I remember the day Backpage went down this year: April 6. I’d been working at a feverish pace, lining up as many appointments as I could, ever since SESTA/FOSTA—the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act/Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act package—passed the Senate on March 21. Escorting ad platforms, fearing the civil and criminal liability for their users’ words placed on them by the new legislation, had immediately started going down domino-style.
In online communities, the sex worker hive mind warned us to diversify our advertising presence and look into more online security measures, but I felt paralyzed. As a low-end escort in Massachusetts, outside of a major urban area, I relied entirely on Backpage. I just kept foolishly assuming that the notoriously grasping site would never preemptively shut down before the law took effect, not while there was still money to be made. I just kept working.
So April 6 found me in my homebase, a dingy motel room, smoking a cigarette outside a window I needed a stick to latch, after my third and last call of the day.Preparing to call an Uber and head back to my apartment, I Idly scrolled through a sex worker group on Facebook and came across a screenshot.
It was a vision out of a whore dystopia—a row of law enforcement logos, including the constipated eagle of the Department of Justice insignia, stamped over Backpage. Text proclaimed that several government agencies had seized the site.
[Image via Techcruch]
Panicked, I navigated to Backpage itself. Government incompetence initially fueled my denial, because Backpage hadn’t all gone down—the main page was still up in various regions, including mine. But as I tried to repost my ad while frantically refreshing, bumping up against that chilling message each time, I had to accept that this wasn’t a hoax. SESTA/FOSTA had finally emboldened the feds to take down the most popular national ad platform for low-income sex workers.
I wasn’t so worried for myself. I was scared, sure, not knowing if online escorting—the only job I’ve ever had as an adult—had any future. But I had a few days’ money-cushion thanks to my recent hooker-holism. And I was on methadone—terrible a clinic patient as I was, with drug tests repeatedly coming back opioid-positive—so a period of bad business wouldn’t sentence me to dopesick agony. A lot of my non-drug-using sex worker friends, particularly those who were white and educated, also had some room to maneuver.
But I was terrified for all the less privileged drug-using sex workers I knew with active habits.
Debbie and Danni
I’d recently befriended two other low-end escorts, young women in their twenties who lived and worked together. Let’s call them Debbie and Danni. Injection heroin and cocaine users, they’d only recently clawed their way back on to the lowest rung of indoor work, having previously been doing street work and sleeping in Debbie’s car.
Now they paid by the night for a room in the sleaziest motel on a strip full of sleazy motels—the other week, they’d had to switch rooms after their window got sprayed with bullets from a gang altercation in the parking lot. The opportunistic motel owner allowed them credit on days they didn’t make the room fee, but refused to draw up receipts and charged them exorbitant interest.
It was still much safer than the street. But any time business flagged, they could be broke, dopesick and in dire straits within six or seven hours.
My friends’ lives unraveled in the space of a couple of weeks. They used to be able to get at least two or three sessions a day, enough to maintain their habits and their lodging. Now they were lucky if they got one lowballed half hour each day.
Weirdly enough, I experienced a short-lived uptick in my own business after April 6. A bunch of infrequent regular clients, who had my number and were unaffected by my lack of ads, called me up. I helped Debbie and Danni out with cash as much as I could, but it wasn’t enough.
They abandoned their motel room because they couldn’t afford it. They packed Debbie’s car till it bulged with all their belongings, and headed to Danni’s aunt’s house in their Mass. hometown. One day later, hateful small-town cops who knew them both previously stopped Debbie without probable cause as she drove to the store.
Both women were arrested for residue the cops found in discarded heroin stamp bags in the car. Danni, who had previous charges, was sent to jail for months without bail.
Debbie was released on her own recognizance, but her driver’s license was suspended. She ended up getting together with a man who could drive her to outcalls. He promptly became abusive and started sponging off her earnings to support his drinking and drug use. Now providing for two, she had to return to doing street work to supplement her few outcalls, and endured assaults from clients.
When SESTA/FOSTA passed this spring, and again when Backpage was seized, sex workers were deluged with media requests. These came just as we were wondering how in hell we’d pay rent, now that the immunity third-party online platforms enjoy from liability for user-created content no longer applied to prostitution-related material.
