Who Pays for Sexual Freedom?

Once again, the good intentions and heavy hand of law enforcement may have unintended, and undesirable, consequences.


revrobin2-023Once again, the complex issues of sexual freedom and sexual safety are colliding. When and where does one person’s sexual desire and expression, including a public offering of their body and/or sexual services, run into society’s interest in protecting people vulnerable to abuse and violence? An answer of sorts was given recently.

A website for consumers has shut down the part of the site that made sex and bodies available for hire (click here for Washington Post news story). Backpage.com, a site similar to Craigslist, contains ads from individuals for the sale of every conceivable kind of product. Until January 9, those products included the offering of “escorts (female and male), body rubs, strippers and strip clubs, dom & fetish, ts (transsexual escorts), phone & websites, and adult jobs.”

Ads were often accompanied by explicit photos. Until 2010, Craigslist, offered similar products, but that year gave in to pressure from federal and state authorities, as well as some public interest groups, and stopped the ads. Backpage.com then became the major vehicle for those advertisers.

The Justice Department and local prosecutors claim the site not only allows but also supports sexual abuse of minors and the sexual enslavement of adults, primarily women. Congressional committees are also holding hearings and conducting investigations.

backpage-dot-comThe site, and the company that owns it, claim it is not so, and say they regularly cooperate with law enforcement in the apprehension of those who abuse and enslave others.  Advocates for sex workers complain that shutting down the ads will do nothing to protect victims, and will increase the risk of harm to the workers—because being able to advertise on line is safer than working the streets.

Malachi and I have written previously about this topic (Is Sex Work? When Does Freedom Become Oppressive?) and in general I think it is correct to say we opt for sexual freedom wherever possible. At the same time, we clearly oppose abuse and slavery, any form of bodily or sexual coercion against anyone.  We passionately believe in a God who works through our bodies and our sexuality for good.

So, this topic of the public regulation of sex is a difficult one. I for one am very supportive of public health regulation in terms of sexually transmitted disease to protect all of us against disease, certainly including those most vulnerable. And I want to throw the book at those who make their living by selling the bodies and sexual favors of people against their will, no matter the age or gender or race or nationality of the one being used.

But does removing the advertising from a popular consumer site fix anything? I am not sure. What I do know—and frankly this seems so obvious to me as to be beyond any question—is that no amount of government control will ever fully eliminate what I call sex work, and many others call prostitution. We will never end the demand for sex by some willing to pay for it any more than we will ever end the offering of it by others who like selling it and/or think it is a good way to make ends meet (either in a time of acute economic need or more regularly as a way to make a living).

stop-human-traffickingHere’s another thing I know. When politicians get into the act of speaking about sex, it is unlikely that much thoughtful, nuanced understanding will emerge, let alone be sustained.  The obsession with former President Clinton’s sex life, admittedly involving abuse of power, should be a lesson for us. And Prohibition, that noble experiment to rid the United States of the curse of alcohol, provides an important lesson in our power to stop something many people enjoy.

Those who seek to shut down sites like Backpage.com will say that they are not anti-sex but they are against the sale of it, and they are want to end the exploitation of people within vulnerable populations—children and youth, women, immigrants, racial and sexual minorities—by those who profit from that exploitation. One organization, World Without Exploitation, is focused on ending human trafficking and sexual exploitation. They focus on stories from victims as well as statistics from government agencies. Their goals are impressive, and commendable in many ways, but I am concerned with one of their key statements: “We understand that we won’t end sexual exploitation until we end the demand for prostitution. As long as there is a global sex trade, ours will be an unsafe, unjust world.”

I do not believe the demand for prostitution will ever end, if, as I assume, they mean the selling of sex to willing buyers. If that is the only way to end human trafficking then I fear it too will never end. The statement above refers most directly to the coercive use of women (and some men, too) in other countries—especially poorer countries—both for men who travel to these destinations and seek sex, as well as those who prey upon immigrants to our country to sell their bodies for the profit of those who prey.  And that can be distincti from sex work by non-immigrant U.S. people in this country.  Still, they seem to believe prostitution is simply wrong, no matter the context.

world-without-exploitationI first came across this organization when walking on a main, high-end avenue in Washington D.C. by observing a sign on the outside of a bus stop shelter (see photo). The advertisement sets up a contrast between what it calls the “prostitution myth” and the “ugly truth,” namely that anyone who thinks they can get rich through sex work is far more likely to experience violence and even death at the hands of pimps.

I do not doubt that most pimps, perhaps all, fit that picture, and that many of their victims experience horrific violation and violence. So, I am sympathetic. At the same time, I am skeptical that there are very many people thinking they can rich in sex work. Survive, yes, make ends meet and maybe help pay for college, yes, but not rich.

When I listen to and read the accounts of sex workers I also discover that many of them do not work for a pimp or anyone else for that matter. Many are solo entrepreneurs or even occasionally part of groups working together. One of the ways they are able to do this is by advertising online for themselves and not being beholden to a pimp.

I read entries from a blog, Tits and Sass, by sex workers about sex work, including their desire to undermine and correct, often by lampoon, much that is said about them. I recommend reading some of the entries (click on link above). A different picture may well emerge, as it has for me.

Long ago, I ceased judging the workers for selling their bodies and sex. I do judge those who seek to take advantage of them, most of all those who coerce others into slavery or those who take advantage of people of all ages in such dire straits they can only succumb.

sex-work-is-workLeft out of the picture often are those who buy the sex. I have no proof, for example, that our President-elect has paid for sex here or abroad, but it sure seems likely to me. He fits the profile of entitled white men often portrayed on Tits and Sass as less desirable customers, even if they, like him, have great wealth.

