The closure of Backpage.com in a sex trafficking bust has had unexpected consequences in New Zealand.
Before New Zealand Cracker - a classifieds website used by sex workers - was shut down by the FBI, Wellington woman Sarah* says she received at least five enquiries from clients each day.
Now, she is lucky to receive two a week through other advertising platforms.
“It has totally ruined our lives.”
On April 6, the FBI seized the website Backpage.com - one of the most popular classifieds sites in the United States. Seven of the site’s owners, shareholders and executives were charged on 93 counts - including money laundering and facilitating prostitution.
Although human trafficking is not listed in the charges, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions described Backpage as “a place where sex traffickers frequently advertised children and adults alike”. The Department of Justice alleges that Backpage’s "official policy, when presented with an ad featuring the prostitution of a child, was to delete the particular words in the ad denoting the child's age and then publish a revised version of the ad”. The site earned its owners hundreds of millions of dollars, assistant US Attorney Elizabeth Strange said, and prioritised profit over the safety of victims of trafficking being advertised on the site.
The indictment document itself contains a selection of harrowing accounts from underage victims of trafficking through the website. Some are as young as 15. The accounts tell of rape, gang rape, rape using a weapon, murder and torture. In some cases, victims’ bodies are disposed of by being dumped in parks, or burned.
While these circumstances justify the closure of the Backpage.com, there has been a secondary consequence of its seizure by the FBI: A global and profound disruption of the sex work industry, including in countries like New Zealand, where prostitution is legal.
New Zealand Cracker was one of the many subsidiary sites Backpage.com hosted around the world. For more than a decade it was at the heart of New Zealand’s sex work industry – offering businesses and sex workers a cheap, effective way of connecting with clients.
It’s closure has, without warning, taken livelihoods away, leaving workers without the resources to operate their businesses or, in some cases, survive.
An industry disrupted
The sex workers in New Zealand most affected by Cracker’s closure are independents who organise their own work, rather than working for an agency.
The popularity of working independently has grown over recent years, according to New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective founder and national coordinator Catherine Healy. In 2008, research by Canterbury School of Medicine found more than 50 percent of sex workers worked for a business, and about 40 percent were independent workers.
Healy estimates that in the ten years since this research was conducted, this ratio has shifted to be about 50/50.
Independent sex workers find clients through posting ads, primarily on online platforms like Cracker.
NZPC community liaison Ahi Wi-Hongi says Cracker was far and away the most ubiquitous platform, both for clients and workers.
Because of the global popularity of Backpage, Cracker would automatically rise to the top of any client’s search for sex workers – meaning the site had much higher traffic than any of New Zealand’s other advertising platforms.
Cracker was cheaper, too. Most workers posted on the site for free, with the option of paying to boost their post for about $5 a week.
The cost of advertising on some other New Zealand sites can be anywhere between $100 to $500 a week. The amount is unsustainable for many independent sex workers, Ahi says: “$500 is at least a few jobs for most sex workers.
“If you are only getting five or six clients a week, then you are spending half your money just paying for advertising – and then they also have to pay for their working venue and transport.”
Gwyn Easterbrook-Smith, a sex worker and academic, says the worst affected by Cracker’s closure are those who were already struggling to make ends meet.
“The people who are going to be worst affected by this, are the people who have the fewest other options,” Gwyn says. “The people who can’t afford to pay for advertising.”
Gwyn says as well as upfront costs, there are some requirements which make other advertising platforms inaccessible to many sex workers. One of these is mandatory professional photography, which doesn’t come cheap. Some sites also require photo ID’s on ads, Gwyn says. But privacy is very important to a lot of sex workers, and many choose not to use platforms which infringe on their anonymity.
Catherine Healy says putting your face online can backfire for sex workers. “Relatives can discover these pictures and complicate their lives.”
She says NZPC has heard many stories of workers’ relationships with their families, friends and even businesses being affected by photo advertisements being publicised.
Effect on NZ sex workers
Ahi and Catherine say that NZPC has been flooded with calls from workers, businesses and websites, wanting to discuss the effect of Cracker’s closure. Workers, in particular, are outraged, upset, and scared about what this change means for their livelihoods and their future in the industry.
“There are a lot of sex workers who are telling us that they can’t afford to pay rent, or pay for food – who are really, really stressed,” Ahi says.
