I remember when I first met Sachi. She came to one of our meetings of the Cyprian Guild. The Cyprian Guild was a monthly meeting of providers in San Francisco that met from 1996 to about 1998. Sachi had asked to come address our group to propose that we advertise for free on her new website, called the Eros Guide.
Many of us were weary of this new digitalization technology. Our concern was the high visibility to people we didn’t know. At the time, we all advertised in print publications that were known for adult content and ads. Sachi thought that this new way of advertising would bring high exposure which would be good for our business and that this new technology was the wave of the future and the future was now. She and her partner Byron had a corporate background in marketing and business, so they presented themselves as being the best people to lead in the marriage of adult content to the internet; and they claimed that we would be treated professionally.
At that time some of the workers had already put up their own websites under their work names. All of these workers that I knew had been targeted by the police in anti prostitution sting operations. They were told to take their websites down lest they be used as evidence against them in court. It seemed that we were being herded by law enforcement into websites like Sachi’s.
At first the ads on the Eros Guide ads site were free. As more and more us put up ads, the more we were pressured by the site to put up photos showing our faces. We were pressured to hire photographers to get professional photos that showed us in more graphic poses. This was quite a change from print ads, where groups of us workers were making bank off of generic 5 line text ads for minimal costs.
As many workers acquiesced to this new platform and its requirements of exposure, the kinds of words we used to describe ourselves began to be censored by the Eros Guide, and they instituted a pay system to use their site. They instituted the ‘stat box’ where we were to fill out our breast size, height, hair color, age and rates. Many of us explained to Sachi that we relied upon phone calls to give this information because it was the phone calls that brought in the money.
The Eros Guide claimed that this information was being requested by the people who were visiting and viewing the site, and that it generated more ‘clicks’ on the site; more clicks was supposed to translate into more exposure for the advertisers and more money in our pockets.
It didn’t make sense that we advertisers were the one’s paying the Eros Guide yet their content was being directed by non paying viewers. In this way, the Eros Guide had positioned itself as a third party boss controlling our images, our services and our rates.
It was then made clear whose side the Eros Guide was on and it wasn’t ours the workers.
These changes never materialized into more money for less advertising dollar spent. In fact, many of us saw this new platform bring more advertisers with lower rates and the race to the bottom was on. These lower rates in combination with the police raids of both street based and private incalls would not be able to keep pace with the high cost of housing in the face of the tech boom.
There was no turning back to the inexpensive print ads where we had mutually beneficial relationships with ad agents, who shared information about bad clients from advertiser to advertiser.
Many of us would voice our concerns individually to the Eros Guide as well as privately amongst ourselves as they instituted each change but we as the worker community never accessed our collective voice to gain control over our own advertising with businesses like the Eros Guide. This is still our reality as a worker community.
As the years went by, we saw free ads expand on Craigslist and penny ads on Backpage, not to mention constant solicitation for free ads on new start up adult sites.
It became obvious that the Eros Guide’s own business strategy had failed them as they started to include free adult hook-up sites that promoted free adult hook ups.
We also saw the proliferation of the ‘sex trafficking’ propaganda and subsequent passing of new laws reclassifying us as ‘sex trafficking victims’ and ‘sex traffickers’ interchangeably by anti prostitutionists.
We saw these zealots viciously attack Craigslist specifically and we saw their founder, Craig Newmark’s woefully inadequate response. The ‘sex trafficking’ narrative was carefully crafted political speech by the anti prostitutionists, for the specific purpose to capitalize on the public’s sympathy which had become greatly leaning towards stopping arresting prostitutes and legalizing prostitution. The anti prostituonists reclassified us all as ‘victims’ to justify arresting us for our own good.
This, in combination of recasting the public’s naïve views towards our third party facilitators as ‘sex traffickers’ resulted in prostitute rights activists becoming ‘sex trafficking apologists’. This phenomenon eclipsed every conversation about our rights to negotiate for our own safe labor and safe work conditions including hiring third party facilitators such as security, housekeepers, bookers, agents and multi media specialists.
As the struggle for prostitute rights wore on over the years, we too changed strategy forming monthly meetings to directly confront the abusive laws.
Currently this struggle takes the place in the federal court with the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project Verses Gascon [16-15927]
This case challenges California’s anti prostitution law, 647(b) on the basis that it violates, among other things, our first amendment rights to free speech to negotiate for our own safe labor and work conditions. Essentially to say, yes I’m a prostitute and I want to offer my selected services for a price and in working conditions of my choosing. Challenging the constitutionality to the ban on prostitution is to champion the right to privacy, specifically everyone’s sexual privacy.
The criminalization of prostitution at the state level is the basis of the criminalization of free speech in advertising at the federal level in a proposed law called the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act which aims to undermine section of 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which says that a site hosting third party content cannot be held responsible for someone else’s free speech posted on their site.
This bad legislation if passed, would be able to hold Facebook, Twitter and Google criminally liable for all third party content that may violate a state law such as prostitution and under the guise of abating ‘sex trafficking’.
If passed this law would force these websites to institute the same failed policies that Eros Guide and all the others have. This bad law, if passed, would result in websites that host third party content like Facebook, Twitter and Google to choose reduced revenue streams of potential advertisers in an effort to self police lest they be charged as sex traffickers themselves.
In looking for plaintiffs to sign on in support of our case, adult websites like Craigslist, Backpage and Eros Guide were contacted and offered an opportunity to sign on as a means to support their own ability to stake out their 1st amendment right to advertise prostitution services and they all declined. They also declined to support the case financially.
Prostitution is not illegal at the national federal level. Prostitution is only illegal at the state and local level where the enforcement happens.
The federal anti trafficking laws have tried to muzzle the free speech of those advertising websites and have failed. We’ve only seen loss of advertising venues because the owners themselves engaged in failed strategies and no matter what they did it was unappeasable to the the anti prostitutionists. No matter how many changes the sites instituted; charging money, requiring credit cards, contracts and ID, it would never be enough to stop the tide of politicians who would use them as whipping posts to get elected to the next higher office.
Turning over our private information including our electronic data over to the police without a warrant, (as had been a long standing practices by the Eros Guide), would never be enough as they have found out today.
Today, they’re being raided by the Homeland Security Agency, a federal agency, just like the other adult websites before them; escort.com, bigdoggie, sfredbook and rentboy just to name a few. If the police can show that prostitution was an activity conducted on the Eros Guide, it’s all over for them. The loss of online advertising will mean loss of income for those advertisers, loss of housing, loss of ability to care for ourselves and our children.
It is within everyone’s best interests to speak up by supporting the historic court case ESPLERP V GASCON the goals being to see the expansion of the right to free speech and specifically the right to sexual privacy.
Imagine if Craigslist, Backpage and Eros Guide had just stood up to the government and the police when they had the chance. Imagine where we would be by now, if we were able to collectivize our voices to force them to. We sure wouldn’t be here.
Another day of scrambling for advertising.
I think we should collectively call Facebook, Google and Twitter and tell them to sign on to as plaintiffs of the ESPLERP v Gascon case to save the internet let alone their own asses because we’re going to win our rights with our without them.