The fact that enough of a sex workers’ rights beat has established itself this decade for the media to give a brief shit was cold comfort. So many of us were forced into the streets, and press callousness was striking. A few reporters asked me if I knew any more marginalized sex workers they could speak to. Thinking of Debbie and Danni, I replied that the people worse off than me were probably too busy fighting for survival to dole out tragedy-porn tidbits to journalists.
The coverage was at least superficially intersectional. Media outlets posted articles about how many different disadvantaged demographics were hurt by the legislation: autistic sex workers, sex workers of color, and especially trans sex workers and trafficking survivors.
Some publications seem to have finally grasped that sex work is a low entry-barrier job which functions as a failsafe for many groups marginalized by capitalism: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, disabled people, and poor and criminalized people. It’s a field in which women routinely outearn men. Its frequently flexible hours make it more accessible for many disabled and chronically ill people. Trans women have a long history of working in sex work, capitalizing on their fetishization when they often have few other options. You don’t need a clean record or a diploma to enter the sex industry, so it’s also an option for poor and criminalized people.
This is why whorephobia is actually an intertwined combination of stigmas. The way people loathe sex workers—the way they think of us as dirty, dumb, perverse, amoral agents of infection with no self-respect—is heavily coded with misogyny, racism, classism, transmisogyny, homophobia and ableism.
That’s not to claim that sex work is some utopian haven for the disadvantaged. Sex work is as heteronormative and hierarchical as sex is—or as our society is, period. A young thin white cis woman doing sex work will make many times more money—and will be exponentially safer—than an older, Black trans woman.
Yet it is one of the few options available for that Black trans woman, and for all of us who are outcasts. So every time sex work is criminalized further, it’s the most vulnerable of us who suffer most—those who can’t simply decamp and get a straight job. Some of the SESTA/FOSTA coverage did seem to understand this legislation for what it was: an economic assault on the disadvantaged.
Still, one story was missing: the impact of SESTA/FOSTA on drug-using sex workers.
Sex Workers Who Use Drugs
In this context, that seemed strange. SESTA/FOSTA was sold as an anti-trafficking bill. The specter of addictive drugs being used to control victims has long been a favorite salacious element of sex-trafficking hysteria. We drug-using sex workers are always used to exemplify the degradation and lack of agency that sex-work prohibitionists attribute to all prostitution.
And drug-using sex workers are more vulnerable to exploitative third parties—from freeloading abusive boyfriends to sex-industry management types. Our tendency to internalize drug stigma can make us easier prey.
Alishia, an ex-dancer from Oklahoma who is in recovery from opioid and cocaine issues, tells me how low self-esteem led her to become involved with a man who moved his entire family in to live with her rent-free. He lived off her largesse—borrowing her car, stealing drugs from her, rummaging through her house for valuable items to pawn, and expecting lavish gifts—all while cheating on and regularly disparaging her.
“I didn’t feel like I was worthy of someone good,” says Alishia. “I didn’t feel pretty or like a human being deserving of love. I was a junkie and junkies didn’t deserve happiness.”
Though they wore ski masks, she knew it was her ex and his brother.
She knows all too well how abusers seek to capitalize on such insecurities. “These abusive boyfriends and men make us believe our self-doubts. They make us think this is as good as it gets. [That] you can’t do better because you’re a junkie.”
Shortly after she left her abuser, Alishia was hanging out with her new roommate when two men kicked in her door. Though they wore ski masks, she knew it was her ex and his brother. During the break-in, they shattered her jaw and the cartilage in her nose. She eventually had to have four surgeries to repair the damage.
They also smashed the windows of her car. She threw tarp on the seats to cover the glass fragments and drove the car, broken windows and all, 17 hours to South Carolina, where she now lives.
Alishia was actually lucky. Criminalization and stigmatization make it extremely hard for a drug-using sex worker to leave an abuser. Few domestic violence shelters will take an active user or sex worker. Often faced with the ordeal of detoxing and losing income at the same time as they leave an abuser—the most lethal period in an abusive relationship—many drug-using sex workers stay with the proverbial devil-they-know.
