In 2006, L went on the strangest job interview of her life. She’d been out of massage school for a few years and was making about $20 an hour as a licensed massage therapist at a chain spa. It wasn’t enough to pay her bills, and she came home one day to find an eviction notice taped to her door. She need money, fast, and when she saw an ad online looking for partner in a massage business, L reached out.
“The interview was at her apartment, and that struck me as weird,” L says, “She was about my age, maybe younger, and she wanted to split profits and clients 50/50. But every time I would ask a question, the answer would raise more questions. Like, I asked where she went to massage school, and she said, ‘Oh, I didn't go to school.'" This was odd: training—and a massage license—is required to practice.
“So she goes, ‘I don’t do massage,’” L says. “‘I do body rubs.’”
This was not, L realized, a regular massage therapist job.
L did not take the offer, but, desperate to pay rent, it gave her an idea. “She didn't even go to school and she had so many clients she couldn’t even handle them herself. Whatever she's doing, I wanted a piece.”
L got on Craigslist and placed an ad of her own. The responses arrived in minutes. She booked space in a spa that rented out rooms by hour, and brought sheets, lotions, and music. She was nervous.
“I did not know what to do,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, if I was on the table, what would I want?’ So I started out doing regular, therapeutic massage. I spent a lot of time on his back and then worked my way down. It was a lot of teasing. Then I flipped him over and gave him a hand job.” He gave her $100, as much as she'd been making in a day. Within a week she had paid off the negative balance on her bank account and soon after had enough money to save herself from eviction.
L is now in her 50s. She rents an office in a nice building with a receptionist, and, for a dozen years, hand jobs have paid all her bills. Unlike a lot of women in the business, L actually knows therapeutic massage, and so this, with an orgasm at the end, became her niche. “I call it 'sensual massage,'” she says. “It's very personal. Everyone calls it different things, but that's what works for me.”
After her initial forays on Craigslist, L moved to advertising on Backpage, where the clients tended to be less flaky. In order to maintain her clients' privacy, she didn’t keep a client list and only kept contact information for clients she didn’t want to see again—men who creeped her out, who tried to touch her, who demanded more than she was willing to give. She kept their numbers, and ignored their calls. But for everyone else, she told them to look her up on Backpage—she was easy to find—and give her a call. This worked for her. She was her own boss, with flexible hours, time for herself, and with a few exceptions, she always felt safe. She also felt like she was performing a valuable service for her clients, who, for whatever reason, needed her.
"I had a guy come see me once whose wife had died after a long battle with cancer six months before," L says. "After I got him off he kind of laid there and started crying quietly. I just waited until he was done and ready to say what was going on. He'd been working himself to death and denying his physical needs to avoid the pain of his wife's passing. I helped him get past what he was afraid to face by himself." She still thinks about him.
Not all of L's clients are grieving widowers, but, despite stereotypes of men who pay for sex as brutal, aggressive, women-haters, they aren't all bad guys, either. The law, however, as well as cultural stigma, prevents sex-buyers from coming out.
L would like to continue this work, but last week, Backpage, her one source of clients, disappeared.
When L went to Backpage last Friday, she was greeted by an unfamiliar image. Where classifieds used to be, there was a notice saying that Backpage had been seized by the FBI. Earlier that day, she would soon find out, the Feds had raided the homes of Backpage co-founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. According to documents unsealed on Monday, the two, along with five other Backpage employees, have been indicted on 93 charges, including conspiracy to commit money laundering and facilitate prostitution.
"This website will no longer serve as a platform for human traffickers to thrive," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. "Whether on the street or on the internet, sex trafficking will not be tolerated."
But for L, the shuttering of Backpage isn’t a victory against sex trafficking. “It was a death sentence,” she says. “It was totally devastating. I’m afraid I'm going to be homeless."
Backpage says that the company blocks ads that involve minors and reports them to law enforcement, but the site has long been accused of enabling both prostitution and human trafficking. Human trafficking, however, exists in far more industries than just sex: The International Labour Organization estimated that, as of 2012, there were 4.5 million people trapped in sex work globally and another 14.2 million trapped in other kinds of forced labor, including in agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing. Sex is just a part of the human trafficking problem, but it's the only part we hear about. There is good reason for this: There has been a sustained effort on the part of anti-sex work campaigners to conflate human trafficking with sex work, despite the fact that not all sex workers are victims, and many sex workers are just like L, who chose to work in this trade.
