On Tuesday, January 5, several individuals connected with The Review Board [TRB], a Seattle discussion forum for clients and adult workers, were arrested by the Bellevue Police department and charged with promoting prostitution. On Wednesday afternoon, the website was seized as part of an investigation by the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Bellevue Police Department, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sex worker communities believe that the site may have been specifically targeted in connection with a raid on a massage parlor where non-native Asians worked or because non-Native Asian sex workers advertised through the website.
Sex Workers Outreach Project [SWOP] condemns the website seizure and shares local sex worker concerns about collateral damage the website’s closure will have on adult workers in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest–including non-native Asian sex workers. If the seizure was accompanied by a raid, we strongly condemn the raid and express concern over potential criminal penalties and how this will affect the women’s immigration status.
“Migrant sex workers, especially Asian migrant workers, are often inaccurately labeled as trafficking victims,” Savannah Sly, SWOP-USA Board President and former Seattle-based sex worker, said. “I don’t doubt that King County prosecutors will wave this is a victory against human trafficking, highlighting the presence of migrant Korean sex workers on TRB to indicate abuse. Just because a women came to the U.S. and works as an escort does not mean she did so involuntarily. These assumptions are blatantly racist and xenophobic. Many migrant workers in the sex trade, domestic work and agriculture emigrate and work voluntarily. It’s criminalization and stigma of sex work and immigration status that makes these workers so vulnerable, not the work itself.”
Along with raids, attacks on web-based communities like TRB harm both native and non-native sex workers. In addition to a discussion forum, TRB functioned as a free advertising platform for adult workers. Many adult workers in the Northwest relied on the site as a low-barrier and free way to advertise and work without management, indoors, especially subsequent to MyRedbook’s closure new barriers for using Backpage to advertise. “The site was valuable to a lot of sex workers,” Capri Sunshine, a local sex worker and the SWOP-Seattle media coordinator said. “It was free, undocumented workers without ID or credit cards could use it, and it was where most girls on the site got the majority of their work. This has a lot of negative ramifications for sex workers.”
The seizure of The Review Board follows a long patterns of attacks on the adult entertainment websites: the summer raid on Rentboy.com, the 2014 raid and seizure of My Redbook, and constant, relentless extra-legal pressure on advertising websites like Craigslist and Backpage.
“We already know that closing adult websites hurts sex workers and removes law enforcement’s ability to identify actual instances of trafficking” Savannah Sly, SWOP-USA Board President and former Seattle-based sex worker, said, pointing to research SWOP-Sacramento conducted following the closure of a similar website, MyRedbook. “It displaces sex workers. It jeopardizes the autonomy and safety of the most marginalized sex workers–especially non-native sex workers and sex workers of color, forcing them to rely on third parties or to engage in street-based sex work which is riskier. It disrupts communities. It increases the marginalization of an already marginalized group. And it doesn’t stop trafficking.”
According to Sunshine, Seattle sex workers are already experiencing ramifications of the seizure, Sunshine said. “Appointments are being canceled, the community is panicking–what are we going to do? Where are we going to advertise now? It’s created real paranoia.”
Sex workers have been advocating for decades that criminalization and policing of the sex trade and those profiled put communities at risk of violence and exploitation. Laws against the sex trade have always been used to police the bodies of marginalized communities, especially LGBTQ and communities of color. When sex workers are prosecuted under these laws, it can become harder for them to find mainstream work because of their criminal record. SWOP believes the closure of The Review Board is the latest in a long history of abuses of people in the sex trade that puts these communities in more vulnerable and often more dangerous situations.
“Sex workers in Seattle have spoken directly to city prosecutors about their safety concerns over these kinds of tactics. The blatant disregard for that self-advocacy by city officials is beyond insensitive, it’s a form of silencing and violence” Sly said. “Criminalized prohibition makes discrimination and violence possible, and this is a textbook example of how enforcement of laws criminalizing clients and third parties ultimately hurt sex workers the most.”