Category Archives: Sex Work

The DOJ Performs As Expected on Backpage

On Friday there was a big news splash about the Department of Justice coming down hard on executives for their involvement with child sex trafficking. The site was taken down, and there were reports and rumors of seizures, searches, arrests, and a 93-count indictment. We didn’t get to find out much more, because despite all the publicity, the Department of Justice got the court to keep the indictment sealed.

Until today. Ryan Reilly of Huffington Post was nice enough to post a copy of the 61-page indictment here, if you want to take a look.

Back on Saturday, however, before the DOJ released the document, I posted a set of very cynical predictions of what would happen, and we can now check a few of them. To start with, my third prediction was

The majority of the counts in the indictment are not actually going to be about child sex trafficking. I think a lot of them will be crimes with what I like to think of as fictitious elements, such as “conspiracy” and “intent.” The prosecution is also going to be about adult consensual sex work and the usual smattering of federal add-on crimes, like money laundering or false statements, maybe with some wildcards like fraud. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the action is around these ancillary crimes rather than the flashy child sex trafficking that prosecutors are claiming they’re fighting.

To analyze this, I prepared a spreadsheet listing all of the defendants and all of the sections of the U.S. code that they are accused of violating, and tallied which defendants were charge with which crimes.

If you’re interested in learning more about the trafficking laws, the Department of Justice website helpfully provides an overview of all sections of the U.S. Code covering Involuntary Servitude, Forced Labor, and Sex Trafficking Statutes Enforced. From that, I prepared this brief summary:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 1581 (Peonage)– Makes it unlawful to hold a person in “debt servitude,” or peonage, which is closely related to involuntary servitude.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1584 (Involuntary Servitude) — Makes it unlawful to hold a person in a condition of slavery, that is, a condition of compulsory service or labor against his/her will. Also prohibits compelling a person to work against his/her will by creating a “climate of fear” through the use of force, the threat of force, or the threat of legal coercion.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1589 (Forced Labor) — Makes it unlawful to provide or obtain the labor or services of a person through threat of harm or restraint or abuse of the legal process
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1590 (Trafficking) — Makes it unlawful to recruit, harbor, transport, or broker persons for labor or services under conditions which violate any of the offenses contained in a variety of other code sections.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1591 (Sex Trafficking of Children) — Makes it unlawful to cause a person to engage in a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, or if the person is under the age of 18.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1592 (Documents) — Makes it unlawful to seize documents (e.g. immigration papers, even if counterfeit) in order to force others to work.

That is just my non-lawyer summary of the DOJ’s summary of the actual criminal code. If you want to learn more, you could go read the original DOJ summary or spend a few hour poring over the relevant sections in Chapter 77 of the U.S. Code. I’m sure it’s fascinating, if you’re into that sort of thing.

It would also be a complete waste of your time, because the executives weren’t charged with any of those crimes. There’s not a single child sex trafficking charge in the entire indictment. When I predicted that “The majority of the counts in the indictment are not actually going to be about child sex trafficking,” I was apparently nowhere near as cynical as I should have been. The indictment consists entirely of charges of facilitating prostitution, various flavors of money laundering, and conspiracy.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Law Description Counts Defendant
18 U.S.C  § 371 Conspiracy 1 Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Hyer, Padilla, Vaught
18 U.S.C  § 1952(a)(3)(A) Travel Act — Facilitate Prostitution 2 – 51 Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Hyer, Padilla, Vaught
18 U.S.C. § 1956(h) Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering 52 Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst, Hyer
18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i) Concealment Money Laundering 52-62 Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst, Hyer
18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2)(A) International Promotional Money Laundering 63-68 Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst, Hyer
18 U.S.C. § 1957(a) Transactional Money Laundering 69-93 Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst (different counts for each)


Most of the rest of my first five predictions assumed that there would be some child sex trafficking charges and made predictions about those charges. Since there were no such charges at all, I’m tempted to claim victory because nothing in the indictment contradicts my prediction.

The narrative material in the front of the indictment includes a lot of discussion that follows my predictions, but I haven’t read it all yet. I think some of the who-knew-what-when discussions I alluded to will still apply to the charges for adult consensual prostitution.

My remaining predictions will have to wait until the case is resolved.

All in all, however, it seems to be even a bigger steaming pile of bullshit than I predicted.

You Bastards! You Killed Backpage!

Well, it looks like the bastards finally took down

Screen shot of after confiscation by law enforcement.

I hate these website confiscation notices. The agencies involved always plaster their logos all over the damned thing, like they’re so proud of how they wrecked someone’s business, like a bunch of dogs pissing all over to mark their territory. It makes me sick.