In fact, some sex workers say the ability to post their own ads on sites like Backpage actually helped them get out of trafficking.
"When I was being trafficked, I didn't have any agency," Laura LeMoon, a Seattle-area sex worker who had been trafficked as a youth in New York, told me last year. "I didn't have the ability to call the shots or make decisions about who I would sleep with or where or when or any of that." Eventually, she left her trafficker and went into business for herself, using sites like Backpage. "I got to call the shots about who I saw and when I saw them," she said. "If I got a bad feeling about a client, I could leave. I didn't have to justify it to anyone."
In the indictment against the Backpage founders and others, the prosecutor says that in internal documents, founder Lacey "bragged that about the company’s contributions to the prostitution industry: ‘Backpage is part of the solution,’” Lacey reportedly wrote. "'Eliminating adult services will in no way reduce the incidences of prostitution in this country…. For the very first time, the oldest profession has transparency, record keeping, and safeguards.'”
While this may be punishable under the law, to L and sex workers like her, it’s also true to their experience: Backpage did make their jobs safer. Online classified services give sex workers an opportunity to vet their clients first—and they allowed sex workers to trade information with each other about who to trust and who to avoid. That doesn’t happen if you’re walking down Aurora Ave, which is exactly what many sex workers will have to do if all of their venues for finding clients online are shut down. People doing sex work because they need the money are no less desperate without Backpage.
The data backs this up. As Angelina Chapin wrote in the Huffington Post, "A 2017 paper by Baylor University economics professor Scott Cunningham and colleagues found that after Craigslist created an 'erotic services' section, the rate of female homicides in U.S. cities fell by 17 percent (excluding crimes in which the victim knew her killer, such as domestic violence). The researchers concluded that sex workers who advertised online spent less time on the streets, where they were more likely to face dangerous situations."
Craigslist shuttered its "erotic services" section in 2010 in response to legal pressure but, as L told me, "Removing access to [sex workers] is about as effective as preaching abstinence." You can shut down the venue, but that’s not going to decrease demand—or supply. At the time, sex workers on Craigslist simply moved from "erotic services" to "adult services," but that section was removed the next year after an effort by a nonprofit called the Women’s Funding Network, which claimed that because of Craigslist, "the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially," as Deborah Richardson, the chief program officer of the organization, testified before Congress. Her data, however, which was widely picked up by the media, turned out to be false.
After a series of court cases and the arrest of the company's CEO last year, Backpage removed the adult services section of their website, which also included legal job listings as well as a large for-sale section, with everything from cars to clothes. But, as with Craigslist, when "adult services" was shuttered, many people, including L, simply moved their listings, this time to “therapeutic massage.”
“Everyone moved there,” L says, “escorts, dominatrixes, the whole rainbow. It was super crowded."
That worked for a while. But last month, Congress passed a pair of bills known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). The bills, which are waiting for President Trump’s signature, amend Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act, so that, for the first time, websites where sex work is advertised or even discussed can be held criminally liable. There’s been a massive outcry over this from sex workers, advocates for an open internet, and also from advocates for victims of human trafficking, who argue that shuttering sites like Backpage actually makes it harder to find victims and to prosecute those who traffic them.
“Internet sites provide a digital footprint that law enforcement can use to investigate trafficking into the sex trade, and to locate trafficking victims," wrote the Freedom Network, a coalition of experts and advocates for victims of human trafficking, in a statement. "When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances.”
Despite this, the anti-trafficking bills passed in a rare bipartisan effort. Only two senators, the progressive Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and the libertarian Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted against SESTA last month, while both of Washington state's senators—Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell—voted for it, a move that will make the lives of women doing sex work more, not less, dangerous. And then, three weeks after the vote, Backpage was seized, indictments were filed, and L found herself out of work.
There are other websites where L could advertise her services, but Backpage was the biggest, the best, and it's where her clients knew to find her. She could turn to the dark web or to international websites, but, with no reason or incentive to work with U.S. law enforcement, those sites come with an increased risk. So L isn't sure what’s next for her.
“I've been in business for 12 years, and I've got a lot of stories,” she told me. “I'm thinking some people might want to read a book about that.”
But first, she has to figure out how to make rent.