In case you haven’t heard: there’s a new moral crusade on the rise. It began two years ago with a campaign for Craigslist to take down it’s adult advertisement section because it was being used by sex traffickers to advertise their victims. After winning every legal battle in court, Craigslist finally caved to public pressure and took it down. What followed was the inevitable exodus of adult services ads to another website, this time Village Voice owned Backpage.com, another website for classified ads. It wasn’t long before the anti-trafficking crusade was up in arms again.
The pressure has reached critical mass in recent weeks as scathing editorials by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have become near-weekly and a petition with a quarter million signatures was delivered by local clergy and council members to Village Voice Media in NYC. The movement is growing nationally with 19 US senators and 51 attorneys general signing on to the cause.
The idea behind this is a simple one. For example take the Brooklyn District Attorney, who has claimed that in two years, 70 percent of the 40 trafficking cases his office dealt with involved ads on Backpage.com. They conclude from this that Backpage is effectively pimping underage/trafficked girls and that the site’s adult services section needs to be taken down.
The thought on this issue seems to stop there. Firstly, it would seem obvious that whatever website is most popular for those seeking adult services is going to be the place traffickers go to advertise their victims as well. The whole discussion around this issue seems to also show a certain naiveté around the prevalence of consensual prostitution, which makes up the vast majority of the ads placed on Backpage.
Aside from that, it is clear from what happened after Craigslist was shut down that this is really a game of Whac-A-Mole. With the advent of the internet as a marketing tool, we are dealing with a new era for the sex industry (as for any other industry), and shutting down one website at a time is simply not going to solve the problem.
Not only is it not going to solve anything, it’s actually a dangerous tactic for several reasons. Any website that cooperates with law enforcement and is proactive about screening its advertisements for any hint of coercion or underage sex (as Backpage does) is an opportunity to monitor a world that law enforcement can’t usually access. Assuming that these ads will eventually all move to a new website (even the District Attorneys attacking Backpage admit they will), there is no guarantee that this new website will have the rigor or interest in pursuing this on the scale Village Voice Media does, never mind the funding to do so. There are an estimated 5000 adult advertisement websites that advertise sex workers/escorts in the United States, and an increasing number of them are not on US shores. Therefore not only might they not take a principled stand on this issue (as Village Voice has) – but they may not be under US jurisdiction either. Many prosecutions of sex trafficking cases use information obtained from Backpage via subpoena, something not possible with an off-shore company.
This all doesn’t bode well for the future protection of victims of sex trafficking. And it’s only the beginning of the problem with the cause to shut down Backpage. While taking down Backpage may make some feel better, there is no evidence that doing so will help victims of trafficking. What we do know is that it will have many unintended and dangerous consequences for those involved in the sex industry by consent.
Backpage is a low-cost advertising site that has allowed many people in the sex industry to break away from a pimp or madam, get off the streets or out of a house, and work independently.
What happens when you shut down an advertising site that services so many people? Further marginalization leads to increases in violence, HIV and other STIs, stigma and discrimination. Without sites such as Backpage it is much harder for sex workers to screen their clients and negotiate their terms of service, such as condom use. Closing down low-cost advertising sites makes it harder to be independent and forces sex workers to rely again on third parties, leading back to exploitation and trafficking.
Having heard little discussion of these and other consequences in the crusade to shut down Backpage, I spent the day at City Hall yesterday waiting for a chance to testify on the proposed City Council resolution recommending the closure of Backpage’s adult services advertisements. I was joined by the wonderfully bright and articulate Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer from the Sex Workers Outreach Project of NYC. Chairing the panel were Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Councilman Brad Lander.
It wasn’t so much a hearing as a lynch mob. Cameras rolling, I watched as members of our City Council practically lined up to abuse Village Voice attorney Liz McDougall (who came to testify by choice). She was interrupted, insulted and accused repeatedly – while her sensible and sensitive responses to their questions went completely ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder: knowing that the city has no power to shut down Backpage (the resolution is just a strong recommendation), surely the opportunity to sit and talk with Backpage’s attorney about these issues would have been better spent in an in-depth discussion of what Backpage could do to improve it’s current efforts to curb trafficking? Unfortunately all that ensued was finger-pointing, angry raised voices and public humiliation. Having spoken to Ms. McDougall I feel it’s obvious that she truly believes that the Village Voice is doing the right thing here (and I agree). It’s rare to see a sense of corporate responsibility these days and it was truly painful to watch her efforts met with sarcasm and bullying.
The rest of the testimony might as well have been a mutual masturbation session as City Council members, District Attorneys, and anti-trafficking organizations congratulated each other on having the courage to ‘stand up’ on this issue.
Except all I saw in that room was cowardice and politics. It is pure sleazy politics to not stand up and admit (as at least one council member is said to have done privately) that shutting down Backpage will probably not help the trafficking situation. It is pure cowardice to hide behind an easily passed resolution to be able to say you’ve done something about trafficking – instead of pushing for the funding for programs that would really help the populations most at-risk from this kind of abuse.
There are some real and tangible changes our society can make, as my fellow SWOP member Kate D’Adamo explained to the City Council:
“According to the John Jay College study The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City, 95% of the youths interviewed said they exchanged sex for money because “it was the surest way to support themselves.” And we are not talking about a missing population who is isolated in their quest for support. 68% had visited at least one youth service agency. And while 87% expressed a desire to leave the sex trade, the barriers can feel insurmountable at times. 60% said they would require stable, legal employment, 51% identified educational needs, and 41% required stable housing before this was possible.
While these all seem like lofty goals, they are clear, decisive places to start that we know will have a huge impact on this population. The most frequent request for services? Stable, long-term housing, most acknowledging that the typical 90-day maximum stay does not provide enough time for them to get on their feet. In 2007, before the financial crisis, one study identified 4000 unaccompanied youth in New York City every single night, and even this number is low. This number does not include youth with their family in the shelter system. It does not include youth who have not tried to connect with the system in some way in order to be counted. It does not include the increase in homeless and housing unstable persons which occurred during the financial collapse a year later. To meet this need, the city funds just over 300 shelter beds. And while 45% of the population of youth engaging in the sex trade is male, and half of street-based youth identify as LGBTQ, the vast majority of these beds have gender restrictions. This year, Mayor Bloomberg is seeking to cut this number even further. Funding emergency shelter services could be a silver bullet into this issue, and it would be a solution which preserves the agency, the rights, and the autonomy of this population.”
I’m afraid to say our testimony fell on deaf ears. The council members present had already made up their minds a long time prior to this hearing. We were briskly thanked for our testimony and spared a single question or follow-up, unlike the many hours of questions we sat through during every testimony prior to ours. The message, in our eyes, was clear. Our ideas are not popular and the voices of the sex workers on whose behalf we were speaking are not exactly important in the political world. A depressing day indeed.
In the meantime, with it’s long-held tradition of standing up for marginalized groups and civil liberties, the Village Voice doesn’t look likely to back down anytime soon. And I’m proud of them. Shutting down Backpage’s adult section would have many unintended consequences. As well-meaning as the anti-trafficking campaigners are, it’s one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem of sex trafficking is complex and deserves a thoughtful, multi-level approach to prevent its occurrence and facilitate the rescue of its victims. In addition, sex workers’ voices (those working with agency and by consent) need to be heard when considering a policy that will affect them more than anyone else. Yesterday may have been disappointing, but we can’t afford to back down when there is so much at stake.
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