Drug-using sex workers are also more likely to be exposed to labor-rights violations by industry management. This might look like the violent pimps of public imagination, but can also take the form of more subtle encroachments on their rights.
Life feeding a criminalized habit—think inflated drug prices, run-ins with law enforcement and prison-industrial complex oppression—often leaves sex workers in situations where they have little to lose.
Lea, a full-service worker who splits her time between southern Indiana and northern Michigan, just recently quit injecting heroin and meth. “I literally was walking down the street with no shoes on looking for my next hit,” she recalls. “Me and my boyfriend had gotten in a fight. We lived in our car, and I just left on foot—when my first pimp approached me. He pulled up with a girl in this big shiny Escalade with TVs in it, and in my predicament that looked a lot better than what I was currently doing.”
Poor drug-using sex workers are often forced out of safer industry environments: mid-to-high-end strip clubs, agencies and brothels. These places may seek drug-free “respectability” or tolerate “party drugs” as part of the good time customers are paying for—but they often fire injection or “hard” drug users on the spot. If they don’t fire them, management may instead escalate the labor-rights violations they face, knowing they’re in no position to object.
”[Drug use is] not allowed at the clubs, so when management finds out, you do what they say or you’re fired for drugs and they have you arrested,” Alishia says. “ It’s extortion … I had to work a Christmas Eve once. Nobody else had to. I was threatened [with being] fired.”
Many poor drug-using sex workers can’t afford to use “respectable” hotels for incalls, or can’t class-pass their way into them. Long club shifts are also often prohibitive for workers with habits.
“[By this spring], I hadn’t worked at a club in months due to cycling of eating disorder complications and my drug habit getting to be too much to feel I could manage,” says Ivy, a heroin- and crack-using worker from the Southeast who strips, cams, and escorts. “Where I live there is a minimum on how long your shifts have to last, an amount of time I couldn’t go sober without panic attacks.”
These factors push drug-using workers to the margins of the industry—into low-rent motels, divey clubs, or the street, places where they are more exposed to predators. Considering this heightened trafficking peril for drug-using sex workers, some media consideration of what SESTA/FOSTA has done to us would have been welcome.
Escalating Stress and Dangers
“Those of us who have to use substances to cope couldn’t suddenly opt out of that [post-SESTA],” says Eli S., a Mexican massage and full-service worker from the Southwest who uses downers ranging from benzos to marijuana.
“I absolutely worried how I was going to pay for all of these drugs and vices that keep me going,” she tells me. “It sounds like complete hyperbole to someone who isn’t a sex worker who has a habit to say you can’t stop working and you can’t stop doing drugs because you feel like you will collapse, but it’s the goddamn truth when you’re in it.”
Financial losses are accelerated for people with habits, and for those who those who are already unstably housed—often living in costly incalls, where without access to a kitchen, they pay for premade or takeout food every day. As many have observed, poverty is expensive. What’s even more expensive is having to make a large amount of money every day for prohibition-inflated drugs.
I directly traded sexual services for crack for the first time, even though it was a rule of mine not to.
“I think most sex workers without habits have more,” Lea says. “I literally had like two change of clothes and the keys to my hotel room…So [the Backpage seizure] hit me pretty hard. I had to leave my hotel cus I couldn’t afford it, but also had no way to obtain housing with no proof of income. I ended up getting with this really unstable girl so I had somewhere to go. And she was mentally [and] physically abusive.”
Nicole Sparkle, a New York full-service worker who smokes crack, echoes this: “ Due to the laws and Backpage etc. in combination with my drug use, I basically lost my mind and then lost my house and everything else.”
It’s a vicious cycle. The ticking countdown to withdrawal makes work itself much harder during a drought like the one SESTA/FOSTA occasioned. Drug-using workers must make money quickly to get well. Being sick will make it more difficult to see clients, leaving the worker more desperate and vulnerable.
“[After SESTA/FOSTA] a number of folks… without a way to secure steady income, were unable to get what they needed and got sick because of it, which, in turn, made it harder to work if they did manage to get something scheduled,” says Michael, a white trans man on the West Coast who focuses on full-service work and uses multiple drugs.
