It didn’t take long after the shuttering of Backpage for the pimps to start contacting Victoria and some of their friends.
A non-binary queer sex worker, Victoria was a regular advertiser on Backpage, a listings website that became the go-to online space for sex workers in 2010 after Craigslist eliminated its adult services section.
Backpage was seized by US law enforcement for allegedly hosting ads from child sex traffickers and actively working to cover it up. While the closure aims to take a bite out of sex trafficking, advocates say the move may be counterproductive and will actually make sex work more dangerous.
That’s especially true for queer and trans sex workers, who are often the most vulnerable. Xtra spoke to Victoria and three other queer and trans sex workers to find out how Backpage’s closure is affecting them.
Victoria, who specializes in BDSM, started in the business five years ago after a combination of disabilities made working conventional jobs impossible. They needed flexible work hours because of their fluctuating health, and cash to pay for medication and therapies, so sex work was an ideal option.
“I was mostly a pro-submissive, which meant putting myself in a lot of vulnerable positions,” Victoria says. “If someone is going to come in and tie me up, it’s critical to able to say my limits in advance otherwise I can’t work safely. Limiting my ability to communicate means I’m at the whims of what the person wants to do to me, so it’s definitely more dangerous when I can’t communicate ahead of time.”
Since then, Victoria has watched platforms once welcoming to sex workers like Eros and FetLife gradually push them away, fearing legal jeopardy as laws fluctuate. This also affects other online resources like blacklists where sex workers trade notes on bad dates, many of which are shutting down, fearing they could be targeted by the same laws that landed Backpage’s owners in jail.
As communication becomes harder, Victoria is doing less submissive work and more conventional escorting, which is somewhat lower risk, but far from risk-free. Aside from safety, there’s also the matter of being able to work at all.
“As any freelancer knows, finding clients is critical to paying your rent and knowing where your next meal is coming from,” Victoria says. “Your income impacts whether you can access services or medications you need. It determines whether you can leave a bad relationship or living situation.”
“I’ve definitely had times when I’ve taken a client I shouldn’t have or extended a date that was going badly because I needed the money. And those situations impact both your immediate safety and your long-term mental health.”
Anna is a trans woman who’s been in the business off and on for over a decade.
Early in her transition, she started off working as a webcam model and eventually moved on to stripping as she was able to get more of the cosmetic procedures she needed.
As she entered the biggest phase of surgery (nearly $150,000 over several years) she moved to escorting — more lucrative but less safe than working in a club. After completing her transition, she returned to stripping. But a combination of circumstances brought her back to working from home.
Along with the cash needed to pay for her transition, the sex business offered a space where she could be accepted—something no traditional job provided during or after transition.
“Being trans meant being rejected from pretty much any other job,” she says. “But in sex work that same thing suddenly made me valuable. Sex work is often the only option trans women have because no other job will take us, but also because we have to spend so much on surgeries and hormones and hair removal, and there aren’t any other jobs where you can make that much cash that quickly.”
Anna had advertised on Backpage off and on as well as on other sites. For her, safety isn’t just about being communicating in advance, but also finding regular clients that can be trusted.
“As a transsexual, I’m the most high risk group within the queer community,” she says. “We get murdered a lot and frankly, the police just see us as garbage. I’m lucky because I’ve never had to work on the street. But when you’re starting your transition and you’re less passable, you don’t have as many options and you have to take whatever comes to you.”
Anna doesn’t believe shutting down platforms like Backpage will make sex trafficking go away.
“It just pushes it underground along with the rest of the business,” she says. “Decriminalization is a better option. Under that system, if you’re a sex worker and you see a girl who looks underage, you can contact the police. With the current system, sex workers are scared to do that because we could end up getting arrested ourselves.”
Jeff is a gay male sex worker eight years into his career. Though he hasn’t used Backpage recently (he books mainly through sites like Rent.Men) it was an important resource when he was starting out. The cheap ads on Backpage that could be put up or taken down as needed was helpful when he was deciding whether the business was for him.
Backpage’s ease of entry also means it had continued to provide space to the community’s most vulnerable sex workers — those who don’t necessarily have a credit card to access sites with a monthly fee, stable housing to host dates, or the ongoing physical and mental stability to work consistently.
“It’s important to say that I’m very privileged as far as sex work goes,” he says. “I’m a white dude working from home. Police in general aren’t interested in targeting people like me. Criminalizing sex work hurts those who are most vulnerable and that includes underage sex workers. I don’t know where the responsibility of an ad service like Backpage lies. But honestly, I think it makes more sense to use it as a platform for social work services to reach out and offer the resources people need.”
Dale is a trans man who started doing sex work two years ago. He comes and goes as he needs money, which made Backpage ideal. For him, sex work comes with a unique sex of challenges — the same questions of safety and communication other sex workers face, as well as reaching clients specifically interested in what he has to offer.
“There aren’t really sites for FTM sex workers, so I’m mainly advertising alongside cis dudes,” he says. “A lot of the clients I’ve had have never been with a trans guy before. They’re curious, but have no idea how to relate to my body.”
“It’s also a thing where guys may have never thought about it, but they see my pics on a website while they’re looking at other guys, and decide to give it a try.”
Communicating the particularities of his body is key in negotiations. By setting limits and figuring out a potential client’s trans-literacy, he reduces the chance he’ll be treated like a fetish object or science experiment.
“I want to be able to talk in advance so they understand what I’m all about and they won’t turn up and be like, ‘Um, so you used to have a dick, right?’” Dale says.
“It’s never happened before, but I can imagine a situation where someone is curious, we fool around, and after their orgasm they feel fucked up about what happened and get aggressive. Screening can’t totally prevent that. But it makes me feel a little bit safer.”