Sex Work

How a Crusading Chicago Sheriff Convinced Visa and Mastercard to Screw Sex Workers

Bitcoin is now the only means of paying for adult ads on the popular web classifieds site Backpage.com.

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Reyner Media/Flickr

Two major credit card companies this week announced that they will refuse to process payments for "adult" ads on the popular advertising site Backpage.com. Mastercard said Tuesday that it would no longer process these payments; on Wednesday, Visa followed suit. Since American Express did the same earlier this year, that leaves Bitcoin as the only current means of paying for adult ads on Backpage.

Both Visa and Mastercard decided to stop processing the payments upon request from Thomas Dart, a Cook County, Illinois, sheriff on a crusade against Backpage.com. "We have objectively found [sites like Backpage] promote prostitution and facilitate online sex trafficking," he wrote in a letter to the credit card companies. "Institutions such as yours have the moral, social and legal right to step up on this pervasive problem and make a fundamental and everlasting difference."

As you can see, Dart makes little distinction between "sex trafficking"—generally understood to mean forced or coerced commercial sexual activity—and the much more common phenomenon of consensual prostitution. It's a common conflation, backed by the idea that women are such brainless, innocent creatures we're unable to have sex for reasons other than pleasure or romance; the idea of actually profiting from men's desire to have sex with us would never enter our fluffy, pink little brains. So, even if a woman says she's doing sex work voluntarily, she's either lying or suffering from "Stockholm syndrome," and has actually been coerced by a "pimp."

Nevermind that the racially-charged stereotypical "pimp" is so rare he might as well be a chupacabra, and that even among underage sex workers only about 16 percent have ever even met a pimp (much less worked with one). Loudmouthed cops, radical feminists, religious fanatics, and other ignoramuses who wouldn't be caught dead talking to a sex worker like me say that we're all dominated by "pimps" and the media obediently regurgitates whatever the prohibitionists feed them. And so laws designed to restrict the only profession which is absolutely dominated (both economically and socially) by women are disguised as valiant efforts to "rescue" fainting damsels from mustache-twirling villains, and everyone but sex workers, our families, and our clients can pat themselves on the back.

Sheriff Dart's crusade against sex workers is by no means limited to Backpage, nor is it merely the product of his own pearl-clutching brain. It is the result of a long-running collaboration between him and billionaire moralist Swanee Hunt, who has pursued her own private vendetta against us by bankrolling sex-work stings for several years now. Though these whore hunts are billed as the "National Day of Johns Arrests" and sold as a way to end "demand" for commercial sex by targeting clients, sex workers make up 97 percent of prostitution-related felony convictions in Cook County, a 68 percent increase since 2008. Though centered in Chicago, the program now infests 10 cities and will no doubt expand as far as Hunt's money can carry it.

Of course, it's not just sex workers and their clients that are harmed by the new national "War on Whores." (Laws designed to restrict and persecute one despised minority absolutely never remain confined to that minority; they are rapidly expanded to others.) Like the War on Drugs, it provides all sorts of opportunities for police-state expansion and the long-term erosion of Americans' civil rights.

Under the guise of going after "sex trafficking," prohibitionist politicians have been trying and failing to shut down Backpage—a commercial enterprise which has broken no laws—since at least 2011. The free speech implications alone are horrifying. And Sheriff Dart's pressuring Visa and Mastercard to reject adult-ad payments is nothing less than an end run around due process which affects not only his own fiefdom of Chicago, but every single place Backpage reaches via the Internet.

The strategy is part of a larger and more troubling trend of government circumventing due process and exceeding legal authority by pressuring large corporations to do its dirty work. And the more often this strategy succeeds, the more politicians will employ it.

Remember Operation Choke Point, the Department of Justice program designed to strangle disfavored businesses (including gun dealers, payday lenders, and of course porn and escort services) by bullying payment processors into cutting them off? The administration retreated from the program after it was heavily criticized in the business media, but if any two-bit tyrant like Dart can basically implement the exact same strategy, it will be Choke Point multiplied many times over.

Dart's crusade is supported by absolutely nothing but lies and propaganda, and his rationales have been rejected time and again by federal courts, yet with a mere letter he can inflict his warped desire upon a major internet company and cut off the income of tens of thousands of sex workers who have depended on that company for advertising. Of course, this won't "stop prostitution," no matter what Dart and his accomplices pretend. Whores found clients for millennia without the Internet, and before long those who advertise on Backpage will either find a new venue or learn to disguise their ads as something other than escorting (just as they did when Craigslist shut down its adult ad section under government pressure; now sex workers simply use the site's "personals" section). But if this newest expansion of the power of costumed clowns to ruin the lives of others by signing a piece of paper doesn't bother you, I have to wonder if you're even awake.