An expensive drug habit leaves workers with direly tight margins. We should also remember that many people use drugs at least partly as a coping mechanism. Frequency of use will often therefore increase in a time of intense economic and thus psychological upheaval.
The landscape post-SESTA/FOSTA “just made it harder to maintain the habit but also made me want to use more,” Nicole says ruefully. “I didn’t have as much of a habit until this shit.”
“Before SESTA/FOSTA, my drug use was … more of an ‘as needed’ approach to deal with chronic pain,” Michael says. “As work slowed down, stress went up and clients got more pushy, my use started to become more of a habit to cope with the emotional pain.”
“After SESTA/FOSTA, there were so many workers being hurt and killed as a result of being push[ed] into the shadows and it really got to me,” he continues. “I started to feel extremely hopeless and worthless, because I tried so hard to spread the word about how bad this legislation was and no one outside of the industry seemed to care … I don’t think I would’ve survived that particular depression if it weren’t for heroin. It was the only thing that kept the suicidal ideation down long enough.”
As our incomes fell away and our mental health worsened, our drug use increased and so, too, did the surrounding harms. “[SESTA and the Backpage seizure] made me have to seek out dealers in public and put me in risky situations, especially around men,” Nicole says, “because I needed drugs more often.”
“I directly traded sexual services for crack for the first time,” she continues, “even though it was a rule of mine not to. I got ripped off last week—so, raped—because I agreed to fuck a dealer and they refused to give me the full amount after. And I was alone at his house with him, which is an example of putting myself in riskier situations to get drugs.”
Nicole adds that other drug-using sex workers she knows also “started being more desperate, getting cheaper bad shit—even OD-ing cus of fent.”
The Body Count
Between April 6 and April 14, the sex worker activist community received anecdotal reports of 13 sex workers who were missing, having not checked back in after going to work. We separately learned of one person who had killed themselves because of this legislation, two workers who had been assaulted and raped at gunpoint, and two workers who had been found dead.
These were only the workers who had direct connections to that activist community. There were no doubt many more that we didn’t hear about. And this was within one eight-day period.
Who knows where that body count stands now?
Many of these people were forced into street work because of ad platform closures. St James Infirmary, a healthcare organization for sex workers in San Francisco, reported seeing four times as many street workers than before.
The legislation has also freed bad clients to be their vilest selves.
In Seattle, months later in June, sex worker and harm reduction activist Laura Lemoon also noted a fourfold increase in street-based workers. She noticed that those she saw seemed younger, and that pimp presence had increased.
An Associated Press article reports that according to a public records request, the San Antonio police arrested 296 people for prostitution between March 21, when SESTA/FOSTA passed, and August 14—a 58 percent increase from the same span the year before. (Most prostitution arrests are of street-based workers, since it’s much easier to arrest street workers for public solicitation than it is for police to take down escorts in resource-heavy stings.)
Sacramento police made five times as many street prostitution arrests between March 21 and mid-August as they had the year before, and Phoenix police also said there’d been a surge in street prostitution arrests, without divulging numbers.
The legislation has also freed bad clients to be their vilest selves.
“I’ve noticed a huge uptick in clients trying to talk down my price, push my boundaries, and just general garbage behavior,” Michael says. “Some of them even openly talk on boards about how FOSTA/SESTA will benefit them because it puts workers in a more vulnerable position.
Many sex workers have adjusted their boundaries, struggling to remain viable in this harsher market, offering services that make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. As always, this goes double for drug-using workers, whose desperation is often acute.
“I’ve talked to some other workers who are providing services they never did before,” Eli says. “And these are providers that… fit this bullshit narrative mold that someone can just look like a drug user or not, and they happen to not look like they’re making up for a loss in income for drugs. So I can only imagine what in whorearchy terms those who ‘look like they do’ are having to do with this hit in income.”
After the Backpage seizure, national sex workers’ rights organization SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project)-USA was obliged to start tracking incidents of pimps approaching workers over text, eagerly taking advantage of the business opportunity of the SESTApocalypse. Almost all of the workers I spoke to for this piece report getting these “really fucking annoying texts,” as Eli calls them.
Yet again, this pressure from pimps hits harder for drug-using workers with few options, especially those who are trafficking survivors.