The reaction from sex workers on Twitter is heartbreaking:

(TER is TheEroticReview, a site that offers lists and reviews of escorts, which now has a message up that they are no longer serving content to U.S. visitors. EscortDesign is a service that I think created small websites for escorts…I can’t tell because they just have a blank page now.)

As I write this, the DOJ media site has no press release about any of this, but rumors and reports are flying. The FBI has reportedly raided the homes of Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, two of the founders of Backpage, and Lacey has been arrested. I’ve heard reports of the FBI going into colo facilities to confiscate Backpage’s servers. Anti-trafficking activist Cindy McCain (wife of Senator John McCain) is claiming that the FBI has raided other Backpage offices as well. Lacey’s lawyer says the DOJ has a 93-count indictment, but the court is keeping that sealed, so we don’t know exactly what’s in it.

There’s a lot we still don’t know, but I’m going to go out on a limb and call this a giant steaming pile of bullshit. The most obvious bullshit is that the feds have already seized Backpage property and shut the whole business down. You don’t see this kind of thing with normal crimes. If a someone gets road rage and runs over three people with their Buick Regal, the cops don’t seize General Motors and arrest the board of directors. This attack on Backpage is law enforcement showboating. Prosecutors have been looking to drag down a deep-pockets defendant like this for years.

Before continuing, yes, I know I could be wrong. I could be very wrong. Maybe the Backpage honchos are truly bad people, master criminals, and all of Backpage is nothing more than a criminal enterprise they founded solely for the purpose of child sex trafficking. I should also remind the reader that I am not a lawyer, and I don’t know much about federal anti-trafficking law. I am not an authority and this is not analysis. This is wild-assed guesswork.

But…I’ve seen this sort of thing before, and I think I recognize some familiar patterns. So my purpose here is to make predictions that will allow me to test my cynicism against reality, when the truth eventually comes out, days or months from now.

So here’s what I think will happen:

Prediction 1: The relevant anti-child-sex-trafficking laws will not be about straightforward crimes. Grabbing children and pimping them out to pederasts is already all kinds of illegal: It is at least the crimes of kidnapping and rape. You don’t need specialized anti-child-sex-trafficking laws to put guys who do that in prison for a very long time. What you need specialized anti-child-sex-trafficking laws for is to take that core act of violence and smear culpability around until the prosecutor can indict someone exciting, maybe even someone with valuable assets to seize.

Prediction 2: The definition of sex trafficking will not be what most people are thinking when they hear “sex trafficking.” I say this because I know the history of anti-pimping laws, which often define pimping broadly enough to include anyone who receives money earned through prostitution, including drivers, landlords, website designers, and even babysitters. The Backpage trafficking indictments will probably include the trafficking version of that kind of thing.

Prediction 3: The majority of the counts in the indictment are not actually going to be about child sex trafficking. I think a lot of them will be crimes with what I like to think of as fictitious elements, such as “conspiracy” and “intent.” The prosecution is also going to be about adult consensual sex work and the usual smattering of federal add-on crimes, like money laundering or false statements, maybe with some wildcards like fraud. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the action is around these ancillary crimes rather than the flashy child sex trafficking that prosecutors are claiming they’re fighting.

Prediction 4: Most of the legal conflict over the trafficking charges will be about criminal intent. That some child sex traffickers advertised on Backpage seems almost certain — the site has carried millions of ads, after all — but those ads were almost certainly handled by low-level employees, if they were seen by humans at all. This is not something the executives would normally have done, and yet they are the ones arrested. I expect to see a lot of effort picking over evidence such as email messages in an attempt to tie the executives to specific ads.

Prediction 5: Attempts by Backpage employees to block sex trafficking ads will be used against them by prosecutors as proof that they were aware of trafficking. We’ve seen this kind of thing in drug enforcement, where a nightclub or motel owner takes steps to keep drug dealers out, and that becomes evidence that he was aware of drug dealing on the premises. I wouldn’t be surprised to see analogous measures by Backpage used to argue that the knew, or should have known, that something illegal was happening, and that they either helped it happen, allowed it to happen, or didn’t take adequate measures to prevent it from happening.

Prediction 6: Less than 20% of the charges will survive to end. If it goes through trial, make that less than 5%.

I am sure that some of these predictions are wrong. But this whole process just has a familiar feel to it…I’ll bet I got some of this right. I guess we’ll find out.

Not Helping Youths In the Sex Trade

Last Friday I wrote about Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s terrific Reason magazine article on the FBI’s long involvement in policing Americans’ sex lives. In this post, I’d like to follow up on a small detail that caught my eye.