Somehow, while supporting the prosecution of pimps and human traffickers of any kind, I also think the sexual abuse and violation of women and men and children and youth will be reduced more by cultural changes—overcoming patriarchy and male domination and entitlement, especially (but not only) by men who call themselves white.

In the meantime, I fear for those who rely on online advertising to make their livings, to support themselves, and their children, too.  Once again, the good intentions and heavy hand of law enforcement may have unintended, and undesirable, consequences.


I’ve been mulling over the recent shutdown of Backpage’s adult advertising section. For many who are anti-trafficking, the shutdown of Backpage is being viewed as a victory in the fight to end human trafficking- particularly because some traffickers have used Backpage to advertise. For others who are involved in adult, consensual sex work, however, the shutdown has made their lives significantly harder and more dangerous.

Backpage began in 2003, when the Village Voice began publishing its classified ads from the last page of the paper on the Internet (hence, the name). The growth of Backpage, however, was predominantly due to their space for people to advertise for adult content: hookups, anonymous sex and, of course, sex work.

For clarity: there is an immense difference between human trafficking (buying and selling of individuals without their consent, often for the purpose of having sex slaves, and many of whom are underage) and sex work (the act of adults exchanging sexual favors for money or other currency). For me, personally (and I am not a sex worker), being subject to a pimp tends to (although, not always) fall under what I would consider trafficking.

It’s also important to remember that some people go into sex work because they want to and they choose to, while others go into sex work out of need and do not want to continue doing sex work. Those are also vastly different narratives, both of which are equally viable. But for those who do not see a distinction, any decrease in sex work is a decrease in Sex-Work-Is-Not-Traffickingtrafficking.

So, the argument for closing Backpage’s adult advertisement section is that it disrupts and limits the ability for traffickers to work.

I personally come from a harm-reduction perspective. I weigh the options and tend to go with the choice that minimizes harm to a community as much as possible. So I have to pose the question: does shutting down Backpage serve to minimize harm to those who do not (or cannot) consensually choose sex work? Or put another way, does closing Backpage have enough possible benefit to victims of trafficking that it is worth displacing adult, consensual sex workers?

I am leaning pretty heavily toward “no.” Closing Backpage will not stop human trafficking- it was never the sole point of recruitment, and traffickers will simply move to other places. But knowing that as a point of entry could have helped locate people who are engaging in trafficking- a point of entry that is no longer accessible. So I’m not sure how closing Backpage has helped victims of trafficking- people won’t advertise there, but they will advertise elsewhere, and finding out where that is will take additional work and time and then- what? That place will get closed down as well? New places will always pop up to replace the old, so I’m a fan of “the devil you know” argument.

So, I don’t see closing down Backpage as making any appreciable dent in the lives of those who are victims of trafficking- if anything, I can imagine it making their lives harder, if people get spooked or are worried about additional scrutiny, then abandoning and/or killing those enslaved is not out of the realm of possibility.

In contrast, I look at the lives of those who are consensual, adult sex sex work is real workworkers who used Backpage to find and screen clients. Without the resources to begin (and very carefully word) their own website, many of those who are engaged in sex work will have to find alternative methods of finding clients, or alternative methods of paying their expenses.

Alternative methods of finding clients, unfortunately, means sometimes meeting people face-to-face with no buffer or ability to screen, which makes the situation much more volatile and dangerous for sex workers. In addition, there is now a lapse (unless someone has established clientele) where they do not have income coming in, but still have bills that need to be paid.

And quite frankly, forcing someone to take a low-wage job that pays a quarter of what they are currently making (never mind shaming them for working a low-wage job on top of it) removes a person’s autonomy to decide what they want to do with their bodies. Are there economic situations in which someone feels they have no option but to turn to sex work? Yes, absolutely, and I completely support resources that help people find their way out of an exploitative situation.

But do I also know people who love being sex workers? Yes. I know people who are passionate about it, who have chosen it, who want to continue doing it, and do a lot of work and advocacy around making it safer- including ending trafficking. And I think this is the part that keep coming back to: when people who are intimately familiar with sex work and have an active understanding of how these things work- partially because their livelihood depends on it- I’m going to believe them when they tell me this is not a victory. When they tell me that this is going to make sex work harder and more dangerous for them, I am going to believe them. When they tell me that it is going to make it harder to track down perpetrators


of human trafficking, I am going to believe them. When they tell me that this, while well-intentioned, makes things worse, I’m going to believe them.

Do I want to end human trafficking? Yes, absolutely. But do I think that closing Backpage is going to have a measurable effect on ending trafficking? No. Do I think that it is going to do have an impact on minimizing the harm to those who are victims of trafficking? I don’t. Do I think this is going to make it harder for consensual adults to engage in sex work? I do.

To me, closing the Backpage advertisements is a false victory, an action that looks good but has limited measurable impact in its intended goal, and runs the risk of doing further harm to other communities. We need to take action- real action- to end human trafficking, particularly of children, but I would celebrate something that truly met that goal, and not something that feels like another resource lost to consensual sex workers.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your thoughts on ending human trafficking without negatively impacting the lives of sex workers? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.


Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, January 19th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Workshop description:

Sacred, Not Secret, Part 3: Beyond the Norm

We invite you to join us on Thursday, January 19th for the third part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On January 19, they will continue to explore non-normative relationship structures and practices, focusing this time on kink and BDSM. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of these sexual activities, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to practitioners–because do not doubt that you know and interact with them, in church and elsewhere.

Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.

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