“I had pimps when I first started and have only been independent for maybe almost two years now,” Lea says. “And I can see how if I didn’t have more support when Backpage shut down it would have definitely been a possibility I’d have to go back. A lot more of my girlfriends went back to work with men that they had known in the past, and [the pimps] took advantage cus they knew that we’d be desperate.”
Class Contrasts and Treatment Obstacles
Drug-using sex workers come from all over the class spectrum, of course, and higher-end sex workers have more resources to hide and moderate their use and access harm reduction tools.
Amanda, who has worked as a dominatrix for 11 years, emphasizes that her drug use has nothing to do with her sex work and long predates it. I understand her vehemence about this, since I know how the public imagination portrays sex work and drug use as intertwined pathologies. It is infuriating to not be able to define how one’s sex work and drug use fit into one’s life on one’s own terms.
Still, when I ask if she suffered any economic deprivation that non-drug using sex workers might not have, she bristles. “It sounds like you’re looking for information that will support your theory.” Perhaps that has to do with the fact that she reports that “since the passing of the laws I have gone back to school to exit the industry…the government isn’t going to be able to dictate my ability to make money. I’m in school, I am employable in multiple jobs, even if I have to lie about my profession as a sex worker.”
These options aren’t available to many poorer drug-using sex workers. They often don’t have a clean record or educational opportunities. If they’re homeless, they may even lack basic documentation like an ID. And they’re likely to suffer from other intersectional challenges, further increasing job discrimination.
Claiming a victory over drug use by passing legislation that predominantly endangers women is disgusting.
But Amanda speaks tellingly when I raise how drug-using sex workers are now facing further economic pressure to get into treatment, just as their lives are made even more financially unsustainable. “Show me the treatment facility that is covered by Medicaid, and I’ll gladly go.”
A couple of users I spoke with did go into treatment because of this new pressure, but both were only able to because of special circumstances.
Lea has managed to find a methadone clinic with no waitlist—a rarity—which charges $12 a day for dosing, a price she can afford. She has also found a place to live, something she acknowledges was a rare lucky break:
“Luckily, after [staying with someone deeply unstable] and days of couch-surfing, I was able to find a deal on a house,” she says. “The house I got is a family member’s, so I didn’t have to prove credit or employment. Without this opportunity I’d have just been fucked.”
“I got on Subutex,” Ivy tells me. “I think SESTA was a part of this, because I was so afraid of how poor I was getting…However, just getting the money together for that was so difficult ,so I waited it out for a couple months. Then I used my emergency funds to get out of town and get off of [heroin].”
Most drug-using sex workers don’t have the resources to get into treatment. Rising healthcare costs and long waiting lists are obstacles, as well as NIMBY pressures and regulatory restrictions on evidence-based medication-assisted treatments. Most workers certainly do not have the wherewithal, certainly post-SESTA/FOSTA, to get into treatment twice—a chilling fact given the frequency of relapse during early treatment and high vulnerability to overdose after abstinence.
“I’m so grateful that I was privileged enough to [be able to save up enough to get into treatment],” Ivy says, “but I don’t have that safety net anymore. I stayed out of town until I spent every dollar I had, and I’m still just getting by.”
It’s especially difficult for houseless or survival sex workers to navigate treatment admission, when the modus operandi is often to ask the patient to call back every hour on the hour to see if a bed has opened up in detox, so they can be fast-tracked to medication-assisted treatment from there.
Geography matters, too. My methadone treatment and my transportation to the clinic are covered by Masshealth. My own clinic is progressive enough to accept my saying that I use methadone treatment for harm reduction rather than abstinence, without kicking me off for opioid-positive tests. Most people are less fortunate.
Even when available, MAT, the most effective legal treatment in the US, can still pose its own problems for criminalized workers. Methadone especially—a better option for long-term and high-dosing opioid users than Suboxone or Subutex—can act as a sword of Damocles, because the withdrawal it engenders can last months, as opposed to the week-long cold turkey from short-acting opioids. Heroin prescribing, highly effective and mitigating the withdrawal issue, remains illegal in the U.S.
