April 20, 2018

#119 No More Safe Harbor

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

Last month, the government shut down backpage.com, a site where people advertised sex with children. We talk to a group of people who say that was a huge mistake.

Trigger warning: sexual assault.


PJ VOGT: Hey, Quick warning before we start the show. This is an episode about sex trafficking, so if that’s something you want to skip, you should skip it.

PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

In January 2017, a senate subcommittee met to hear testimony from a woman named Nacole S.

NACOLE: Good morning, Mr. Chairman and esteemed members of the Subcommittee. My name is Nacole S., and I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here today and represent myself and my family.

PJ: Nacole was swiveling in her seat, she told them she was nervous to be there. She wasn’t a lawyer or a politician. But she’d spent years just fighting for the opportunity to sit down and just make people like them to listen to her. Because in 2010, something had happened to her family that to her felt inconcievable.

NACOLE: In just a few months, our American dream would be exchanged for a 

third-world nightmare, and would lead us to question everything.

PJ: One day, she’d gone to pick up her daughter from track practice—she uses a pseudonym for her daughter, Natalie. She went to pick Natalie up from practice, but Natalie wasn’t there. She’d run away.

Nacole and her husband couldn’t find her anywhere, and as the weeks dragged on, they started to fear the worst. The police asked them for dental records. They spent 108 days in agony, waiting for an any sort of news.

And then, one day, the detective finally got in touch. He said they’d found their daughter. She was alive. And he showed them a screenshot from this website. The screenshot was an advertisement, for her daughter—she was being sold for sex online.

Natalie was daughter rescued and brought home, and she told them how she’d ended up there.

After she’d run away, she’d met a woman in a homeless shelter.  This 22 year old woman pretending to be a teenager, must’ve immediately clocked her as an easy target. The woman told her she could help her.

Nacole: As a parent, it’s hard to talk about what happened next. I can't imagine her fear and bewilderment at what was happening to her as she was repeatedly raped and beaten and threatened, and treated like a sexual object every day.

PJ: This woman who she’d met had coerced her into prostitution. She’d actually made an ad for her and put it online. And the website that they’d used — it was called Backpage.com.

Backpage — that was the reason that Nacole was speaking in front of the Senate. Backpage, she said, has made it so that men who want to buy children for sex can do it from the comfort of their own home.

NACOLE: The question is how? How could such a horrific, morally bankrupt business 

model find success in our America?

PJ: The reason Nacole had come to Washington was because when she’d gone to lawyers, asking “What can we do about Backpage?” She’d been told the same thing, again and again. “As incredible as this might sound, we think that the law is actually on Backpage’s side.”

What Nacole and her husband were told was that what Backpage was doing was not actually illegal, because they were protected by this little loophole in the law called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act: The Safe Harbor provision. You might actually have heard of this, because it's basically the law that allows the modern internet to work. It says that when a user posts something to a website like Facebook, Twitter, whatever, any legal responsibility for what they post belongs to the user, not the website. So if I go on Facebook and I slander my boss, my boss can sue me, but he can't sue Mark Zuckerberg.

What Nacole was being told though was that this law also meant that if someone took her underage daughter and advertised her for sex online, the website where her daughter was advertised, the website that was making money off of the advertisement. They were blameless.

So Nacole and a group of other mothers like her, they decided: We have to change this law.

As soon as people heard Nicole's story, they were on her side. There was a Netflix documentary about her and other mothers. There was a celebrity PSA…

PSA: Today you can go online and buy a child for sex. It’s as easy as ordering a

Pizza. It’s inconceivable to me that this is happening here in this country. Thousands of 

children in this country are raped every day…


PJ: Democrats and Republicans in both the Senate and House were outraged, they started working on bipartisan legislation to fix this. The Senate conducted an investigation of Backpage—this is Senator Rob Portman talking about what they’d found.

