Sarah Leamon: Visa and MasterCard aren't helping sex workers with Backpage ban

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      Last week, Visa joined MasterCard in announcing that it will no longer allow cardholders to make any purchases using the classified advertising website Backpage.com.

      This announcement came after a great deal of public pressure from law enforcement, centering around a campaign waged by Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Illinois. This campaign alleges that Backpage plays a major role in the global sex-trafficking of both women and children. The sheriff said that it is "increasingly indefensible for any corporation to wilfully play a central role in an industry that reaps its cash from the victimisation of women and girls across the world."

      In a separate statement, Visa defended its position, saying that the company "has a long history of working with law enforcement to safeguard the integrity of the payment system."

      While Visa’s statement seems reasonable on the surface, it appears that its position has nothing to do with the "integrity of the payment system" and everything to do with supporting a particular conservative social agenda that envisions all sex workers as helpless victims.

      Let's be clear. I am not in favour of sexual slavery, sex-trafficking, or the sexual exploitation of individuals who cannot or do not give their consent. I am certainly not in favour of the sexual exploitation of children. Those who contribute to, or participate in, these activities are committing criminal acts and should be prosecuted to the greatest extent of the law.

      However, Backpage has not violated the law. It is an online platform that offers the opportunity for individuals to advertise a wide array of goods and services. People use Backpage to advertise rooms for rent, sell old furniture, and post about community events.

      People also use it to advertise escort services or connect with others who share similar sexual inclinations and interests. This portion of the website can only be accessed by adults, who must confirm that they are at least 18 years of age before logging on, and because many websites can be used for illicit purposes, it also provides a mechanism for users to report any activity that appears to be suspicious or illegal.

      Since the ban has been announced, Backpage and its users have experienced significant hardship. Bitcoin is the only currency that can still be used on the website. This makes using it extremely inconvenient. The overwhelming majority of online payments are processed using Visa or MasterCard or a service that is directly connected to them. When both decline their support, companies are often left with no other option but to comply with demands or suffer. If Backpage doesn't find a way to eliminate all adult content, they run the very real risk of going out of business altogether.

      But it's not just Backpage that is suffering. Sex workers all over the world are also affected.

      Although sex work is illegal in some countries, like the U.S., the same is not true of others, like Australia. The Scarlet Alliance, which speaks on behalf of legal Australian sex workers, has said that the Backpage ban will seriously affect sex workers' ability to do business there. Some Australian sex workers have already reported seeing business drop by over 90 percent. The worldwide ban is therefore unjustifiably impeding the ability of lawful sex workers to engage in activities that they have fought valiantly for throughout the years.

      Here in British Columbia, sex workers are expressing their own concerns. In Canada, it is no longer illegal for sex workers to advertise their own sexual services. They are therefore legally permitted to advertise using online platforms, such as Backpage. However, the ban has made such advertising endeavours essentially useless.

      Sex workers say that the Backpage ban will have the opposite effect of that intended by Sheriff Dart. They say that it will only end up making their jobs more dangerous, exposing them to riskier situations and revoking many of the safeguards that the anonymity of the Internet provides. Without the ability to advertise services online, many sex workers will be forced to return to the streets to find clients, making profiling more difficult and negotiating terms more dubious.

      Credit card companies should not be the arbitrators of morality.

      If we really want to help sex workers, we should listen to sex workers. We should acknowledge them as experts in their own experience and provide them with the resources and support that they need in order to stay safe. When major credit card companies are enlisted to do work that should—or in many cases, should not—be properly done by local police departments, nobody wins.

      Comments

      15 Comments

      Ms merlot

      Jul 14, 2015 at 7:43pm

      It is time that canadian sex workers take a stand and defend ourselves, I am personally sick and tired of being labeled a victim, there is nothing 'victim' about my life.
      I am a single by choice divorced mom of 4.
      I own a gorgeous old house, both me and my teen son have nice vehicles, I also employ a live in nanny.
      I pay GST and I pay income tax.

      Enough is enough! There were already laws in place before C36 to stop trafficking and the abuse of minors.
      now our clients are labeled as criminals, no matter how good they are to us, and most of my clients since rejoicing the industry, have been perfect gentleman.
      It seems like society still thinks we are going to just dissappear if they keep making our.lives hard.
      yeah we might dissappear.
      to shallow Graves, or perhaps to landfills.

      Being able to advertise online has pretty much eliminated the dangers I faced as a street worker back in the late 90s.

