04.19.12

Boycott Village Voice Media? Senators and Clergy Push for Action on Backpage.com

What will it take to make Village Voice Media take down its smutty classified web site Backpage.com, which facilitates sex slavery? Kirsten Powers on the new movement that plans to hit the company where it hurts—advertising revenue.

Has Village Voice Media no shame?

The answer seems to be no. They know they are helping sex traffickers sell kidnapped girls, and they don’t care. But a coalition of clergy and a group of U.S. senators are banking on the fact that their advertisers have the moral core VVM lacks.

After all, do American Apparel, Best Buy, Disney, H&M, IKEA, REI, T-Mobile and so many more mainstream companies want to be associated with sex slavery?  Unless they pull their ads from Village Voice Media’s properties, which serve nearly 400 markets, they are complicit in the buying and selling of kidnapped women and girls.

Perhaps they claim to be ignorant of VVM’s classifieds website Backpage.com, where sex slaves are peddled. But after today they can never say they didn’t know. Groundswell—the social-action initiative of Auburn Seminary—is announcing today a campaign to educate Village Voice Media’s top 50 advertisers about the sex ads for minors on Backpage.com

This comes on the heels of a similar effort launched earlier this week by four U.S. Senators—Mark Kirk (R-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and John Cornyn (R-TX)—in which they contacted 40 advertisers of Village Voice Media to inform them of the human-rights abuses Backpage.com helps to facilitate.

Nicole Barrett, a Kirk spokesperson, told me the senators’ effort is already having an impact. According to Barrett, six companies—AT&T, MillerCoors, Crown Imports LLC, Live Nation, Children’s Wish Foundation, and Relativity Media—“have indicated they will discontinue their advertisements with Village Voice Media in response to the senators’ letters.”

That’s a start. Hopefully other advertisers will follow suit.

In their letter, the senators pointed to information provided from law enforcement about girls sold on Backpage.com including the conviction of a pimp who “forced a 14-year-old Atlanta girl into prostitution and posting her services on Backpage.com. [The pimp] kept the girl in line through beatings, threatening her with a knife, and on one occasion, shocking her with a taser in front of another underage girl he had placed in prostitution. [He] even forced the girl to engage in prostitution while she was pregnant with his child.”

Anti-trafficking advocates are now speaking VVM’s language:dollars and cents.

The truth is, this story isn’t even that remarkable in that it is so common and typical of the stories we hear about the girls who are peddled on Backpage.com.

The senators wrote of a Minnesota man, Akmal S. Karon, “charged with eight counts of child prostitution for pimping two underage girls and keeping them in line using rape and extreme violence. One girl, who first began working as a prostitute for Karon at 15, told police that Karon raped her, punched her in the face, repeatedly kicked her, burned her hand with a cigar, and once hit her in the head with a Snapple bottle when she did not earn enough money. Karon picked up the other girl outside her home just a few days before her 14th birthday. He raped and beat her the following day at a motel, and then held her captive for over a week, forcing her to work for him as a prostitute. Karon advertised both girls on Backpage.com.”

Horrifying, right?  Not to Village Voice Media. Law enforcement has shared the same information with them, and it appears to make no difference so long as they keep making money off Backpage.com. Attorneys general from 48 states have asked VVM to take down the adult-services ads, pointing to “the company’s facilitation of the sexual exploitation of children,” and VVM was unmoved.

A VVM spokesperson declined to comment on the boycott.

Video screenshot

Melissa Petro on why Backpage.com shouldn't be shutdown.

In a statement, the president of Auburn Theological Seminar, the Rev. Dr. Henderson said, “Businesses advertising in Village Voice Media publications must be informed of the controversy surrounding the sex ads of minors on Backpage.com. Once these companies become aware of all the facts, we are confident they will join us in encouraging Village Voice Media to take the morally right step and shut down the Adult section of Backpage.com.”

Anti-trafficking advocates are now speaking VVM’s language: dollars and cents. If enough advertisers leave VVM it may no longer be in their interest to make money off the backs of sex slaves. Sad that is what it takes with them, but advocates should not give up until these ads are eradicated.