Socialize Backpage

Who wants to be neighbors with sex workers? For a time anyway in New York, the American Communist Party did, or had to, share a building with a brothel. Gay Talese has a marvelous little bit about this in his classic participant-journo account of the American sexual revolution, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, that also gives some sense and scope to another reluctant neighbor to sex workers who’s having a hard time in the press today, the Village Voice. In a sale that effectively splits their company in two, the Voice has jettisoned the sex ads that have made them an easy target for politicians, NGO-niks, and grandstanding journalists who want to end the sex trade altogether. The Voice, of course, has long been funding their papers on the backs of these ads, until (*maybe, it’s all still shaking out) today.

Back in 1970, wrote Talese, the occupants of the ninth floor of 11 West Seventeenth Street used the Village Voice to kickstart their own business, placing ads in the back pages of the Voice seeking “figure models” or “masseuses.” Many women answered the ads, and while some turned away from the euphemized sex work, others signed on for what was really a handjob gig, which, in 1970, could pay $350 a week.

But “the Communists on the tenth floor,” Talese continued,

 . . . most of them gray-haired Old Left radicals whose revolutionary zeal had reached its peak during the great riots and rallies of Union Square during the Depression, were particularly unnerved by the presence of the massage parlor, not only because they were sexual Puritans but because they knew that having a quasi-brothel located one floor below would inevitably lead to frequent disruptive visits by the police as well as city inspectors who thrived on harassment.

I’d love to know (and I’m sure it’s not beyond the reach of this publication, that we might come to know) just what it was like for CP dudes in those days — was it really too much to ask of them, to be down with renting office space in such messy proximity to the manual sex laborers? Did they, who should be hip to police repression, really think their repression was a more important one to fight than the repression of the handjob proletariat?

It’s a fight the Village Voice has been mired in for years, ever since everyone from the National Association of Attorneys General to the National Organization for Women have been calling for them to split with sex workers, or else they’ll call the cops. So today, in selling their (ailing? sure) papers off, the Village Voice have isolated Backpage, the online equivalent of those ads that appeared back in 1970, from their increasingly precarious word-product. The company that acquired Village Voice Media Holdings’ alt-weekly papers — thirteen publications and their online counterparts, including the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the SF Weekly — did not scoop up Backpage, which remains with VVMH, and will become what Voice counsel Elizabeth McDougall called “the centerpiece of a new online classified advertising company with business worldwide.”

The transaction says little for anyone at this cut-and-pasted, new-and-old Voice company and their commitment to journalism — the gutting of their newsrooms is a more fair indicator. But it appears to mark the end of the willingness on the part of the Voice (whoever that is now) to intermingle what has always intermingled at the Voice: party in the front, and the sex ads that fund the party in the back.

I have no romance left for rebel journalism and the role of publications like the Voice, and harbor no nostalgia for an incomplete sexual revolution that the alternative press certainly benefited from, both in subjects and in hard cash, and supported, at least for a little while, until being neighbors became intolerable, or was made intolerable for them.

What I do have some misguided, dusty old lefty optimism for is that whoever holds the reins now at Backpage might turn the means of sex ad production over to the one group of people who have intimate knowledge of how to run it properly: the people who advertise there.