Last month, thousands of Californians lost their jobs overnight. On June 25, I began getting frantic phone calls from friends and colleagues about the shutdown of the sex work advertising platform, MyRedbook.com. By the afternoon, I had reporters calling me asking for comment. By the early evening, I was in tears. News outlets reported what the sex worker grapevine had already been buzzing with rumors of: The FBI had shut down MyRedbook and raided the Mountain View home of the two people who had allegedly been running the site.
The loss of the website rocked the sex worker community in a way I had not yet seen in my career. Some began referring to it as "Hooker-pocalypse." With the end of the month fast approaching, sex workers had tuition, rent, and bills to pay, and many are still fearful that the shutdown of MyRedbook will be financially devastating for them.
Sex work is a career that I love, but for many people, it is a means of survival in an economy that has betrayed them. College graduates and entry-level workers alike have struggled to find ways to stay employed in the wake of the 2008 Recession, which claimed a staggering 8 million jobs. Here in the Bay Area, the cost of living keeps going up and people have had to get creative in order to bring home a paycheck. For some, that has meant slapping a pink mustache on their car and driving for Lyft on Friday nights, and for others that has meant placing an ad on MyRedbook.
With a clunky 1990s interface, MyRedbook was probably one of the least user-friendly platforms around, but it was used heavily by workers and clients up and down the West Coast. Other websites, such as Slixa.com, offer sexy layouts, intuitive interfaces, and articles written by providers, but MyRedbook, which has been around since the early 2000s, offered web traffic that was hard to beat. Several local sex workers I spoke to said that the majority of their clients came from MyRedbook. Free advertising was another feature that set MyRedbook apart from other sites, and made the site accessible to economically vulnerable sex workers. For some, MyRedbook was an opportunity to interact and negotiate with clients from the safety of their homes rather than on the streets.
MyRedbook was not just an advertising platform, but also a resource for sex workers to screen potential clients. Without resources for adequate screening and safety procedures, I fear my community will be forced to make riskier choices in order to feed their families and pay their bills.
Now, many sex workers are afraid to work, and even more fearful to take on new clients. Even the sharing of safety protocols and information between us must be done carefully and discreetly for fear of law enforcement interference. Under trafficking legislation like Proposition 35, sharing information on how to background-check clients and work safely is considered criminal activity, and the latest FBI raid has been a terrifying reminder of the realities of having our work criminalized.
This is not the first time sex workers have been faced with the shutdown of a major advertising platform. 2009 brought the end of the Craigslist Erotic Services section and Backpage.com has also battled with law enforcement in recent years. The crusades against online advertising of adult services purport to be in the name of cracking down on underage prostitution and child sex trafficking. Of course, even one child forced into prostitution is too many, but there must be a more efficient way to combat trafficking. Shutting down an entire website that was a business tool for many adults who were doing legal and consensual work is like using a hacksaw for a job that requires a scalpel.
"Sex workers want to end trafficking," Patricia West, spokesperson for the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, said in a statement following the MyRedbook shutdown.
"The answer is the decriminalization of prostitution, which would effectively end the black market, and give workers the ability to unionize and report crimes committed against and around us," West continued. She argued that if sex work could be a legal profession, "it would then be much easier to see the difference between choice and coercion or force."
If given the opportunity, adult sex workers could be law enforcement's greatest ally when it comes to combating trafficking. But instead, sex workers' livelihoods and safety are continually put at risk. The shutdown of MyRedbook won't eradicate trafficking on the West Coast, but it will ensure that local sex workers fear for their safety and economic futures.
To listen to this week's accompanying podcast, check it out on thewhorecast.com.