12.09.10

Sex Slave Outrage

A startling new ad campaign aims to humiliate websites that quietly allow pimps to sell young girls for sex online. Michelle Goldberg on the backlash against Village Voice Media.

In September, when Craigslist dropped its “erotic services” section, Backpage.com, the classified advertising network owned by Village Voice Media, became the nation’s premier online sexual marketplace—and the most mainstream venue for the buying and selling of underage girls. Now The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, the group that got Craigslist to drop its sex ads, is trying to convince Backpage to do the same, and to do it before February, when activists expect a spike in sex trafficking around the Super Bowl.

Last month, The Rebecca Project ran startling ads in a number of Village Voice Media-owned papers, featuring a man in a mugshot holding a placard saying, “I paid for sex with a 14-year-old child I found on Backpage.” Next to it was a message to Village Voice Media: “Each year, 100,000 children are sold for sex in America—many through your website, Backpage.com. Do you really want to provide a platform for predators who pay for sex with girls?”

The ad was referring to a real girl, a 14-year-old from Missouri known by the initials M.A. She’s suing Village Voice Media for aiding and abetting her pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, who has been sentenced to five years in prison. McFarland posted nude photos of the teenage runaway on Backpage and used it to arrange encounters with clients in highway motels.

“We don’t want to be the Tipper Gore of the Internet.”

M.A. isn’t alone: In just the last few months, there have been several other stories involving Backpage and the trafficking of underage girls. In November, a South Dakota couple pleaded guilty to pimping girls through the site. A Texas couple was arrested for prostituting a high-school girl through Backpage in October. And that same month, a sting operation in Kansas netted two men who were trying to buy sex with a 14-year-old girl. “Ads soliciting sex, including prostitution and including likely human-trafficking cases involving children, appear to be rampant on Backpage.com,” Kansas’s attorney general told reporters. “I was shocked at the ease which our agents were able to apprehend the suspects in each of these cases. If agents from the attorney general’s office are solicited this quickly, imagine how easy it is for pimps and traffickers to solicit sex.”

Much as Craigslist did, Village Voice Media, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, argues that it can’t be responsible for what people post on its site, and that it helps law enforcement prosecute those involved in sex trafficking. A post on the company’s corporate blog says that in the McFarland case, “Without our knowledge, the predator violated our terms of use. Backpage.com has stringent safeguards in place to ensure that only adults use the site. We provided the FBI with the perpetrator's IP address and credit-card information.”

There’s a valid argument that keeping sex ads on responsible sites that cooperate with police when necessary can make it easier to catch traffickers. But there’s also evidence that when mainstream venues for the buying and selling of sex disappear, not all ads migrate elsewhere.

According to a study by the Advanced Interactive Media Group, the end of Craigslist’s erotic services section “put a huge dent in revenue generated by prostitution advertising.” Indeed, nationwide, it dropped by almost 50 percent, from $76 million to $39.2 million. Some of the money that was going to Craigslist went to Backpage and other sites. But a least some of the business seems to have disappeared.

Sex trafficking will probably always exist in some form or another, but Malika Saada Saar, the Rebecca Project’s founder, makes a convincing case that the ease and accessibility of big, well-known websites make it worse. Saada Saar first went after Craigslist after discovering, in her work with girls in the juvenile justice system, that many of them had been bought and sold for sex on the site. The same, she says, is true of Backpage. The widespread availability of underage girls on mainstream forums, she says, creates an impression that paying for sex with children just isn’t that big of a deal.

“We don’t want to be the Tipper Gore of the Internet,” she says. “This is about going after legitimate platforms—not the salacious online outlets, not those types of erotic websites or extreme marginal sites that are used to sell girls for sex, but are truly not used as often. It’s about sites that are more widespread and more legitimate and more normative. That’s why we’re targeting Backpage.”

The campaign has a particular urgency as the Super Bowl approaches, because the game is a magnet for prostitution. During last year’s Super Bowl in Tampa, the Florida Department of Children & Families took custody of 24 minors who’d been brought to the area for prostitution in the days leading up to the game. This year in Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott said recently, “There is an organized effort to bring in children and women for the purpose of human trafficking and for the purpose of the sale of sex.”

“There’s no question that Backpage will play a critical role in facilitating the purchase of girls” in Dallas, says Saada Saar. At least, not unless the site makes changes soon.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World , winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.