Very few jails or prisons will honor a methadone prescription, so if a sex worker on methadone is incarcerated, she has months of agony to look forward to. Methadone clinics are also bound by stultifying layers of regulation in most states, making treatment a series of often infantilizing hoops the patient must jump through.
A SESTA/FOSTA supporter might take the view that forcing drug-using sex workers to consider these hazardous treatment paths is a good thing. My interviewees have some ready answers to that notion.
“If anyone linked to these laws saw our changed lives as a win, I would tell them to fuck off,” says Ivy. “They don’t get to say that I’m better off on days where I occasionally still take my Subutex—even though I hate it, but because it’s leftover so it won’t cost me any money that day—and I’m eating three meals of noodles or rice from the dollar store, and not going to the gym because I couldn’t buy caffeine that day and I’m too tired and sad, and I’m taking phone sex calls from clients I consider bad people because I can’t afford to turn anyone down like I used to.”
“If they want to decide that that’s better than a day where I did heroin but I also went to the gym, ate salads and socialized with my friends and knew my rent was paid for the next month, then I think they’re horrible people who will never listen to women or workers when we try to say we know what is best for us.”
“There is nothing about SESTA to celebrate,” Michael agrees. “No one should be forced into treatment, but more importantly, claiming a victory over drug use by passing legislation that predominantly endangers women is disgusting.”
A Frightening Future
Business for most sex workers in most areas has not recovered from SESTA and the Backpage seizure.
“My business is definitely still affected,” Lea reports. “I don’t make nearly [the] money that I used to. I still make enough to manage, but it used to be a great living.”
“I’m definitely still recovering,” Michael echoes. “Business is super slow in my city because of all the stings. I’ve had to loosen up my screening practices in order to keep up because no one wants to provide their personal info anymore due to fear of arrest.”
I know it seems harsh but I’m pretty sure they want us dead.
“I’ve had civvie friends ask me that totally-not-annoying question of, ‘If I was to get into sex work right now, how much money could I make?” Eli says. “And instead of telling them to pay me for an answer, I’m giving them the genuine one of: ‘Don’t. Please, for the love of God, don’t do this work right now if you don’t absolutely need it.’ …after FOSTA there is a definite shift. It feels like the Wild West now.”
One of the most terrifying things about this whole story is that so many of the ad site closures occurred before the bill was even enacted. All the ad-site closures we’ve seen so far, except for Backpage, have been the result of sites censoring themselves preemptively.
The SESTA/FOSTA package technically went into effect when President Trump signed it into law on April 11. Most coverage suggests that enforcement will begin in January, unless a lawsuit against the legislation, whose plaintiffs—the Internet Archive, Human Rights Watch, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, Eric Koszyk, and SWOP Behind Bars activist Jesse Maley, aka Alex Andrews—have already attempted to file a motion to block enforcement, affects that timeline. (A federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. dismissed the lawsuit on Monday, claiming in a 29-page ruling that none of the plaintiffs had standing, but the Woodhull Foundation and company are still considering options for next steps and appeal.)
When sites start being sued and charged under the law, there’s no telling how broadly it will be interpreted. Newer, smaller ad platforms, the ones providing whatever stability there is in the new normal, may all be threatened, especially since the law is retroactive. Harm reduction tools such as the reference sites which helped us avoid bad clients may also be judged as prostitution-related content.
Sex worker activists have fought back, most notably in the first sex worker Lobby Day against SESTA in Washington D.C. on June 1, and in nationwide protests against the new law on International Whores’ Day on June 2, and we will continue to fight. But the future looks very bleak indeed.
“My main fear is that all of the other sites I currently use will also be shut down and my livelihood will be taken from me,” Michael says. “I fear that the increase in anti-sex worker sentiment combined with the shutdown of our screening and client verification sites will continue to encourage increased violence and boundary pushing from clients.”
Any further hits will just hurt drug-using sex workers more, exposing them to more sex work- and drug-related harms. Given the already incredibly high rates of violence against sex workers and heightened drug-related risks during an overdose crisis, one of the last things Lea says to me rings frighteningly true.
“I know it seems harsh but I’m pretty sure they want us dead. I mean, the laws they make suggest it.”
Image: “Sex Worker Festival” by Ingrid Mouth. Via Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival.