When Backpage Disappears

Since the Backpage.com shutdown, the number of people reaching out to REST for help has doubled.

REST is seeing firsthand that the lives of individuals in the sex trade have become more difficult and dangerous because of the unintended consequences of the shutdown of Backpage and other legislative changes. We see this reflected on Aurora Avenue in Seattle (also known as “the track”) where there has been a reemergence of street prostitution. Today you can drive down the street and see women lined up on the sidewalk on one side, and a group of men (pimps) monitoring them from the other side of the road.

In April of this year, the “business model” of the sex trade went into upheaval as Backpage.com was seized and shut down by the federal government, and new legislation, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 passed (FOSTA/SESTA), that modified the Communications Decency Act and caused major website providers to take down their personals and escort sections. Before its shutdown, Backpage was estimated to account for 80% of the sex trade in the US. In the anti-trafficking movement, there was cause for celebration that Backpage and other website providers could be held accountable for their role in facilitating sex trafficking. At the same time here at REST, however, we have seen an influx of individuals seeking help because of unintended consequences from the shutdown of these sites.

Here is what REST has seen and heard from the victims and survivors, as well as our own advocates, and local law enforcement:

When one site goes down, others pop up.

One of the first things we saw when Backpage went down was other websites pop up to fill the void—most of the new sites have moved to other countries, bypassing the new legislation in the US. According to local law enforcement, whereas prior to the shutdown a woman would’ve been listed just on Backpage, they are now being trafficked on three or four different sites—all run out of Europe. In the Seattle region, on any given night, there are over 100 different sites, ever in flux, where people are being sold for sex. In the past, REST’s text outreach has been focused on contacting numbers from Backpage, but we are now focusing on other sites—and still reaching out to potential victims of sex trafficking.

With less (easy) access to sites, it’s also back to the streets.

Outreach Coordinator Jackie, witnessed the changes on “the track” on a Friday night about a month after Backpage was shut down: “I saw 20 or so girls on the track, not subtle at all. I gave out five outreach bags, and those I spoke with were very receptive and thankful. There were pimps out on the track both watching their girls and recruiting. In the recent years, there has not been much action on the streets, but we were able to see the effects of the Backpage shutdown this evening.”

There is increased risk and instability for exploited individuals. When commercial sexual exploitation takes place, there are typically three parties involved: victims, sex-buyers, and traffickers. Backpage.com was the primary site used by these parties, so when the marketplace of Backpage shut down, each party was impacted. In online forums, sex-buyers are describing feeling hesitant and afraid of continuing to purchase sex since the shutdown. Those that have remained engaged have seemingly scattered to other sites, leaving a smaller concentration of buyers connected to anyone online site. Survivors we work with who have exited the sex trade also report being called repeatedly by their former “regular” sex buyers who didn’t know where else to turn to buy sex in the absence of Backpage.

The greatest burden of the shutdown, however, has fallen on the most vulnerable of the three parties—the victims of sexual exploitation. With fewer options (fewer buyers on any given site), they have less power to negotiate or set terms for their own safety while still needing to ensure they make enough money to either meet a quota set by their trafficker or meet their own needs for survival. As a consequence, sexually exploited individuals who are connected to REST have reported being forced by their pimps to return to the street and endure a wider range of sex acts to increase their income, even though this puts their safety and, in some cases, their lives at greater risk. One client of REST who refused to “walk the track” was kicked out by her pimp and rendered homeless.

Speaking of pimps, it is the traffickers who are attempting to capitalize on these increased vulnerabilities. Beyond forcing their victims to go back to the street or take extra risks, we are also hearing about an increase in recruiting efforts. For younger victims who’ve only ever known Backpage.com as a means to connect with buyers, pimps are stepping in and exploiting the upheaval in the marketplace and taking control of them in the guise of offering protection and increased access to buyers.

Even more sexually exploited individuals are saying “I’ve had enough!”

Since Backpage was shut down the number of new individuals seeking help from REST went from 29 in March, to 61 in April—more than doubling our monthly average. Likewise, the number of callers looking for shelter has also more than doubled over the same time period. Longtime clients of REST have reached out saying they want to get back on track with pursuing employment and stable housing, noting that the ramifications of the Backpage shutdown are motivating them to get out of the sex trade. While we are disheartened by the hardship that these strong, amazing, beautiful individuals are facing, we are encouraged that they are reaching out for help and we will do whatever we can to help each one access what they need to exit the sex trade and reach their goals.

It goes without saying that a significant increase in demand for services has a financial cost. Please consider helping us meet these increased needs by donating here. Your gifts will help REST ensure that our programs for emergency shelter, text outreach, 24-hour hotline, community advocacy and residential housing remain accessible.