Advocates for sex-trade workers say a recent crackdown on a U.S.-based sex-trade website is having an impact north of the border.
Backpage, the sex trade’s biggest online advertising platform, was recently shut down by the FBI.
Authorities allege the site was often used to traffic underage victims, while company officials said they tried to scrub the website of such ads.
In Vancouver, advocate Kit Rothschild said the shuttering of the site has left local sex workers “terrified, literally petrified.”
Rothschild said as trafficking investigations close down websites, many sex workers may return to street prostitution.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of people moving outdoors, and that is going to increase their risk of harm drastically, especially if they’ve never worked outside before.”
Seattle sex worker and author Maggie McNeill says sites like Backpage were empowering for many in her business.
“The internet made it possible for sex workers to do that for themselves, so they didn’t need to have a third party, whether it be an escort service or a brothel or a pimp taking a cut.”
A debate exists over how much sex work is consensual and how much is the result of forced trafficking and there isn’t any data both sides can agree on.
Canadian anti-trafficking groups say they support the Backpage takedown, citing the unknown number of women and girls trafficked in Canada each year.
Sex work advocates argue the site is a useful tool that helps Canadian authorities track potential victims, search for missing women and monitor prostitution services.
Police forces in Canada have expressed differing views.
The head of the Toronto police’s human-trafficking enforcement team said the benefits Backpage can provide law enforcement officers in their fight against crime are outweighed by the damage the site can cause.
“They are essentially enabling pimps to do their work,” Det.-Sgt. Nunzio Tramontozzi said.
In Ottawa, Sgt. Jeff LeBlanc, who is in charge of the force’s human trafficking unit, said the website itself co-operates fully with law enforcement when issues arise and can remove ads of concern when asked to do so by police.
“It is a useful tool,” he said.
Rothschild, a former sex worker, is skeptical the crackdown will do much good.
“There are so many reasons that people do sex work and very few of them are violence-related, most of them are related to economics. Like, we can blame capitalism more than we can blame trafficking.”
— With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press