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Sex Workers Speak Out on Village Voice Ad Controversy

Maybe the ethical clarity that moral crusaders desire requires less talking and more listening to what sex workers know, need and want.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

 In a perfectly “free” labor market, everyone theoretically has the right to exchange work for commensurate compensation. But a free market is not necessarily a just one. And when the commodity is sex, how free is too free?

Sex work, and its attendant culture wars, have moved over time from traditional brothels of urban lore to online marketplaces, raising new questions about private and public freedom. In the digital world, how should trust and power be negotiated between provider and client, both encircled by systemic gender and economic inequities?

On this slippery battlefield, anti-trafficking advocates are  campaigning against Village Voice Media’s Backpage, an ad portal featuring "adult" ads notorious for facilitating sexual services involving minors.

Village Voice Media’s editorial side has mounted a counterattack with reporting aimed at debunking popular myths (those familiar salacious tales of powerful men exploiting innocent youngsters). Reporter Kristen Hinman  cites research on underaged prostitutes that undercuts the stereotype of the classic prostitution ring, writing that “the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp,” and that “Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city's sex trade are going it alone.”

That doesn't mean the sex business is squeaky clean. Critics are unconvinced that Backpage can police itself (or “cover its collective arse,” as neofeminist blogger  Maggie McNeill put it). Clergy and women’s rights groups dismiss the company’s free speech defense as window dressing.

“If I tried to sell crack online through Backpage," Malika Saada Saar of the  Rebecca Project for Human Rights told the  Daily Beast, "the Village Voice would not stand up and say this is about the First Amendment... It’s convenient and politically easy for them to frame this as a free speech issue and it’s not. It’s a human rights issue.”

Sex workers agree that it’s a human rights issue. But they see the war on Backpage (and before that Craigslist) as the wrong answer to a wrong-headed question.

“Efforts to close down third-party advertisers are a shortsighted and misguided tactic to address trafficking,” said the  New York City branch of the grassroots  Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), in correspondence with  In These Times. Blanket crackdowns endanger sex workers by forcing them “further underground,” potentially pushing vulnerable people away from social services and other initiatives that could alleviate the social and economic oppression often underpinning sexual coercion.

Sienna Baskin of the legal advocacy group  Sex Workers Project told ITT that the key issue is safety:

For many, the availability of these tools gives them more power and agency over their engagement in the sex trade, not less. These online advertising spaces also create a record of interactions that can be a useful tool for law enforcement to track down violent abusers and traffickers.

The criminalization dilemma isn’t confined to selling sex. Immigration enforcement takes on similar shades of gray in aggressive workplace raids targeting undocumented immigrant workers—a tactic that advocates say  fails to address fundamental labor abuses by fixating just on whether workers have papers.

Moreover, the stigma of criminalization and social transgression surrounds even consensual sexual services involving adults. The intersection between Victorian virtues and evolving concepts of gender and sexual rights in the sex-work sectors chafes against a deeper vice in which we’re all complicit: the exploitation ingrained in a capitalist labor market.

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