PORTMAN: The permanent subcommittee on investigations, which I chair, has spent the last couple of years investigating backpage. We took a deep dive. We found Backpage was actively and knowingly involved in illegal sex trafficking, and it covered up evidence of its crimes in order to increase its profits.  

PJ: And so a month ago — on March 21 —  Republicans and Democrats came together and passed the new law. FOSTA-SESTA, a combination of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act was passed. It was decided that section 230 would no longer protect sites like Backpage. 97 Senators in favor, only 2 voted against.

Authorities arrested the men behind Backpage, and shortly after, visitors to the site, instead of getting a list of all the cities where Backpage operated, instead they just saw a big notice from the government. Backpage was down. The monster was dead. 

But the thing that caught my eye in the aftermath of this story was that there were all these sex workers on the internet and they were all saying the same thing: this law is a disaster. Even though it’s supposed to go after sex trafficking,It’s actually going to go after us, voluntary sex workers. And that Backpage, it was not the boogeyman that the government had made it out to be, it was actually a website that was doing a lot of good. 

And I wondered - how could that be true? How can a website that sold children be good for the world? So I spent the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to sex workers.

PJ: Can you just say your name and what you do?


CATY: Sure. My name is Caty Simon. C-A-T-Y S-I-M-O-N as in Simon Says. I'm the co-editor of Tits and Sass, which is a site by and for sex workers that's been around since 2011, and I'm also a sex worker. I've been escorting for 15 years.


PJ: 15 years?


CATY: 15 years.


PJ:   Wow I didn't realize that. It makes me curious just because what we want to talk to you about, like, you're actually, that sounds like you actually worked with her like across the whole timeline of our story.


CATY: Yes exactly. I was just thinking today that, you know, I've been with Lacey and Larkin the whole way through, back in their Village Voice media model with print ads in the back of alternative weeklies.

PJ: She's talking about Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. They are the founders of Backpage. And Caty says, these are actually just guys who used to publish alt-weekly newspapers, the kinds that have escort ads in the back. She said that all Backpage.com was was a website that took those ads and put them on the internet. It wasn’t even like an original idea. Craigslist did it first, but when Craigslist stopped doing it, Backpage became the big site.

CATY: Two dollars, five dollars for a Backpage ad, that's something that's easily achievable for a lot of people, it was cheap, and also Backpage was something any man off the street could have heard of. You know, so you knew when you posted your ad on Backpage you had a viable, broad market right there. You knew that you were going to get calls.

PJ: This was a huge deal—not just because it was more business, but because in the past, new clients were really dangerous for sex workers. A lot of people worked on the street, which meant that they spent a lot of time just trying to decide whether or not to trust some stranger before they got into his car.  

But because of Backpage and sites like it, there’s been this whole generation of sex workers who have never had to do street work. Like the idea of a world without Backpage, it’s like a world without email. I talked to one of these sex workers, her name is Trinity Collins, She’s from New Orleans. 

PJ: What made you first get into sex work? 

TRINITY: Wow this question... 

PJ:  Is that an ok question? 

TRINITY: Yeah, I think. Yeah it’s just like I always think about like 'how the hell did I end up here?' My dad, my grandfather is a pastor, my dad's a pastor. I always thought I was going to be a pastor, and mind you I'm trans in the middle of it, so it’s like 'oh God this is the life.' How did I end up here.... You know, when I got to college I just found out that I was different. You know, I found out I was gay and different. 

PJ: So when Trinity realized that she was gay and she was trans, it was like she watched all of these job opportunities just disappear in front of her. She knew she wasn’t going to be a pastor. She started taking hormones and soon after that got fired from job at Smoothie King. She said for somebody like her back then, sex work really was all she had. It was a job that had to hire her.  But she said for a lot of people, the downside of a job like that, it’s really hard to escape from it. It’s like a pipeline. 

TRINITY: Once you get into this pipeline you find yourself from the streets to a jail cell from a jail cell you're thinking like “oh my god that's when you get your faith” And you say OK when you get I'm going to change I want to be the change. And guess what your big change is?  Your big change is Backpage.

