Civil Liberties

How the FBI Is Enabling Violence Against Women While Silencing Speech


Jo Naylor/Flickr

One of the great unsung benefits of free, easy-to-use digital classifieds has been facilitating the sex trade. Advertising online make things safer for sex workers, who no longer have to take to the streets to find clients, make snap judgements about them, and then often get in their vehicles. And as the Internet and smartphones have made it easier to find, screen, and arrange meetings with clients, an increasing number of sex workers have been able to go freelance, absent traditional pimps, escort services, and the like. 

While the violence and exploitation of pimps may be overstated in popular media, there's no denying that autonomy confers many advantages to sex workers. Namely, no one's taking a cut of your money, telling you whom to sleep with, or setting your hours. For those who are in exploitative or violent situations, surely the possibility of working autonomously—which certainly wasn't always a possibility for previous generations of sex workers, who may have faced working for a pimp or not working at all—can help provide motivation to flee. 

Giving sex workers more autonomy helps combat violence and sex trafficking. Naturally, the FBI is trying shut down tools that help foster this autonomy. 

Recently the FBI went after MyRedBook, a popular San Francisco-area website used by sexual service providers (and seekers) of all sorts. By almost all accounts, it was a space that not only connected sex workers with clients but also served as a sort of community forum, one which enabled sex workers to vet clients, warn about predators, and offer advice to one another. The website's shutdown—visit and you'll see only the seals of the FBI, Department of Justice, and Internal Revenue Service—has produced ample outrage from sex workers, who see it not only as a financial hit but also a strike against their safety. 

"But to police and those who fight human trafficking, the closure of such businesses sends a tough message and should be celebrated," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The websites, they say, can easily facilitate the victimization of women and children forced or coerced into sex by domineering pimps.

"The behavior remains illegal," said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Casey Bates, who heads the office's human exploitation and trafficking unit. "There's danger associated with prostitution. It's unfortunate, but that's the reality of it. When people say it's a victimless crime, that's not true."

People like Bates have to know that shutting down web forums where sex workers advertise isn't going to actually stop people from buying or selling sex. But they sell this shit in the language of heroes, speaking to all the women and children they're helping. They are liars. 

Shutting down websites like MyRedBook leads to more women relying on "domineering pimps." Shutting down websites like MyRedBook increases the amount of danger associated with prostitution. There's no reason there needs to be a victim in consensual sexual encounters, but criminalizing prostitution and driving it deeper underground is what winds up leading to victims. Either the people who spew this kind of rhetoric are very cruel or very stupid, and my bet is on about equal amounts both. 

As Maggie McNeill stressed in a recent interview with Reason TV, decriminalizing prostitution is really about harm reduction. That is the bottom line. The FBI and countless local law enforcement agencies across the country are actively encouraging sexual exploitation, trafficking, and violence against women with their current policies and tactics. There is "danger associated with prostitution," and it comes from people like the Alameda County Deputy District Attorney and his ilk.

But the FBI shutdown of has implications beyond the sex trade. "Regardless of what you think of prostitution, taking a website before a conviction for any crime should make people extremely uncomfortable," writes Lucy Steigerwald at Rare.

The federal seizure of My Red Book is not unique. The last several years have seen controversy over FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) domain name taking. DHS's actions tended to be over copyright violation allegations. 

… My Red Book was partially taken under the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) as well as other forfeiture legislation. RICO began as a reasonable-sounding way to bring down mobsters who use legitimate businesses as fronts for their illicit dealings. The government decided it needed a way to take assets from these people, so that that profits couldn't simply be hidden behind legal enterprises.

But during the 1980s, when the drug war hysteria peaked, loosening of civil asset forfeiture standards increased the ability of government to take cash, cars, or even homes and businesses belonging to individuals suspected of drug crime. No conviction, no charges even necessary. 

Most of the FBI's takings from My Red Book include things like $5 million and the owners' cars, but part of the taking includes the entire site and domain name itself. Purging websites from the Internet under racketeering laws is "a wide and rocky road towards censorship which needs to be challenged," Steigerwald writes.

A website is speech, like anything analog. Shutting one down without due process is nothing more than censorship.

Just because the federal government wants to shield our eyes from prostitution doesn't mean we should let it—and certainly not at the cost of our First Amendment rights.

Nadia Kayyali, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the FBI's seizure of MyRedBook is both "part of a disturbing trend of targeting sex workers" as well as "an attack on the rights to free speech and free association exercised by a diverse group of people, many of whom have nothing to do with the alleged crimes." 

When the government goes after "sex trafficking", somehow everybody becomes a little less free.