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This article was published 25/4/2018 (573 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For many Winnipeg sex workers who advertise services online, their main avenue of income was abruptly cut off this month, leaving them devastated and more vulnerable than usual.
Backpage.com, an American classified website, was shut down by a slew of agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice, on April 6.
Eight people, including the site's founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were named in a 93-count indictment that included a charge of knowingly facilitating prostitution.
Backpage executives are not charged with sex-trafficking, but crimes related to facilitating prostitution and money laundering. The indictment states that many of the ads published on Backpage "depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking."
The website closure came just before President Donald Trump signed a new bill, The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, aimed at erasing sex ads on websites like Backpage.
For Sam*, a non-binary sex worker in Winnipeg, Backpage's disappearance spurred fear and anger.
"After BP went down, I freaked out for a night and then the next day spent all day just posting ads on every site that I could find. And because everyone had been on BP, you couldn’t really tell which (websites) were going to pick up or not," said Sam, who prefers the singular pronouns "they" and "them."
Over the last two years, Backpage was Sam's main money maker. They are doing OK financially after the fallout, having migrated to posting on sites like Leolist, a Vancouver-based website that accepts free advertising.
Sex workers who can't afford to lose clients may be forced to turn to the streets to find customers quickly, or to engage in services they aren't usually comfortable with to make ends meet, Sam said. Backpage also provided a space to screen clients before meeting them, which they appreciated.
People of colour, Indigenous people and transgender women will be more at risk from this site shake-up, said Claudyne Chevrier, an ally and member of the local advocacy group, Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition. The group pushes for decriminalization of sex work.
"I know a lot of people have been really, really worried and really stressed out. There’s been a wave of panic," Chevrier said.
"And a lot of people taking advantage of that panic," Sam added. "My Twitter feed is full of people being like, ‘My old pimp just contacted me to try and get me back with him,’ or (people) looking for friends who have gone missing already."
Charlotte Nolin, an outreach worker at Sage House in Winnipeg, said apps such as Tinder and Squirt are popular for finding clients with some local sex workers.
Sage House, which is part of Mount Carmel Clinic, acts as a resource centre helping women on the streets and those involved in the sex trade.
Nolin drives around on Friday evenings to hand out sandwiches and harm reduction supplies, like condoms, clean needles or crackpipes. She said she's already seen more sex workers on the streets since Backpage's shutdown.
As a former sex worker, she can relate to their struggles.
"The numbers are starting to increase because the girls that were working inside before are now going out on the street," Nolin said. "Either way, it's dangerous. But more so when they're out there."
Warmer weather and the Winnipeg Jets' playoff berth may also contribute to the boon of sex workers outside, she pointed out. Large events, like sports games, tend to drive up demand.
"With the Jets, with the street party and all that, we’re going to keep an eye on that as well, make sure that our girls are safe," Nolin said.
Winnipeg police did not want to comment on the closure of Backpage and what it may mean for future human trafficking investigations. A spokesperson said it's "too early for us to tell how this will affect overall online ads and human trafficking."
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the head of the Toronto Police Service’s sex crimes and human trafficking enforcement team said most of the underage girls they found being exploited in Toronto were listed on Backpage.
The website's closure "sends a strong message that people are not going to tolerate it anymore," Det.-Sgt. Nunzio Tramontozzi told the Globe. Still, he acknowledged traffickers may have already migrated to other websites.
The dark web is also a toxic breeding ground for sex trafficking, said Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
The Winnipeg-based centre, which also runs Cybertip.ca, has collected 1,700 confirmed reports involving children being trafficked from various websites within the last 10 years. Backpage was one of the most popular sites for gathering such reports, Arnason said.
"(Backpage) is one area that was incredibly overt, easy to access and … this needs to be shut down. The problem is when it’s out there and it’s this overt, we’re normalizing sexual access to children and youth and it’s just, it’s wrong," she said.
"This just absolutely needed (to happen). It was an important step that was taken and we welcome it."
But Backpage's closure is a double-edged sword, Nolin said.
"They shut it down and they’re going to allow another (website) to open up again. How do we stop sex traffickers?" she asked. "The sex trade is the oldest profession in the world. I think if they were to legalize it, it would have a huge impact on trafficking."
Chevrier said closing Backpage isn't worth jeopardizing sex workers' safety.
"This sends a really strong message to sex workers that their lives don’t matter," she said.
Another frustrated sex worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said she is already seeing fallout from Backpage's shut-down as clients try to push boundaries.
"They know sex workers are vulnerable right now and are backed into a corner & are more likely to offer lower rates for the same service, services they don't normally offer, or that they will see clients they might not normally see out of desperation," she said in a Facebook message.
"Same demand, increased 'supply'. Awful clients are already taking advantage of this fact. Anyone who thinks this is a good thing needs to do some reading and serious listening to sex workers."
*Name has been changed.
—With files from USA Today
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at 10:20 AM CDT: Photo added.