Visa and MasterCard Cut Sex Workers Off from Advertising Site

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North America & Caribbean Regional Correspondent
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On Tuesday the 30th of June, MasterCard announced that its credit cards can no longer be used to pay for ads on the Backpage.com website, following a request from Chicago’s Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, who claimed the site is used by sex traffickers. The following day Visa announced that it, too, would no longer allow its credit cards to be used to make transactions through the website.

Backpage.com has long been targeted by anti-sex work groups who claim that, by allowing sex workers to advertise their services, the site facilitates trafficking. Since the Adult Services section at Craigslist.com bowed to pressure from abolitionists and closed down in 2010, there has been a campaign against the site led by anti-sex worker feminists, conservations, law enforcement and newspaper pundits such as Nick Kristof.

Backpage.com offers low-cost advertising space for sex workers who also use the service as a screening tool. As previously pointed out by sex workers, using credit cards to make transactions through the website creates a paper trail, which can track down a perpetrator in the event that a sex worker is attacked, and actually helps to prevent sex trafficking by allowing a certain level of monitoring of prostitution-related transactions.

The move comes almost exactly a year after a San Francisco-based advertising and community website was seized by the FBI.

“Cutting adult women off from creating their own advertising drives them to managers/pimps... How is this hard to understand?” Wrote Charlotte Shane at Twitter. “It's really hard to see the campaign against online sex work ads as anything other than an extension of the criminalization of poverty.”

Also on Twitter, supporters of the crack down on Backpage.com began a hashtag to celebrate the credit card companies’ move. However, #chargeisdeclined was quickly picked up by sex workers and their allies to protest it and to inform Visa and MasterCard of the damage done to sex workers when they are unable to advertise safely and affordably.

“As is ALWAYS the case when people try to shut sexworkers out of safer systems, this won't result in sexwork going away.” Wrote Mistress Matisse.

The move has also had an effect in Australia, where Backpage.com also operates. Although both Visa and MasterCard stressed that their actions were based on the fact that prostitution is illegal in the United States -- "Visa has a long history of working with law enforcement to safeguard the integrity of the payment system and we will continue to do so" said Visa in a statement -- the argument does not hold up in Australia where it is not illegal.

A sex worker in Victoria told the Sydney Morning Herald:

"The biggest issue is not whether I can post an ad; it's that in Australia sex work is legal. I'm not doing anything illegal. It's a very clear case of discrimination."