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Nominally, the bills intend to fight sex trafficking in America. According to sex workers, the biggest benefit of advertising platforms like Backpage was that it allowed them to find and screen their own clients.

Sex workers were able to post their own ads and hand-screen respondents to make sure they were safe to take on as clients. Consensual sex work transfers money mostly from white men into the pockets of poor and marginalized women, without wage theft. Not a single retail job does that. With street work, girls pick up clients by approaching strange men in public, often on a specific street or in a certain neighborhood.

Sex workers also used sites like VerifyHim and other blacklist networks to flag dangerous individuals and weed out potentially dangerous clients. The fact that the founders of Backpage are being charged with "aiding and abetting prostitution", and not anything to do with sex trafficking is all the proof you need that this is about punishing consensual sex workers, not rescuing sex trafficking victims.

The ultimate fear of the sex workers I spoke to, either for their fellow workers or for themselves, was being forced into doing street work — the kind of hustling you see in movies like Taken, where scantily clad women proposition random drivers out in public. Even the totally normal clients are more likely to try and push boundaries.

The shutting down of Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Lynn echoed that street work is incredibly dangerous. Once, Lynn said a gang kidnapped her friend and forced her to be a sex slave for a year — after they picked her up off of the streets. Even though SESTA-FOSTA itself only covers crime related to prostitution, sex workers and internet activists say it sets a precedent for the government to require platforms to police any and all content users post online, lest the platforms be held accountable.

Decriminalizing sex work does not help sex traffickers- it puts them out of business. 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 has been a turbulent few weeks for Backpage as well. 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 , 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. 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. 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 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.

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.

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