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.