PJ: Did use Backpage a lot?

TRINITY:Um, yeah, daily. Hourly.

PJ: What did that look like? Like how would you use it?

TRINITY: Um I’m one of the girls who, and I know people are gonna hate me for saying this, but whatever, it’s life. I did post fake pictures, I did it for my safety and protection only. I mean just to keep it real and 100 percent funky. Um—

PJ: And so you would post photos of girls who looked like you, just so if you were walking around, somebody wouldn’t recognize you from Backpage? Was that the idea? 

 TRINITY: Yeah. So I would post five ads a day almost you know what I’m saying? 

PJ: There were actually all these different ways that Trinity could use the Internet to just like eke out a little bit more safety for herself. So, she could use different pictures of herself, but she could also do all these things to screen potential clients. Like, he could google them. She could look them up on facebook. She could ask for references. There were whole websites you could go to where you just exchange lists of bad or dangerous johns with other sex workers.  

So talking to Caty and Trinity, I started to just wonder what does all this add up to. Like if you picture how many people in the US are doing sex work, and you think the internet is making all their lives just marginally safer. Like what’s the overall effect of that? Is it big, is it measurable? And so I started to look around and I found a study that looked at this exact question. And the effect that it found was so much bigger and more complicated that what I would have expected that I actually wanted to call the guy who did it and have him walk me through it.

His name’s Scott Cunningham, he’s an economist who studies prostitution. And he said, if you want to understand this, the first thing you really need to get is how dangerous prostitution is. It is the most dangerous job for a woman in the United States.

SCOTT: So it has a homicide rate of over 200 per 100000 people. The second most dangerous job for a female is a liquor store employee and that has a homicide rate of four per 100000. So it's just, you know it's unbelievably dangerous. 

And so he figured an easy way to measure the danger is just to look at the murder rate. And so he went back and he looked at when Craigslist had introduced erotic services. And the thing was, Craiglsist introduced erotic services to different cities at different times. And so that gave Scott this series of before and after snapshots.  

And what Scott found, was that on average, when Craigslist’s opened erotic services in a city, the female homicide rate went down 17 percent. 

SCOTT: We found that female homicide rates were 17% lower after erotic services opened in a city 

PJ: And you’re not talking about among prostitutes you’re talking about the overall -- 

SCOTT: Total female homicide rates. So we—

PJ: That’s wild 

SCOTT: We don’t know that it’s just sex workers, we just know female homicide rates were 17 percent lower after erotic services. 

PJ: It just seems like such a big that's nearly 20 percent. Like I just think it's I think most people don't even realize. I wouldn't even realize that. I don't know. I don’t think I realized exactly statistically how dangerous prostitution was, I don’t think I realized how how many people… I don't know. That just seems like a lot of people to suddenly not die. 

SCOTT:Well it may not always be the… Well, one it is very dangerous. It is historically obscenely dangerous. And just because we find a 17 percent reduction in female homicide rates associated with erotic services.That doesn't mean that every single one of those is an averted sex worker homicide. It could be that there are violent men, and the availability of a very efficient commercial sex market causes them to substitute a way from violence more generally. 

PJ: Oh wow. That’s fascinating so it could be a combination of sex work has become more safe but also the kind of guy who would like just hurt a woman instead is visiting  prostitutes and not hurting them. 

 SCOTT: Yeah. Yep. I have another study where I do find evidence for that. 

PJ: And Scott says there’s other places where he’s seen effects like this. For instance, there’s a period of time when Rhode Island largely decriminalized prostitution—you couldn’t go out on the street, but anything indoors was allowed. During that time, the female gonorrhea rate went down 40 percent, and the amount of reported rapes went down 30 percent. And again, this was for all women.   

  SCOTT: Overall. Not just for sex workers

PJ: I feel like there’s something disturbing in there. The idea that there are enough men at the margins for whom paying for sex or raping a person are— 

SCOTT: Substitutes for each other? 

