Backpage.com, owned by the Village Voice, is one of the more controversial web enterprises: according to some reports, it hosts 70 percent of the web’s sex ads. On Wednesday night, there were two protests outside the Voice’s offices in Cooper Square. One was led by radical feminists and evangelical Christians who compare Backpage to a pimp, hoping to shut it down the way Craigslist’s “adult services section” was shut down. The other protest was led by Backpage users: escorts, dommes, and rent boys, who say shutting down the site will run them out of business or onto the streets.
The New York chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project faced off with a coalition of anti-prostitution feminists, 33 evangelical Christian youth, their faith leaders, and a girls’ theatre troupe. While the SWOP folks passed out flyers explaining the controversy to people rolling out of work early on the hottest and longest day of the year, the anti-Backpagers walked a picket line on the street just outside the doors of 36 Cooper, inside which no sex trafficking takes place, but where the Village Voice is housed.
There was also a drum circle.
Out with the SWOP protesters was Vivian, a sex worker who’s been blogging her experiences using Backpage. “Because I could work for myself and control my working conditions, I was able to screen clients for the first time,” she wrote. That meant being able to avoid potentially violent customers approaching her online.
About twenty feet to her left–at least spatially, if not at all politically–the anti-Backpagers carried mini pink umbrellas from Duane Reade as they marched. Picket lines, a not entirely extinct form of protest, are most often performed by workers outside their own workplace, in solidarity with the workers inside. Not so this time. Picketers carried signs likening the Village Voice to pimps.
The marchers prefaced their “Prostitution has got to go!” chant with the unlikely “Hey, hey! Ho, ho!” a few times until a 20-something Caucasian man in a pressed shirt, who held a sheet listing the chants of the day, chimed over them with “No more selling women here, Village Voice, change your career.”
Despite the words they were saying, several of the anti-Backpagers told me that they were not there in opposition to prostitution, or to adult women who work online as escorts. Some of them had also used Backpage. One was Jonathan Walton, the director of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s New York City Urban Project, who brought out 33 members to the protest. As 20 women circled around us bearing placards demanding the abolition of Backpage, Mr. Walton told me he uses the website to create “prayer maps.”
“I use these sites to figure out where the girls are for sale. We can figure out what the men are saying they want on Backpage, and then we can find the brothels by cross-referencing that with their blogs,” he explained, referring to the blogs that some customers of sex workers have begun to publish. “They’re all online. It’s so easy.”
Once a brothel (or an apartment believed to be one) has been mapped, Mr. Walton leads his youth ministry there for prayer. “We go to these places and pray. God loves the traffickers as much as he loves the exploited victim.”
I noticed that the majority of anti-Backpagers on the picket were wearing yellow armbands bearing a cross with a hand on one side and a foot on the other. I asked four different people wearing them what they meant, but no one would tell me. “Have you met Jonathan?” a man who looked much older and a little less pulled together than the cleaned-up kids who were picketing. “He could tell you.” He handed me a bottle of water imprinted with a heart draped in chains and the URL priceoflifenyc.org. (The website advertises a 1.2M initiative targeting 10 New York college campuses with social media and evangelism – “Stop Kony” with a sex trafficking twist.)
Our conversation was interrupted by a series of speakers. A handler identified the one with a mop of brown pretty boy curls, who called Internet pornography “a sea monster, a leviathan, that will eat our women and children alive,” as “Aaron Cohen, slave hunter.” Mr. Cohen traded his rock and roll lifestyle (“he used to be known as Perry Farrell’s best friend and spiritual collaborator,” a LA Weekly profile notes – the LA Weekly, owned by Backpage parent company Village Voice Media!) for raiding brothels in Southeast Asia.
Following Mr. Cohen came Norma Ramos, a 50-ish woman in a khaki-colored dress and wide-brimmed hat that recalled the kind of get-up I imagined Nicholas Kristof might favor while rescuing “sex slaves.” Ms. Ramos, one of the protest’s lead organizers, brought up New York City Council Member Brad Lander, the co-author of a city resolution demanding the closure of Backpage. Mr. Lander recalled the contentious hearing at which Village Voice’s general counsel, Liz McDougall, attempted to explain Backpage’s best practices for identifying ads that might include illegal content, including references to underage persons. “She had the audacity,” he told the assembled crowd, now swelled to 50, “to say that Backpage knew better, than the mayors, than all the Attorneys General.”
One of those Attorneys General, Rob McKenna of Washington state, is the architect of policy that threatens not just Backpage, but free speech online. In an amendment to Washington State Senate Bill 6251, Mr. McKenna aimed to make Backpage illegal by criminalizing any individual or company who “knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays, or causes directly or indirectly, to be published, disseminated, or displayed, any advertisement for a commercial sex act, which is to take place in the state of Washington and that includes the depiction of a minor.”
This is where the issue transcends debates about sex; like two high-profile anti-piracy bills that were halted earlier this year, a law like this threatens to drastically change the way the Internet works. The word “indirectly” in the bill recalls the issue with the unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act–its breadth potentially guts the core protections in the Communications Decency Act, the law that prevents websites from being held liable for material posted by their users. Such a sweeping change, digital rights advocates fear, could force the entire web into the purgatory of comment-moderation.
New York City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who co-sponsored the resolution to demand Backpage shut down, shrugged when I asked her what we could expect if Backpage did close. Would it be a repeat of the the Craigslist “adult services” closure, which drove so many sex ads to Backpage in the first place?
She passed me back to Mr. Lander, the resolution’s other co-sponsor. “Look, sex trafficking won’t end tomorrow if Backpage is shut down,” he said. “But the internet, it’s pretty good at expanding business. It makes it easier to buy things you might otherwise be ashamed of buying.”
Mr. Lander assured me he had consulted with SWOP. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to set up their own website, and have their own people advertise on it.”
I circled back to Vivian, who confirmed Mr. Lander had one meeting with her, but hadn’t addressed SWOP’s concerns. “I told him there were serious problems with the bill, that we needed to be brought into the process as the real experts on Backpage. But he said, ‘this is what I believe, and this is how I’ll vote.’”