Supporters of anti-prostitution law enforcement operations often justify them as necessary to protect victims of sex trafficking, especially children. Brown’s article mentions a Department of Justice report titled Evaluation of Services for Domestic Minor Victims of Human Trafficking as an example. In particular, she references the following passage, which ends with a question that needs an answer.

Detention was also used in the belief that it protects young people and ensures their connection to services. Key informants acknowledged that this situation was not ideal but argued that young people were likely to be safer in detention than elsewhere. A public defender asked, “How else do you get them services but lock them up and force them to engage in services?”

As a libertarian, my instinctive response is “How about…nonviolently?”

Is it really necessary to send cops with guns to forcibly “help” people? And even if you think it’s necessary to coerce child victims of sex trafficking into accepting social services, can’t you do it without giving them a criminal record? State child protection agencies have the authority, if they believe there is immediate danger, to remove at-risk children who are living with their parents. I’m pretty sure they can figure out a way to take a child off the street.

That won’t work with young adults, but that doesn’t mean arresting them is the only solution. There are better alternatives. We know this because non-governmental organizations like the Sex Work Outreach Project (SWOP) don’t have arrest powers, and they’ve been doing outreach to sex workers for years.

Katherine Koster from the U.S. chapter of SWOP characterizes many of the problems facing young sex workers as basically a variation on homelessness:

The issue is that there is a very large gap in no-strings-attached resources for homeless youth. A great example of this is the lack of shelter beds for youth.


Institutions–from schools to hospitals–very commonly are not a “safe” and comfortable space for homeless, especially GLBTQ youth.


We need to be making these resources available to youth on a voluntary basis. We need to stop attaching funding for services to the criminal justice system, as is frequently the case, and start making sure funding for these core services are available to people without being arrested and locked up, without interacting with the criminal justice system.

Here in Chicago, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project spent years studying ways to help young women in the sex trade, and they had some useful observations, especially about what they call institutional violence:

First, we were surprised how many stories we heard from girls, including transgender girls, and young women, including trans women about their violent experiences at non profits and with service providers. This was upsetting because adults and social workers often tell us that seeking services will improve our lives. Yet when we do the systems set up to help us actually can make things worse. This was clear when looking at the foster care system.


Health care providers were also identified by girls as being unethical. We heard many stories from girls going to the emergency room or to a doctor and being placed in psychiatric units just because they were in the sex trade, transgender or were thought to be self injuring. 

Law enforcement authorities come in for special criticism:

There are particularly a lot of examples of police violence, coercion, and refusal to help. Police often accuse girls in the sex trade of lying or don’t believe them when they turn to the police for help. Many girls said that police sexual misconduct happens frequently while they are being arrested or questioned. […] Stories about police abuse outnumbered the stories of abuse by other systems by far.

So what are the alternatives? The YWEP has their own solution:

When leaving isn’t an option or what a girl might want, YWEP is here to encourage and facilitate safety planning, harm reduction ideas, and offer support and resources. Unlike programs that focus on exiting the sex trade—which usually exclude girls who aren’t ready, able, or wanting to exit—YWEP meets girls where they are and helps them make the next steps they choose. Empowerment means that girls are in charge of their decisions and have power over what they want to do—even if that means something different than what adults think is safe or appropriate. YWEP believes that the more often girls are in charge of the choices in their lives—whether that choice is about food, sleep, relationships, housing or the sex trade—the more power they take in their lives as a whole.

(My guess is that most members of YWEP lean liberal and progressive, but damn if that isn’t a heartwarmingly libertarian approach to helping people. They offer choices.)

The local SWOP chapter here in the Chicago area offers a variety of services, including a support group, monthly meetings, and weekly street-corner outreach events offering food, coffee, condoms, and referral to resources such as sex-worker-friendly doctors and lawyers. In winter they give out warm clothing.

Other organizations, although not focused primarily on sex workers, provide services that will nevertheless help homeless young people in the sex trade. Project Fierce Chicago, for example, has purchased a nine-bedroom house in the North Lawndale neigborhood, and they are renovating it to provide housing for 10-12 LGBTQ youths. (That may not sound like much, but with only a few hundred youth beds in Chicago, it’s going to help.)

Koster summarizes why this approach can help:

I think what is super-important is that 95% of the time, youth are not engaging in the sex trade because they are kidnapped from a secure home where all their needs are met. They are engaging in the sex trade because they ran away from an abusive home or foster home or were kicked our because they are GLBT, and they don’t have a place to sleep, they don’t have older people rooting for them and supporting them, they don’t have food. […]

So you don’t need to hold these kids in detention to protect them–you need to give them a safe place to stay and healthy meals, with great mentors and counselors. So meet their emotional and social and material needs, and they will be safe. You don’t need to hold them in a juvenille detention center to protect them.