PJ: Yeah. Yeah. 

SCOTT: Well it doesn’t have to be a bunch of guys. It actually could be serial rapists which is really common. Um. It. But yeah. It is disturbing that they exist. It’s disturbing that there might be a very unusual public policy which could be a deterrent that on the face of it is very objectionable to people. I think that, that also is disturbing that we might be able to use voluntary sex work to pacify violence. 

PJ: Scott says that actually right now, today, we are at the beginning of what he things will be the largest natural experiment in prostitution policy in American history.

Because this law that was just passed, Scott says that what the law actually does is it says that any website that promotes or fascilates prostitution, not just trafficking but prostitution, is now criminally liable. Which means that after the vote, before the law was even passed. All these different websites that just helped sex workers stay safe online, they started closing.

PJ: Do you think people are going to die because of this law?

SCOTT: Yeah I do actually. If they end up having to go back to the streets, if they end up having to work with clients that they were not able to check out before screen in any way they are going to die. They-there's going to be violence committed there's going to be violence committed against them.

There'll be no more blacklists, there will be no more whitelists, there'll be no more references. You know it's going to be sort of unclear how what the new market's going to look like but I can't imagine that any of the safety infrastructure is going to be there.

PJ: Scott says, here is the worst part. For all the damage he believes this law will do to sex workers and to their industry. He thinks that when the dust settles, sex traffickers, they might actually just be the cockroaches who survive the blast. 

SCOTT: Traffickers might be the most stubborn of the participants in the market. You know?

PJ: Why.

SCOTT: Well because they've got women that have literally no other outside options and they themselves have no other outside options and they might be the best game in town for finding people. Because what the Internet did was it gave women the ability to not work with them to not work with coercive people. But now, all of a sudden you know if he thinks that he can round up some clients for her she may not have a better choice.

PJ: Coming up after the break, we talk to somebody who pushed for this law. And we ask them what they think about all this. 


PJ: Welcome back to the show. 

I wanted to talk to somebody who supported this law. I wanted to know why they had. I wanted to know if they had considered any of what these sex workers were saying. Like did they not agree, did they not know? So I called somebody.

CAROL: My name is Carol Smolenski i’m the executive director of ECPAT USA. We’re an organization that works all around the world to protect children from commercial, sexual exploitation.

Carol said she’s been fighting to save exploited children for 27 years. When I told her I wanted to ask her about problems people had with the law she just helped pass, she said sure. Go ahead.


PJ: So basically what they say is they say that's like the goal of reducing child sex trafficking—obviously they're on board with. They feel like the way the law is written because it criminalizes websites that facilitate prostitution instead of just sex trafficking, that it it has a much bigger area of effects than it would otherwise.

CAROL: Well I mean I guess we'll see how that plays out you know after laws passed I think there's still this period where you're not sure. Um, and so yes I know that they say that and I'm not sure that that outweighs the need to protect our kids from being bought and sold on the sex trade, in the sex trade.

PJ: I mean I think what they think in their minds the people I've spoken to they don't think that it's like— They don't think that it's like oh kids should be at more risk so sex workers are more safe or whatever. What they say is they think that with a website like backpage basically they think that trafficking exists and a Website like Backpage is going to make it visible. But the absence of Backpage isn't going to make it go away.

CAROL: But the outfront existence of it really does normalize it. I mean you know from my perspective it should be underground it should be that kids are— it's not seen that there's a open marketplace for kids, that anybody can just go and buy one and see- and we you know and we are OK with it. There really does have to be some, some pushback to to say that's not acceptable.

PJ: I asked her why the law had targeted not just trafficking but prostitution, and she said she didn’t know. I asked her if he’d talked to any sex workers who opposed the law and she said she hadn’t. But she said in general she felt sympathy for them. She told me about this NPR story she’d heard about this report about how hard sex workers had it. And that she’d gone and looked up the report up afterwords.

