Policing Backpage and the Backpages

We tend to think of the 21st century and its digitally-mediated, commodified, sexualized reality as a brave new world, but we’ve been here before ...

We tend to think of the 21st century and its digitally-mediated, commodified, sexualized reality as a brave new world, but we’ve been here—or somewhere like here—before. Neither Craigslist’s personals nor the recent US legislative crackdown on the sexual commerce they make possible are uncharted territory.

Reading recent coverage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or FOSTA–SESTA, gives me a sense of déjà vu. I have spent the last several years researching how, more than one hundred years before Backpage opened its online classifieds—well before the rise of the internet 1.0 or 2.0—lonely hearts, sex workers, and—yes—a small number of sex traffickers had access to Parisian “back-page” classifieds.

Then as now, legislators scrambled for ways to stop them from using this new, democratizing print technology to “immoral” ends. The largely unsuccessful, often counter-productive, and oppressive solutions they came up with during the French Third Republic (1870–1940) look strikingly similar to those the US legislature is testing out now.

Much like the internet, French newspapers in their golden age (around the turn of the 20th century) were filled with scandalous news stories, misleading headlines, popular fiction, think pieces, useful knowledge, humorous images, and, most importantly for the case at hand, a reader-driven marketplace.1 This marketplace took shape in earnest in the 1880s and 1890s, concomitant with a dramatic augmentation of the penny press, which marked the arrival of a truly mass press into a world of global (imperial) capitalist expansion. Nearly everyone in Paris could afford to buy the newspaper, and nearly everyone did.

Then as now, legislators scrambled for ways to stop them from using this new, democratizing print technology to “immoral” ends.


Press giants such as Le Petit Parisien, founded in 1876, and Le Journal, founded in 1892, created classified sections known as the petites annonces to serve both their hundreds of thousands of readers and to serve themselves. Many other periodicals—small and large, daily and weekly—followed suit. At a franc or two per line—with hundreds or thousands of lines of ad space—inexpensive ads were a crucial source of revenue for cash-strapped periodicals, at a time when commercial advertisers were hard to come by.2Newspaper managers, unsurprisingly, chose to emphasize the benefits to subscribers, depicting advertising as a “service” that would help readers manage daily life by selling a used good or finding an apartment for rent. Some even promised that the classifieds would protect women in search of work from wandering city streets, where even the most “honest” might be tempted to sell their bodies to make ends meet.

Many women (and men) used ads to find furnished rooms, used furniture, and jobs performing domestic labor, piecework, or factory labor. But, just as with Craigslist or Backpage, licit exchanges were not the only ones on offer. Affordable classified advertising also made it possible for women to start businesses out of their apartments by commodifying the one thing to which they all had access: their bodies. In 19th-century France, prostitution wasn’t illegal, but neither was it free; it certainly looked nothing like decriminalization does in today’s world.

Seen as a necessary evil, “prostitutes” were forced to register with the morals police, which was tasked, ideally, with containing these women within closely-surveilled brothels and, in practice, with keeping close tabs on registered women.3 As a result, registered prostitutes existed in “a nether region between legality and illegality”—they were “tolerated.”4This system of regulated prostitution, known as tolérance, made it possible to arrest women without cause, imprison them without debate, and subject them to incredibly invasive medical exams.5


Dollars and Sex

By David Henkin

It should come as little surprise, then, that women might want to evade the constraints of registration. So many women worked outside of the system that clandestine prostitution became a kind of obsession for turn-of-the-century social, cultural, and medical critics, not to mention for the police.6 Affordable advertising made this  evasion possible. It allowed women to communicate with potential clients— often using coded language—giving the exact location of their apartments, their hours of operation, and information about the kinds of services they offered. They did so by placing matrimonial ads, massage ads, and even ads for language lessons. Women took advantage of this new opportunity to sell sex without being exploited by madams, police officers, foremen, or pimps, in an era when few well-paying jobs of any kind were available to women.7