This doesn’t sound hard. No, that’s not quite right…it sounds like it’s a lot of very hard work. But it doesn’t sound hard to understand. If you want to help people, you listen to them, you get to know them, you figure out what they want, and you give it to them.

And yet, we keep seeing stories like this one that I found at random:

Sure, there are a few local facilities where juvenile prostitutes can live, waiting for trial dates or transfers home, but these places are hardly ideal. They’re not designed for child sex workers—if therapy is offered, it’s certainly not tailored to the specific needs of juvenile prostitutes. More importantly, perhaps, they’re not lock-down facilities. Residents can leave. This means the girls must want to stay in a court-mandated home for delinquents (and what teenager would?) They must resist the urge to run back to their pimps—which sounds easy, until you remember that most were only selling sex because there was a pimp, with a lot of power over them, pulling the strings. Or throwing fists. Or both.

Girls living in these facilities have been known to bolt into the idling cars of pimps waiting outside—running right back into the abyss of abuse.

“These girls are so broken. They identify with the girls they work with, the pimps. [Prostitution] becomes their safe area, and they want to go back to where they feel safe,” says Susan Roske, Clark County chief deputy public defender. “We want to hang onto them, to keep them from running, and sometimes the only way to do that is in a secure environment.”

Many people running these arrest-to-rescue programs may have the best of intentions, but I think need to stop dismissing these girls’ choices as “broken” and answer an important question: Given that the girls, having experienced both, are running away from your facilities to be with abusive pimps, what does that say about the quality of your attempt to help?

If you have to arrest people and lock them up to get them to accept your help, maybe you need to rethink your approach to helping.

(Thanks to Katherine Koster at SWOP USA for her comments and for helping with some of the research for this post.)

Sex, Lies, and Sex Police

I suspect my friends would be concerned if they knew just how skeptical I was about almost all prostitution-related crimes. Police say they broke up a human trafficking ring? Liars! They call everything human trafficking these days. They arrested ten pimps? Liars! They caught one prostitute in a sting and arrested the then people standing next to her. It’s a task force going after child prostitution? Liars! They arrest 50 adults for every child they “rescue,” and that’s only if you call a 16-year-old a child. It’s all lies, lies, lies.

My skepticism is even cutting into my enjoyment of fiction. I get an attitude whenever one of my shows features a human trafficking story line. It’s especially annoying on Major Crimes, because Captain Raydor’s adopted son used to be a teen street hustler, and none of the cops are saying he would have been better off in jail. (Hey Rusty, next time your mother is sweating a prostitute in the interrogation room, how about you try standing up for your fellow sex workers for once, you useless fuck!)

I probably need to adjust my perspective. Just because police (and prosecutors and politicians and rescue agencies) lie about these things all the time doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There really are human traffickers. There really are violent pimps. There really are people who sell the opportunity to rape a child. I wouldn’t want to dismiss a serious crime just because the authorities have been lying about it with such reckless abandon.

But…damn, there’s some awful things going on here.

In an unremarkable hotel room, a team of officers watches the footage streaming from a hidden camera next door. A middle-aged man is making arrangements to pay a young woman for sex. Once she agrees, the squad will rush in, shouting instructions, their bulletproof vests bulging with firearms and emblazoned with police or FBI. The woman—or is she a girl?—will have her hands tied behind her back and her phone confiscated. She will sit on the bed, partially undressed, as a team of men search her room, pawing through her underwear drawer and toiletry bags, seizing any cash they find. She will eventually be fingerprinted, interrogated, and taken into police custody.

That’s the opening paragraph from Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s long-form piece in Reason magazine about the FBI’s long involvement in policing Americans’ sex lives.

The surveillance of morally suspicious women and the war on commercial sex were what took the FBI—then known as the Bureau of Investigation—from a fledgling East Coast–centric operation to a force with outposts, agents, and authority across America. With the Mann Act of 1910, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, the bureau became responsible for ensuring no one transported women or girls across state lines for prostitution or “any other immoral purposes.”

And this paragraph about the recent Operation Cross Country X anti-trafficking initiative perfectly reveals the reasons for my skepticism (emphasis mine):

Overall, the operation identified 82 “children” engaged in prostitution, an average of about 0.88 per city, or one for every five agencies participating. All were teenagers—mostly 16- and 17-year-olds—and a number of cities where they were found made no simultaneous pimping or sex trafficking arrests. To the feds, anyone under 18 who trades sex acts for money is defined as a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether they have experienced abduction, violence, restraint, or threats.