CAROL: I mean there's this one quote from that report that's really ringing in my I can't stop thinking about. She's being fined by a judge for prostitution and her quote in there is what she said to the judge. "I'm going to have to go suck some dick in order to pay this fine."

PJ: I think that's how they feel.

CAROL: Yeah, I know. And it's it's outrageous. It's outrageous. And so no they should be they should be- they shouldn't be criminalized for this. But what we really need is an economy that does justice for all. Jobs, you know, affordable housing. All that's what we really need. And that's what I'm working for, in my, in my spare time.

PJ: The thing that I cannot square is you like if you talk like one of the people I talked to and She was Trinity. And if you talked to Trinity you guys would agree on 99 percent. And then again she would say also you just support a law they think could kill me.

CAROL: Yeah. I don't know what to say.

PJ: I know.

CAROL: I know it's you know, I don't know. Anything I say will sound wrong so I'm not going to say anything to that.

PJ: You sound like a thoughtful person who's trying to solve the part of the misery that you can see.

CAROL: Yes I am. You know it's you know it's easier for children. It's easier on the children's end of things. Because adults are always seen as responsible for their own, you know exploitation, which is also outrageous.

PJ: I was really surprised at how much Carol agreed with the sex workers.. That arresting sex workers wasn’t helping anybody, and what people really needed was just more support. I didn’t see how these two sides could be in so much opposition. 

But then I talked to Melissa Gira Grant. She’s a journalist. She’s covered sex work for a long time. And she told me, she’s just really sick of this conversation. Because it’s been like this for decades. Some of the people in power will say that the solution to all this is more resources for people, giving them better options, but when they pass laws they always pick a crackdown instead.  

And she says it just doesn’t help. Like even with child sex trafficking, if you look at a lot of these kids who are getting trafficked that won’t work because, there’s no pimp to arrest. Because, in the real world, a lot of the kids who we say have been sexually trafficked, all that means is that they are under 18 and they decided to sell sex. And the reason they’re doing it is for the same reasons that a lot of adults to: they need to survive in a situation where they see no better option. 

MELISSA: So what I understand as sort of the most common experience is that the person already was facing some kind of vulnerability in their life. Whether they were homeless or on the verge of homelessness whether they were in an abusive household whether they had a financial crisis that pushed them into a precarious position an emergency. What is happening is somebody is able to exploit something that was already a problem. And what I hear from social service providers is that that's the problem.. Right? We need to make sure that young people aren't in a position of vulnerability that can't be exploited.

PJ: She watched the Senate hearings that led to this law getting passed, and she story after story about young people who had been exploited. And she  could not believe that the only part of it that politicians would talk about was Backpage.com.  

MELISSA: It feels like what's going on here has back pages being scapegoated for why it is that young people run away from home Backpage is getting scapegoated for the actions of people who exploit those young people and and those are much harder things to talk about and to face honestly. We were in a Senate subcommittee hearing about child abuse and neglect. We were in a Senate subcommittee hearing about how few resources there are for homeless youth we are here to talk about this website. 

As we were finishing the story, I got an email from Caty, one of the sex workers I spoke to. She says that one month after this vote, the community is already feeling the impact. Thirteen people have gone missing. Two more were found dead. Two have been sexually assaulted at gunpoint.  And one woman took her own life. And those are just the ones she knows about.


PJ: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni,  Phia Benin, Damiano Marchetti, Kaitlin Roberts, and Elizabeth Kulas. We were edited this week by Tim Howard and Sara Sarason. We had fact checking this week by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Devon Guinn. Special thanks this week to Emma Llonso, Greg DeAngelo, Brennan Reese, and Lola Pellegrino. My co-host Alex Goldman is away for the next little bit on account of the fact that he had a baby girl. Please tweet him congratulations and ask him when he’s going to visit my puppy Ralphie. We were mixed by Rick Kwan and Catherine Anderson. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Matt Lieber is the closest parking spot to the movie theater. Thank you for listening. We will see you in two weeks.