BY KIERAN ADAIR
Advocacy group Scarlet Alliance has accused Visa and Mastercard of discriminating against sex workers, following a recent announcement that the companies would begin blocking payments to backpage.com, a popular adult-listing website.
The ban follows pressure from American-based anti-sex-trafficking activist Tom Dart, who claims the service is linked to trafficking and child prostitution. Mr Dart said the site had been connected to more than 800 arrests since 2009, however it is unclear whether these arrests may relate to voluntary sex work, as it is still illegal in America.
In Australia, where sex work is decriminalised in most states, the ban is causing outcry among sex workers whose ability to advertise has been impacted by the ban.
One Sydney sex worker, Rose*, told City Hub that her business has dropped off significantly as Mastercard’s ban prevented her from placing ads on the backpage site.
“I actually make most of money through backpage, there’s not many other places where you can advertise,” she said, “I’ve got less of an income than I did before and this is really unfair because it’s a perfectly legal job.”
Backpage is widely used by sex workers in Australia, particularly those new to the industry who can’t afford more expensive advertising or their own private websites.
Scarlet Alliance CEO Janelle Fawkes did not mince words when she accused Visa and Mastercard of discrimination.
“We have anti-discrimination protection for sex workers in some parts of Australia, and much of that legislation is framed around treating sex workers differently and disadvantaging them,” she said.
In a statement released following the ban, Visa spokesperson John Earnhardt claimed that “Visa’s rules prohibit our network from being used for illegal activity.”
It is unclear how this justifies the ban in countries such as Australia, where sex work is not considered a criminal activity.
It is this point that has raised concern among free speech advocate, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, who has questioned whether Visa and Mastercard are going beyond their limits in imposing the ban.
“Payment processors and banks shouldn’t be in the position of deciding what type of online content is criminal or enforcing morality for the rest of society,” a spokesperson said.
Backpage.com is no stranger to controversy. Beginning its life on the back page of the Village Voice, a New York based alternative weekly, it quickly gained notoriety as a platform for sex workers to advertise their services.
Liz McDougall, an attorney serving as general counsel for former owners Village Voice Media, said that backpage is an “ally in the fight against human trafficking”. She said that the adult services section of backpage is closely monitored, and that shutting it down “would simply drive the trafficking underground”.
The company has responded to the ban with an interim measure that allows sex workers to place free adverts on the website, however according to Rose* this measure is far from perfect. Now that anyone can post ads freely on the site, most adverts simply “get lost” in the noise.
“I think there will be a lawsuit, and I think Visa and Mastercard will realise that sex workers are a force to be reckoned with. We sleep with the most powerful people in every sector of society, they are our clients and they respect and adore us.”
*Not her real name