MyRedBook, a large sex worker forum and advertising venue was shut down by FBI, IRS, and just about every other government agency in existence. A heated debate between anti-traffickers and sex work proponents ensued, but most of it is based on hearsay and party line repetition. What was MyRedBook, and why all the noise?
MyRedBook opened few year after our escort advertising website, Lovings.com, and I have seen it grow and change over time. I even had a run-in with the then owner of the site around that time (not sure if it was the same guy; it was a long time ago) – Lovings used to have annual parties for the advertisers, before we got too big for them to be manageable. The owner of MyRedBook showed up uninvited with an advertiser, and had afterwards published a completely false account of the event on his website. After a few polite, ignored, requests to remove the post, I had to resort to stronger measures to get him to back off, which he eventually did. We never heard from him again.
This is something I had to do, in the beginning, for a number of our advertisers – their real names, addresses, or description of security measures they were taking in order not to get killed by a crazy ax-wielding sociopath would pop up on MyRedBook, and I helped people write Cease and Desist notices, or get in touch with attorneys to preserve their privacy and safety.
Growing up – the good
But, over time, MyRedBook changed. More moderators were employed, and while it was still a bit of, as described by one sex worker, “a boy’s tree-house club”, the majority of members on both sides were articulate, supportive and “good neighbors”. It grew up into a great resource for sex workers – not because it was free (there are big, cheap classifieds sites, starting at $7/ad… not out of reach for even the most disadvantaged sex worker; and the higher-end ones like ours ;-), that cost at most an hour’s wage for an low-average SW), but exactly because it was a community to belong to.
Isolation, secrecy and stigma are the worst enemies of sex workers, often the reason to turn to drugs or unsafe practices. Seeing that they’re not the only ones and making a network of online and real-life friends was as significant for emotional and mental health as for well discussed practical reasons.
MyRedBook also went a long way towards demystifying sex work, and allowing everyone to see how many normal, healthy, well adjusted, educated and articulate people there are, both in sex work and among their clients. Most importantly, it gave sex workers, the individuals, ones who are willingly and happily in this business, a voice. A pimp might post a few ads, but he won’t spend hours writing about the sex workers’ friends, cats, daily challenges, colleges and PMS problems – these were sex workers individual voices, as varied as the people who voiced them. Yes, there were mean, unstable, rude and immature members, and I dare you to point me to an online forum that doesn’t have them (looking at you, Facebook).
For this reason alone, MyRedBook content should at the very least be used for real studies about sex work… the ones that are not just about anti-trafficking funding as so many are, but are actually concerned about sex workers health, safety and choices; not summarily shut down.
The bad and the ugly
On the other hand, I’ve heard of a number of cases where sex workers were blackmailed by influential RB members threatening to leave bad reviews (advertising death on RB), in order to gain discounts or services a sex worker was less than comfortable about. Fake reviews were not uncommon and were encouraged by the site giving away free memberships in exchange for a certain number of reviews, putting a sex worker in a scary situation of having to refuse services she (or he) supposedly allowed to someone else. And, of course, the explicit details of all legal as well as illegal dealings were there, for everyone to read… Freedom of speech carries a danger of a free-for-all environment.
In addition, let’s not forget that, according to the well documented indictment, RB owners moved hundreds of thousands of dollars monthly among several bank accounts. As they were running a mostly free website (you could buy some premium advertising but not much, and the membership was generally free if customer provided a few sex worker reviews), this does pose a question about where the money came from, and how much of it IRS actually saw… Time will tell.
What I’d love to see the most would be an online forum like Myredbook, but run by Bayswan, Coyote, or another sex worker advocacy group, that would prevent abuses, protect free speech and keep the best parts of Myredbook alive…