stay safe.
This week, after an informal request from a law enforcement officer, Visa and Master Card announced that they would no longer let their cards be used to process payments to Backpage.com, the most widely used site for adult advertising in the United States.
American Express had already pulled out earlier in the year.
The war against sex workers mirrors the war on the poor more generally, and those who are members of more criminalized populations get targeted more harshly.
And what the site itself was doing was legally protected, as courts had found time and time again. Anti-sex work advocates were thrilled with the response, hailing the circumvention of due process as a “progressive” way of going after the site since everything else they had tried had failed to stand up to scrutiny.
Dart himself declared it “a great day for all who are engaged in the anti-sex trafficking struggle,” since the companies pulling out would “make the average trafficker or pimp’s life much more difficult.” If anything, the new restrictions will make it easier for the few traffickers or pimps on Backpage to hide, by making it so that people can only pay for advertising via anonymous means instead of traceable ones with their names and information attached.
But efforts to combat sex work under the guise of trafficking are often counterproductive to their stated purpose.
What is new, and alarming, is the precedent this sets.