VISA and Mastercard this week announced that they will no longer do business with classified ad site Backpage after a strong campaign and intervention against it from Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. This latest blow to Backpage comes as American Express set the trend by withdrawing support earlier this year for reasons never made public.
VISA severed ties with the popular site – long known as a safe haven for independent sex workers and other adult services and the second largest classified ad site after Craiglist – citing “moral, social and legal reasons”. The withdrawal of support from two of the biggest payment processing companies in the world comes after years of suspicion from the authorities who have repeatedly pushed the public’s moral panic buttons by accusing the site of providing anonymity to pimps and human traffickers, particularly those of children to the sex trade.
After authorities spent a number of years – without any measure of success – trying to outlaw the site, Sheriff Dart turned his attention to the likes of VISA and Mastercard and has effectively signalled a death knell for Backpage; the credit giants providing much of the transactional business between the site’s users.
In layman’s terms, owners of VISA or Mastercard credit and debit cards will now no longer be able to use the site at all – regardless of whether an individual purchases adult services or not. Backpage is estimated to accrue $100m per annum from the advertising of adult services. Sheriff Dart’s vendetta – one waged on suspicion, rumor and a serious lack of evidence – will not only cause the decline of Backpage, but will seriously damage the livelihoods and prospects of the countless number of sex workers and other adult service providers who relied on the site.
Sheriff Dart was quick to crow over his victory in a statement. “The actions today of both MasterCard and Visa are huge and they should be roundly commended for their actions,” he said. “We realize the battle ahead is still going to proceed. We realize that Backpage probably is not going to go away. But what we can tell you is that for all the women, children and men, to some extent too, that have been exploited by these sites it’s going to be increasingly difficult for those events to occur again.”
According to USA Today, Cook County Sheriff’s Police Dept. say they have made more than 800 arrests since 2009 connected to Backpage adult service ads. Fifty of the arrests were for sex trafficking, involuntary servitude or promoting prostitution. While such actions are of course reprehensible beyond doubt, the Sheriff’s office is cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.
“I’ve never known anyone personally who was trafficked through Backpage,” said Mistress Matisse – professional Dominatrix and writer – speaking to BaDoink. “But even if that has happened, it’s not Backpage that’s the problem. You might as well blame the inventors of smart phones. We know for a fact that sex trafficking is not anything like what anti sexworkers say it is. But trying to cripple a site like Backpage is like trying to outlaw bars, or the street, since those are both also places where sex workers can meet clients.”
The campaign against Backpage has taken many other forms. 13 men were arrested in May this year in Providence, Rhode Island, and forced to pay compensation to the Crime Victims Fund simply for soliciting sex. They had their names, faces and addressed published and were painted as violent criminals by the court and media without any incidents actually occurring. Earlier this year a lawsuit was thrown out by a court in Boston after two alleged victims of child sex trafficking brought a case forward against the site.
Mistress Matisse believes that “… witchhunt is a good name for it. You could also call it a moral panic, conveniently arriving at a time when income inequality is extremely high in the US, and workers rights are at all-time low, and certain people are invested in keeping it that way. Sex work can be a ticket to class and income mobility, and that’s a threat to some people.
… and as for Dart? The new Robin Hood of anti-sex work? “Tom Dart is unfortunately just one of many anti-sex work zealots. Yes, people like him push sex workers underground, and make their lives more dangerous. The pimps and traffickers that anti-sex workers love to fantasize about live mainly in their imagination. The majority of us are self-employed.”
Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post has done much investigative work into the ‘average age’ claims of the Senate re: sex trafficking, the truth behind the statistics and whether or not trafficking is as widespread as people such as Dart claim.
Of course, as the old adage goes – and it’s one Sheriff Dart should be familiar with – let he who is without sin cast the first stone. A 2014 report from NetNames very plainly showed that VISA and Mastercard were the two main providers of cards and accounts for people who uploaded and dealt with pirated content via torrent, p2p and other sharing sites.
The two behemoths are not above strangling the competition. In 2009, Discover Financial Services settled a case against the pair for wilfully blocking banks from issuing Discover cards and accounts to customers. An estimated $2.8 billion settled the claim.
But what does the future hold for not only Backpage, but the vast number of sex workers who relied on the site to make ends meet? Mistress Matisse is confident that the vacuum will be filled. It was ever thus it would appear.
“I think if Backpage allows this situation to stand, other sites will spring up to take its place. That’s the way the Internet works. Things shift and move around – it’s dynamic. There are other places sex workers advertise that are specifically for them, and they’ll probably see you uptick in business.”
For more public opinion, views and reaction on this issue, have a look through #ChargeIsDeclined on Twitter.