“There is also a little bit of panic – because if people can’t place ads, then they can’t get clients, and they can’t pay their bills.”
Sex workers are talking about the vulnerable position this closure has put them in. They say that with work drying up, some will become desperate for work and, as a result, may agree to unsafe acts for fear that refusal would mean they would lose the client.
“For the large part, the clients ask for things like unprotected blowjobs,” Ahi says. “If you do have ten enquiries in a day, and five of them ask for unprotected blowjobs, you will just tell them you won’t do it and will just lose those clients.
“But if you’re not making enough money to cover your expenses, then you might consider doing that,” she says.
“There are definitely workers who are having to do things they wouldn’t normally do and are getting a larger number of requests from clients to do these things – things that are not really safe.”
Ahi says this isn’t necessarily clients taking advantage of this situation - many have always tried to push boundaries. What has changed, is that now that workers are struggling to find clients at all, they may feel they have no choice.
Catherine says she is confident that even with these added pressures, New Zealand sex workers will adhere to safe sex practises.
“There is a very strong safe-sex culture [in New Zealand], and sex workers have held the line for a very long time.”
Gwyn says that on top of these factors, it’s important to consider the effect this kind of instability has on workers already struggling in a difficult industry.
“It can’t be overstated, the way that this kind of action is fundamentally destabilizing. The sex work industry is so heavily stigmatised – it is difficult to forget that, even for a day, when you are working in the industry. You are constantly aware of the need for secrecy, privacy and discretion, and that your job could lead to you being discriminated against in a multitude of ways,” Gwyn says.
“So, to have one of your major advertising avenues shut down with absolutely no notice, creates a very pessimistic outlook – it seems so plausible that things could get worse.”
Right now, the shape of the industry is still very murky – with everyone waiting to see what the landscape will look like once the dust clears.
“There hasn’t been any kind of clear trend about where clients are going to go next,” Gwyn says. “So clients don’t necessarily know where to go to look for workers, and won’t understand why Cracker and Backpage are down. And workers don’t know where to go to most effectively advertise”
Gwyn says independent workers, including themself, are putting up ads everywhere they can, in the hopes of achieving the same level of market penetration they previously did with Cracker.
“Of course, the consequence of that is my advertising costs have basically quadrupled overnight, and at the same time I have seen a drop-off in the number of clients coming through.”
Ahi says that with Cracker down, it will drop in the search engine results, meaning other advertising platforms will get more attention by those searching for sex workers online.
“The number of sex workers on the third or fourth biggest advertising site had tripled since Cracker went down,” she says.
“And the amount of traffic has gone up hugely. One of the sites reported about 2000 new unique hits on the website in one day. A huge increase from before. Another reported 13,000 new hits a day.”
With this uncertainty, Ahi says in the short-term the choice for some sex workers has become staying independent but becoming street-based, or working for a managed business.
Catherine says that while it is legal to be a street-based sex worker in New Zealand, these days people typically don’t do it.
“In fact, we have had a research project in Wellington just this week to engage with street-based sex workers – and the numbers have plummeted.”
A sex worker at NZPC says that street-based work is definitely not for everyone – especially as it can be quite scary.
“There is a lot of fear around it. You have to be pretty tough.”
However, many of the sex workers spoken to for this article say they don’t want to work for a business. The reasons for this varied. Some don’t enjoy the lifestyle, others prefer the freedom of independent work – with the ability to choose which clients you will see, when you will see them and where.
There is also a lot more flexibility in independent work. Gwyn says most brothel options are walk-in, instead of appointment based – which means you will be required to work primarily overnight shifts. For Gwyn, the flexibility of independent work allows them to continue with other ventures – like the PhD they’ve just completed.
Catherine says that sex work businesses – such as brothels and massage parlours – have also been affected by the closure of Cracker, but they are faring better than the independent workers.
In fact, Catherine says that a common complaint from sex work businesses is that they are always struggling to find staff, so this change could benefit that side of the industry as more independent workers return to working in a managed setting.
She thinks the industry could adapt and these businesses could absorb independent sex workers, if necessary.
“If all of these [independent sex workers] have to return to working in a managed setting – what does that look like? Will we return to the days of neon signs flashing in the night sky with ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’?”
*Not her real name.
Homepage photo: Alex Iby / Unsplash