Kiwi sex workers at risk after classifieds website shut down

a Young pregnant woman working late in bed.
Photo credit: Getty / File

New Zealand sex workers are already feeling the impact of an online sex work forum being shut down.

The FBI and other US law enforcement authorities on Friday (local time) served a notice on Backpage.com stating that the website had been seized.

Backpage.com is a classifieds website that allows users to sell items, seek roommates, list upcoming events and post job openings. It is also widely known for listing adult escorts and other sexual services.

While the notice doesn't detail the nature of the enforcement action, the website has frequently been accused of facilitating sex trafficking.

According to CBS News, the shutdown is related to an indictment against seven people allegedly involved in trafficking 17 victims, both adults and children.

Many sex workers have spoken out against the shutdown, saying it will make the industry more dangerous for those who rely on these forums for support and safety.

Maya, an Auckland sex worker, says she got her start in independent work on Backpage.

"I started doing sex work at 15 as a recent migrant from Asia, having been groomed by a predator. It was Backpage which actually allowed me to escape that sort of niche and enter the industry proper, and from there I was able to choose my clients and have more agency."

She said Backpage was used quite widely in New Zealand by those who couldn't afford to list ads on escort directory New Zealand Girls.

"It shows up near the very top in Google searches, so that you can get clients off somebody just googling something like 'foot fetish Auckland' without having to have your own website.

"More importantly for many, it is very safe for people who don't do sex work all the time. No paperwork, no credit card trail, and each ad is temporary and easily edited and deleted. Especially in small-town New Zealand, there are not many other options that don't involve ringing the newspaper."

The FBI and other US law enforcement authorities on Friday (local time) served a notice on Backpage.com stating that the website had been seized.
The FBI and other US law enforcement authorities on Friday (local time) served a notice on Backpage.com stating that the website had been seized. Photo credit: Backpage.com

She says shutting down Backpage is going to make life harder for those in the industry. 

"It means single mums can't quickly post an ad when WINZ is paying them late for no reason and the office is closed.

"Many of us enter sex work because we are disabled or otherwise relatively unemployable, and Backpage closing makes things harder for us: if we can't manage the immense amount of work which is trying to find clients independently, we have to work at agencies and brothels which pay less and often have far stricter rules around shifts (and less employment regulation) than other work would anyway.

Backpage shutting down is already having a tangible effect on Maya and her colleagues.

"The number of people I know who are being forced to return to agencies which mistreat them already is huge.

"In the last two days alone I've gotten twelve times the usual enquiries I get requesting unprotected sex, as well as others asking me to reduce my rates, hire them for protection, or consider the 'safer lifestyle of being my live-in slut now that Backpage is down'."

Maya said this will impact the poorest, most disabled sex workers most.

"It will also disproportionately affect gay male sex workers and trans sex workers, for whom other advertising options and the pool of clientele are slimmer. If a starving student needs to sell panties for a quick $20 of bread and noodles, that's not going to be half as easy anymore."

She says she'd like to see better working conditions for sex workers in New Zealand, including unions and more funding to New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.

"I'd like to see employment law actually apply to sex work, so that we don't have to pay our bosses for the privilege to work, so that we get a base minimum wage, so that health and safety is actually taken care of.

"I'd like to see more accessible sexual health resources, particularly for migrants who don't speak much English. IRD's taken a really good first step in having resources specifically available for sex workers who need to know how to pay their taxes - but it says a lot that that's the government agency most interested in us, don't you think? I'd like to see guides to our employment rights."

New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective spokesperson Catherine Healty says sex workers across New Zealand are finding the shutdown difficult.

"They're understandably upset. We immediately started to hear that they needed somewhere alternative to advertise that is as cost-friendly."

She said some sex workers are considering returning to newspaper advertisements.

Newshub. 

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz