A major sex work advertising website has been seized and shut down by the FBI, affecting sex workers in Australia.
Backpage was a popular site for sex workers, and the primary source of work for many gay and trans workers.
The shutdown is part of a wider international crackdown by US authorities on sex work and sexual content online, following passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA-FOSTA).
Gay sex worker Lee, based in Townsville, said workers will be substantially affected by the loss of Backpage.
“I’ve just moved out of a house with three other sex workers, and they were all on Backpage,” he said.
“Up here, that site and a couple of others are our bread and butter. And it’s not just us that suffer—it’s the clients as well.”
Lee said clients may be forced to try connecting with sex workers using apps such as Grindr, which do not allow it, or by going to beats.
“We all want to know why [this has happened],” he said.
“It’s not good. Why does everything that comes out of the US affect us?”
Gold Coast‒based sex worker Elle said that trans workers will be hit particularly hard by the loss of the website.
“For all of us, Backpage has been our lead form of advertising,” she said.
“The free or reasonably priced advertising allowed a lot of people to earn just enough money to live on.”
Elle said many trans women have chosen sex work in part because of difficulty finding mainstream jobs due to transphobia.
She believes that to continue reaching adequate numbers of clients, she will need to advertise on up to 10 sites, at over five times the cost of using Backpage.
She said that others may move to doing street-based work and sex for favours.
“It’s just a war on our safety,” said Elle.
“I think for the community, we’re going to get a lot less work and people are going to potentially be more vulnerable in the way they seek out that work.”
She is also concerned that workers who resort to advertising on dating sites may run afoul of Queensland advertising laws, which severely restrict how much workers can disclose about the services they provide.
“A number of people have [already] had visits from the police based on their advertising,” she said.
She said the US crackdown on sex work follows years of overzealous local police activity in enforcing industry laws.
“The police demand entry on the basis that they’re a sex worker and there might be someone else on the premises [which is illegal under Queensland law],” she said.
She said that police often try to entrap sex workers into agreeing to illegal services such as condomless sex, and this may now worsen for marginalised groups including low-income sex workers and trans sex workers who relied on Backpage.
“More expensive advertising and more sporadic calls will put pressure on people to push their lines, and be more concerned about paying the rent than keeping a check on what they’re talking about,” she said.
Queensland sex worker organisation Respect Inc has launched a campaign calling for decriminalisation of sex work in the state, which would see workers free to conduct their businesses like any other.
The organisation is holding a day of action at the Gold Coast tomorrow.
Sex workers and supporters are invited to meet the group at the corner of Davenport and Hinze Streets in Southport at 12:45 pm on Tuesday.