      Everyone seems to focus on the street workers, and go on and on about trafficked women but they are only making it worse.
      we need to be able to continue to advertise properly.
      if everyone is so worried about our well being, then I suggest provincial licencing for escorts, and monthly well checks.
      you go in, talk to a counselor, get tested, see a doctor ect.

      This would be the first line of defense, and to better increase security, that licence # should be required to post an ad

      Anyone using their license to post ads for anyone but themselves should face fines or lose the license.
      This would minimalize who would be posting, most people who are shady would not continue the monthly checks ect.
      therefore making the licence invalid and they would be unable to post.

      The money the govt set aside for us should be used for provincial treatment centers to help those who are struggling with addiction.

      If we all work together, we CAN end human trafficking.
      ms melody merlot
      saskatchewan

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      Really now

      Jul 15, 2015 at 4:29am

      For every person who chooses this line of work and enjoys prostituting themselves for money how many do you suppose do it because other opportunities simply aren't there for them? How many do it to support a drug habit? How many do it because the wages they would get at a job aren't enough to support themselves or their children. How may do it because the welfare rates are criminally low and daycare is too expensive? How may really hate it but do it because they don't have options? "Oh well, just go prostitute yourself while I complain because corporations aren't making it easier for you".

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      ?

      Jul 15, 2015 at 9:41am

      @Really now, Oh, Really now, there are always other opportunities.

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      And then

      Jul 15, 2015 at 1:52pm

      @? What else about life confuses you so deeply?

      Sure there are people who choose to work for drunk old grampa, but they've made a decision to commoditize themselves and become a business like any other business. They don't need to be presented to the public as victims in need of free advocacy and the concern of the public. Those are the ones that will do just fine for themselves always.
      If there are lawyers who want to publicly advocate for people then why on earth wouldn't they advocate for foster care reform, drug and alcohol rehab, living wages and welfare reform? That would help people who need help instead of trying to create the new myth that all sex workers choose the field, are businesses, but different than any other business in that they also need the public's assistance to continue bringing sex to drunk old grampa

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      just tired!

      Jul 15, 2015 at 3:29pm

      I don't understand all the hate for the world's oldest profession. Why try to eridicate now, of all the eons of existence, this profession that has a purpose for those involved? If you are not privileged enough to have the life that many nay-sayers have then you have other options. If you have been discriminated against because of race or 'improper' sex assignment, or not guided or supported properly and fully by parents or family, haven't had the education needed (lack of proper support) to really make a good go of this life and still haven't sunk into some alcohol/drug laden stupor, you still have to look after yourself!! Welfare (in Canada anyways) doesn't even give enough for rent! Never mind that you have to eat and bathe/clean (using consumer products) in order to pursue that minimum wage job that is most likely 6 months down the road and requires a laptop with internet access to apply for.
      Also laws in Canada don't allow people to be homeless! You can't sleep in your car for one second and you cannot receive any govt services without an address!
      People (the presumptuous and judgmental ones) don't understand and refuse to believe that everyone cannot have the life they have, and can never attain it no matter how they try!
      But those fools (who think they know everything) think 'just take EVERYTHING away from them' (including the right to advertise and pay in a way that makes it a legit way to stay safe and access health care, have an address and report taxes!) So those poor lost souls can have a 'real' life. Because, in canada, that is the way it should be
      Now we can just dismiss the fact that it isn't and go on with our whiny little first world problems. Because we can

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      geeknomad

      Jul 15, 2015 at 3:39pm

      All is fair in the service of political expediency, and the good sheriff is an elected official.

      Pandering causes real damage, and this certainly won't be the last time. He's just the opportunist who did it first. Someone was going to tick this box in their quest for political power, and if not a politician, then the Visa/MC duopoly would eventually do it themselves for the same reason.

      I very much look forward to the day when alternative payment systems become the norm. Technological society is badly served by this moralistic meddling in individual affairs.

      stevev

      Jul 15, 2015 at 6:49pm

      According to r/bitcoin, guess what... Visa is AGAIN accepting BackPage.com

      So Visa temporarily did a PR dodge by not accepting BackPage for 1 week, until the press died down.

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      Hands up...

      Jul 15, 2015 at 7:25pm

      ...everyone who hopes their little girls will grow up to be sex trade workers?

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      Reality says

      Jul 16, 2015 at 12:38am

      Back page and credit cards won't make prostitution a safe job. Nothing will do that. Nothing ever has. Countries with legalized prostitution still have violence linked with prostitution. A reluctance to report violent encounters doesn't mean there's less violence.

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      Selina

      Jul 16, 2015 at 7:20am

      We have announce 123. It's free to post ads. They have a link to another one that is only for sex workers and anything to do with sex work.