Women in the World

03.30.12

Sex-Slavery Facilitators: Backpage’s Sleazy ‘Adult Ads’

Village Voice Media has used its newspapers to aggressively push stories defending its lucrative ads, and to fire personal attacks at its critics.

Is it okay to run a business that facilitates sex slavery?

The answer seems obvious, yet Village Voice Media–the newspaper chain that also runs Backpage.com–apparently believes otherwise. Despite mountains of evidence that the company has helped facilitate American sex slavery–including that of children–VVM has carried on with its sleazy and inhumane business here, as well as in many other nations. 

But the pressure is building. Some advertisers have already stopped doing business with VVM, and today, a coalition of multifaith religious leaders stepped up its calls for Backpage to take down the “adult services” section, which has been repeatedly connected to sex trafficking involving underage children, as well as adults.

Rallying in front of the Village Voice offices in New York City, Groundswell, the social action initiative of Auburn Theological Seminary, delivered to Voice a Change.com petition with nearly a quarter-million signatures supporting its call for VVM to “shut down the Adult section on Backpage and stop providing a means for others to sell girls and boys for sex.”

John Buffalo Mailer, the son of Voice cofounder Norman Mailer, joined the rally of about 100 people, and expressed dismay over the course Village Voice Media has pursued. 

“I am here today to say that my father would be against this and completely opposed to what they are doing,” Mailer told me in an interview before the rally. “It’s not a question. They need to take [these ads] down. This is diametrically opposed to what this paper was supposed to be, which was a paper of the people. It was meant to hold people who abuse power accountable.”

Instead, the owners of VVM, an Arizona-based newspaper group formerly known as New Times, have turned that proposition on its head. They are now using the Village Voice brand to abuse power. The chain has wrapped itself in the First Amendment, defending the lucrative ads as a free-speech issue, and using its newspapers to publish an “investigative series” under the banner The Truth Behind Sex Trafficking and to fire personal attacks at its critics. 

“You hold the legacy of this paper in your hands,” Mailer said at the rally, addressing VVM owners Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey. “Please do the right thing. Now.” 

That seems unlikely. While VVM did not provide an on-the-record statement about Backpage, a lawyer for Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC detailed the many steps the site uses to try to weed out traffickers, including automated filters and human readers of each listing. Since traffickers are nonetheless drawn to the site—it can help them make a buck—Backpage also paints itself as benefiting law enforcement by giving the authorities a place to keep an eye on the criminals.

But law-enforcement groups have not been sold on this argument. Despite Backpage’s efforts, the trafficking ads are there–which helps explain why attorneys general from 48 states asked VVM to take down the adult-services ads, pointing to “the company’s facilitation of the sexual exploitation of children.” VVM’s efforts to limit those ads, the letter says, “have been proven ineffective.”

But it hasn’t mattered who asks—attorneys general and law-enforcement leaders, clergy members, women’s-rights groups, anti-sex-trafficking advocates, 19 U.S. senators—VVM continues to get rich off of human suffering to the tune of $24 million a year, according to the AIM Group.

You want to buy a woman or girl to rape and abuse? Just go to Backpage.

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, responded to mounting pressure to discontinue the adult-services ads category on his site, Craigslist, despite being on track to generate $44.6 million from escort-service advertising in 2010. Backpage picked up the bulk of that business, and is ferociously holding on to it.

Lest you wonder, it’s not a matter of opinion, it’s a fact: ads have run on Backpage selling sex slaves.

In their letter to VVM, the attorneys general wrote, “We have tracked more than 50 instances, in 22 states over three years, of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage. These cases often involve runaways ensnared by adults seeking to make money by sexually exploiting them. In some cases, minors are pictured in advertisements.”

VVM has also pointed to the ubiquity of the sex trade to suggest that singling out Backpage is an absurd or irresponsible way to try to deal with sexual slavery and the exploitation of children. But the site now controls the bulk of the “adult ads” listings business, and the AGs view it as a central player in facilitating sex trafficking in the United States.

And local pressure is also building. At the rally, New York City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito read a statement from Speaker Christine Quinn in support of her resolution calling on VVM to shut down Backpage. Since the Brooklyn district attorney’s office set up a sex-trafficking unit in June 2010, Mark-Viverito said that the majority of the 32 sex-trafficking cases prosecuted there have involved girls who were sold on Backpage.

Just this month, a 15-year-old Long Island girl escaped from her kidnappers who drugged and gang-raped her before selling her for sex. Where did they peddle her? You guessed it: Backpage. In their letter, the AGs referenced a May 2011 incident where a 15-year-old girl was forced to have sex with various men for $100 to $150 by a Dorchester, Mass., man. Backpage helpfully provided the outlet for him to sell this poor girl to her rapists.

Mailer told me: “I don’t see this as a legal question at all. Yes, they have a right to put the ads up, but that doesn’t make it OK. It’s a tough time for media, but that doesn’t make it OK to make a profit off of children getting abused.”

Or women getting abused. No matter the age, no person should be sold into slavery of any kind. This doesn’t seem like something that should need to be said, and yet it does. It needs to be said over and over until VVM pulls these ads.