A spokesperson for Village Voice Media, the privately held media company that operates Backpage.com, complained about a “one-sided demonization” of its Craigslist-like website on Thursday. The Daily Caller was asking whether its “adult” ad section contributes to the entrapment of women and teens in sex slavery.
According to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Backpage.com earns its parent company $22 million per year with an immense collection of online prostitution advertisements. The website, Kristof alleged, serves about 70 percent of all online prostitution advertisements in the nation.
Along with “buy/sell/trade” and “community” ads, Backpage maintains extensive ads for such categories as “escorts,” “body rubs,” “dom & fetish,” “ts” [transsexuals], “male escorts” and “adult jobs.”
Village Voice general counsel Liz McDougall told TheDC that “human trafficking online is not a Backpage.com-specific problem, and eliminating an adult category from Backpage.com would exasperate the problem, not contribute to a solution.”
According to The Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on ending slavery, an estimated 100,000 underage children are involved with sex trafficking each year in America.
Last fall Auburn Seminary executive vice president Rev. John Vaughn and his associates decided to target Backpage, alleging that it facilitates that same human trafficking.
“You can sell posters. You can sell cars. You can sell whatever, but [Backpage should] stop providing a platform that sells underage kids,” Vaughn told TheDC.
Vaughn and a large multi-faith group of clergy began a fight against Backpage with Groundswell, the seminary’s “social arm,” by sponsoring a petition on Change.org calling for the removal of the website’s adult section. The group also purchased a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.
On March 29, Backpage and all subscribers to Change.org will receive the 100,000 signatures calling for the removal of the adult section of Backpage. Currently, more than 99,800 signatures have been recorded.
“It became pretty clear to us … the use of Backpage.com as a platform to traffic underage girls and boys for sex,” said Vaughn.
In an August 2011 open letter to Backpage, attorneys general from 48 states pleaded with the company to close its adult ad section and remove itself from the trafficking scene.
The letter came along with a report citing “more than 50 instances, in 22 states over three years, of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com.”
And 19 U.S. senators signed a March 23 letter addressed to Village Voice Media chairman and CEO Jim Larkin, saying, “there is only one option to keep our children safe from exploitation on your advertising network — shut down the adult services section of Backpage.com.”
But Backpage, which operates websites in 395 U.S. cities and towns, has responded strongly to allegations that it facilitates human trafficking, and continually refuses to shut down its adult ad section.
With the help of Change.org and organizations such as Fair Girls, which works globally to prevent sex trafficking and help its victims through their healing process, attention to Backpage’s practices is the highest it has ever been.
In the Times, Kristof wrote that charges were filed in a case revolving around a 15-year-old girl who was attacked by a gang in an empty house. They allegedly gave her drugs, tied her up and raped her.
The gang then advertised her on Backpage, he claimed, adding that after a week of forced sex, the girl escaped.
“Every month we continue to see these stories of young, underage girls being trafficked that have been used in traffic through Backpage,” said Vaughn.
When Craigslist shut down its adult section in 2010, Fair Girls co-founder and executive director Andrea Powell assumed that pimps would use the next biggest site, Backpage, for their trafficking.
If Backpage’s adult section is closed however, Powell told TheDC, there is no “heir apparent … or one-stop shop where everyone is going to go.”
“The benefit [of shutting down Backpage’s adult section] is knowing there will be less marketplace for pimps to sell their victims,” said Powell.
Backpage’s defense, according to the New York Post, is that it made 2,695 reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children regarding ads on the site that they thought suspicious of sexual trafficking for children.
Many of those reports concerned ads that were submitted to Backpage but never published, said McDougall.
Vaughn is unimpressed.
“One child is too many,” he told TheDC. “There’s more than one that we’re seeing.”