The whole article is filled with details like that. It’s a terrific piece of journalism. Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a clear writer, and after several years of reporting on this subject, she has a masterful command of the facts. I highly recommend you read the whole thing.

Ashton Kutcher’s Unusual Confession

So, yesterday Ashton Kutcher testified before Congress about modern-day slavery. This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds — unlike those idiotic situations where an actor testifies before congress after playing a role related to the subject of his testimony, Kutcher actually founded a company, Thorn, that is involved in the fight against sex trafficking — but it’s still pretty weird.

For one thing, Kutcher is routinely ridiculed by sex work activists, who accuse him of helping police to catch and jail adult consensual sex workers. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, his congressional testimony has numbers which suggest he’s still doing that:

According to Kutcher’s testimony before Sen. John McCain and other U.S. lawmakers, the app—funded by the McCain Foundation—has helped save more than 6,000 U.S. sex-trafficking victims, including 2,000 minors, in the past 12 months.

These numbers wildly outpace the average number of new criminal investigations into sex trafficking opened in the U.S. each year or average number of victims identified by U.S. law enforcement. …

The report also notes that in government fiscal-year 2015, the FBI identified around 672 adult and child victims of sex or labor trafficking. The FBI opened 802 human-trafficking investigations (resulting in 453 convictions) that year, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened 1,034 sex- or labor-trafficking investigations (and got 51 sex-trafficking convictions). In addition, Uniform Crime Reporting data from the states indicates that 744 investigations into state-level sex-trafficking offenses were opened in 2015.

There’s almost certainly overlap between the FBI and state investigations. But even if we count all cases separately, we’re looking at a total of 2,580 investigations into sex or labor trafficking—5,725 less cases than Thorn allegedly helped identify in a one-year period.

This suggests that Kutcher is counting something other than child sex trafficking to boost his stats.

Considering the data we do have on state and federal human trafficking cases, the only way the numbers from Kutcher’s group could make sense is if a) they’re counting every red-flag ad Spotlight identifies, regardless of whether these tips are ultimately deemed worthwhile enough to prompt a criminal investigation, or b) they’re counting cases of consensual prostitution between adults and lumping all adult sex workers identified into the “adult trafficking victim” numbers.

What really caught my attention, however, was this statement of his:

“I’ve seen video content of a child that’s the same age as mine being raped by an American man that was a sex tourist in Cambodia. This child was so conditioned by her environment that she thought she was engaging in play.”

Kutcher’s children are two or three years old,  so unlike so much of the grandstanding over “sex trafficking” these days, that truly is a sad and disgusting crime, and someone should probably go to jail for it. And assuming the video was explicit, it’s also a piece of true child pornography.

It’s not often that you see a major Hollywood celebrity like Ashton Kutcher confess to viewing child pornography. In front of Congress. On television.

To be clear, no matter how much I disagree with some of the things anti-prostitution activists like Kutcher do in the name of fighting “sex trafficking,” I’m against prosecuting them for non-prurient viewing of video of the crime that they are fighting.

Still, that’s something you don’t see every day.

Losers Deserve Love Too

A while back, Maggie McNeill posted about a group called Clients of Sex Workers Allied for Change (CoSWAC) which has a website they hope to use to “dispel myths surrounding participation in paid sex.”

I don’t know if this site will contribute meaningfully to the cause of sex workers’ (and clients’) rights, but one item on the Myths vs. Facts page caught my attention, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

MYTH: Clients are pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships.

CoSWAC responds with these facts:

  • Many clients are in relationships, but turn to sex workers to address unmet needs.
  • Some sex workers specialize in addressing the needs of disabled clients.
  • Sex work clients have diverse and complex reasons for retaining the services of sex workers.

I’m sure those facts are a reasonable response, and I understand why CoSWAC used them, but someone needs to address the motives of the people promoting this myth. People who say things like this aren’t just making an academic observation; they’re arguing that sex work should be (or remain) outlawed because of these kinds of clients. And that’s an ugly argument. Because even if the myth were true, so what?

Why should it matter that some clients are “pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships”? Does that mean they should never have sex? That they should never experience pleasurable physical intimacy, never touch a woman, because they lack the confidence or charisma to charm a woman into bed? Keeping them from hiring sex workers isn’t protecting women from predators. It’s just sentencing people with personality disorders to a life without intimacy. It’s just cruel.