The problem of veiled sexual advertising found its way onto the floor of the French legislature in the 1890s and early 1900s. In an effort to end the international spread of pornography, which was imagined to include support of birth control, abortion, and free love, senators and deputies quickly passed laws intended to allow judges to convict newspaper owners for printing ads for sex work, even when written in innocuous language that proved difficult to prosecute.8 Coded or not, many moralists were concerned that such ads made the newspaper dangerous for innocent readers. How, though, could an ad for an English massage corrupt readers, even if it masked the services of a dominatrix, as was the case in Le Journal d’une masseuse?9 How could newspaper owners tell the difference between illicit and licit ads? Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and women’s freedom to start businesses were all imperiled by this legislation.

Legislators, however, were not the only ones concerned about the proliferation of classified commerce. Anti-trafficking activists also condemned the use of classified ads to lure honest women into sexual slavery, a fight that would last through the 1930s and which survives, in modified form, in the fight against sexual trafficking today.

How could newspaper owners tell the difference between illicit and licit ads?

Some of the most steadfast feminists couldn’t help but present women as victims of devious, foreign traffickers operating through want ads.10 Feminists fighting for women’s access to professional opportunities could agree about one thing with moralists who saw women as naturally inferior—the classifieds were dangerous for women. This discourse was grounded in the myth of the “White Slave Trade,” or the traite des blanches, which, in its European avatar, imagined that white women were being trafficked against their wills, often by Jews or other swarthy men, and sold into prostitution abroad, often in South America.11

Feminist activism was as visible and as loud as it had ever been. So was the backlash. Fears about the White Slave Trade drew both feminists and anti-feminists into its logic. Women’s sexual exploitation was a core issue for feminists, who did not hesitate to speak out against it, using the idea of the prostitute as white slave to argue for the abolition of tolerated prostitution in France. For anti-feminists and traditionalists, “vigilance societies” that sought to help traveling women arriving in train stations made it possible to place limits on women who sought independence and a living wage out in the world, including those who willingly traveled abroad to work in foreign brothels.12 These same moralizing actors created and championed the laws, discussed above, that impelled newspaper publishers to either reject “questionable” ads or run the risk of prison time.

These debates and actions, which solidified the connections between the classifieds, the White Slave Trade, and pornography, did little to protect women from victimization. But they did limit women’s opportunities to support themselves in a structurally unequal world.

The oppressive potential of the fight against classified advertising became clear with the passage of the French Family Code of 1939. The new laws aimed at “returning” women—who were imagined as white—to their homes and homeland, where they would repopulate the country by raising large families (sound familiar?).13 One article of this code targeted sexual commerce in the classifieds. Article 120 punished anyone who published an ad that “drew attention to an opportunity for debauchery, no matter what terms were used,” with one month to two years of prison and a fine of 100 to 5000 francs. This language had originally been used by anti-trafficking activists. Feminist activist Ghénia Avril de Sainte-Croix praised an initiative that fought against “scandalous” newspaper ads, “which constitute direct invitations to debauchery,” in her 1926 report to the League of Nations Traffic in Women and Children Committee.14Paired with harsh punishments for abortion and a special allocation that incentivized stay at home motherhood, just over a decade later the anti-trafficking campaign lauded by Sainte-Croix had become part of the 1939 code, explicitly devised to control and constrain women in the name of protecting “the race.”


Is Our Work Done?

By Christina Lupton

This history raises difficult questions for FOSTA–SESTA. What does it mean that feminist legislators, aligned with #Timesup, are standing beside the vast majority of Democratic and Republican legislators (and President Trump) in enthusiastic support of FOSTA–SESTA? No doubt few know of the current law’s reactionary genealogy, shaped by racist, misogynistic, and anti-immigrant sentiments. But all have ample reason to doubt President Trump’s good faith on any question concerning women and sex.

Sites like Backpage and Craigslist are used to traffic women and children; the authors of FOSTA–SESTA undoubtedly have good intentions. But, as advocates for sex workers and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA have pointed out, shutting down the new classifieds will doubtless hurt the very people it purports to want to protect. We are all implicated in the effects this act will have on the freedom of the internet and the forms of direct communication it makes possible.

The French classifieds of the early 20th century, like the internet today, held great potential to be used in ways nearly impossible to control under a democratic regime committed to freedom of speech. Just over a century ago, contemporaries discovered that attempts to protect women by controlling media did little to end trafficking. They did, however, degrade press freedom. They also reinforced ideas of women as victims without addressing the root causes of their exploitation.

We are on track to make the same mistake again. But this is not mere repetition; there is a difference. This time, feminists, sex workers among them, are speaking out. Mainstream news sources such as CNN and the Huffington Post are giving sex workers a platform from which to speak, and including their stories in their coverage. There are now feminist legislators in Congress.

If we listen, and if we attend to history, we can see how moral panics rarely empower women. Instead, they focus attention on a few bad guys instead of attending to structural inequalities. Trafficking and sex work are not identical.

Solutions to the problems associated with trafficking exist, but to identify them, we need to work towards a world in which sex is not steeped in hierarchy, where equal opportunity is more than a pipe dream. Only then will engaging in sex work truly be a choice. To get there, we will need to find a way to restore and protect the free exchange of ideas and information online. FOSTA–SESTA’s gamble with these rights was lost in advance.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcusicon

  1. La Civilisation du journal : une histoire culturelle et littéraire de la presse française au XIXe siècle, edited by Dominique Kalifa et al (Nouveau Monde éditions, 2011).
  2. Marc Martin, Trois siècles de publicité en France (Éditions Odile Jacob, 1992), pp. 90–92. Sex ads on sites like Craigslist were, until FOSTA–SESTA, an even bigger moneymaker.
  3.  Alain Corbin, Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850, translated by Alan Sheridan (Harvard University Press, 1990). See pp. 9–21 on regulationism’s ideal type and pp. 123–132 on the failure of this system.
  4. Jill Harsin, Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 95.
  5.  J.-M. Berlière, “Police et libertés sous la IIIe République : le problème de la Police des mœurs,” Revue Historique, vol. 283, no. 2 (April–June 1990), pp. 235–275.
  6. Harsin, Policing Prostitution, pp. 242–250.
  7. This is not to deny that there was police surveillance of the classifieds and the apartments advertised there. But this surveillance was necessarily at a much greater remove than that exercised in a brothel.
  8. For a discussion of this legal development, see “Art. 1475: Tribunal Correctionnel de la Seine (21 mars 1908),” Journal des parquets, edited by Arthur Rousseau (Librairie nouvelle de droit et de jurisprudence, 1908), p. 162.
  9. See pp. 209–210.
  10. Séverine, “La Traite des blanches: La Presse entremetteuse,” Le Matin, April 14, 1903.
  11.  Corbin, Women for Hire, pp. 275–298. On the role in the creation of the FBI of the American version of the myth of the White Slave Trade, which was defined by a fear that white women were being forced into American brothels run by foreigners or men of color, see Jessica R. Pliley, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Harvard University Press, 2014).
  12. “Les Bérangères: Un nouveau service de gardiennes de la vertu aux gares de Paris,” L’Éclair, 19 November 1905. Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris, Documents éphémères.
  13. Camille Robcis, The Law of Kinship: Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, and the Family in France (Cornell University Press), pp. 42–47.
  14. Karen Offen, “Intrepid Crusader: Ghénia Avril de Sainte-Croix Takes on the Prostitution Issue,” Journal of the Western Society for French History, vol. 33 (2005).
Featured image: "Défiez-vous des 'Petites Annonces'" in Marie Anne de Bovet, Défends ta femme contre la tentation, p. 129. Paris : Éditions Nilsson, c. 1900. / HathiTrust