Sunday’s New York Times opinion section carried this column by Nicholas Kristof about Backpage.com, an online classified ad site run by Village Voice Media which owns the OC Weekly. It’s a powerful column where the writer captures the story of a young woman sold into sexual bondage by pimps in New York City where her services were bought and sold online on Backpage.com. And yes, Backpage.com has an adult section for “OC” in California in which advertises for escorts, massages and other adult services (photo credit to the OC Register for a massage parlor bust in Orange County).
From Kristof’s column:
Alissa, her street name, escaped that life and is now a 24-year-old college senior planning to become a lawyer — but she will always have a scar on her cheek where a pimp gouged her with a potato peeler as a warning not to escape. “Like cattle owners brand their cattle,” she said, fingering her cheek, “he wanted to brand me in a way that I would never forget.”
After Alissa testified against her pimps, six of them went to prison for up to 25 years. Yet these days, she reserves her greatest anger not at pimps but at companies that enable them. She is particularly scathing about Backpage.com, a classified advertising Web site that is used to sell auto parts, furniture, boats — and girls. Alissa says pimps routinely peddled her on Backpage.
“You can’t buy a child at Wal-Mart, can you?” she asked me. “No, but you can go to Backpage and buy me on Backpage.”
Kristof added a link to an online petition to get Village Voice Media to drop the adult advertising section from Backpage.com. You can access it here. The copy from the petition, which to date has more than 97,000 signatures of the 150,000 it needs, is compelling.
Sex trafficking of girls and boys on Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, is becoming a disturbing trend. A Georgia man was arrested for pimping two 17-year-old girls around the Nashville area. Detectives responded to a suspicious ad on Backpage.com and drove to a motel. There, they found the teens and their 37-year-old pimp, as well as a laptop computer, likely used for the online advertising. Just four days prior to that, four people in Denver were arrested for forcing a teen girl into prostitution. They also advertised her sexual services, including semi-nude pictures, on Backpage. And last year, a South Dakota couple was arrested for selling underage girls for sex on …. wait for it … Backpage.com yet again. Village Voice Media has a moral responsibility to ensure that young girls and boys aren’t being abused in the commercial sex industry with help from their website. Now, a rising movement of people of many faiths and backgrounds, motivated by their shared moral convictions, are taking action to end this practice. Please join us in demanding that Village Voice Media – Backpage.com’s parent company – stop selling ads that others use to sell minors on Backpage.com by shutting down the Adult section of the website.
Kristof notes that online Classified website leader Craig’s List shut down adult ads and sex trafficking declined in the wake of the decision. He seems hopeful if Village Voice Media, known for groundbreaking invesigative journalism (and OC is no exception), is damaging its brand through its association with sex ads on Backpage.com. From the column:
Backpage accounts for about 70 percent of prostitution advertising among five Web sites that carry such ads in the United States, earning more than $22 million annually from prostitution ads, according to AIM Group, a media research and consulting company. It is now the premier Web site for human trafficking in the United States, according to the National Association of Attorneys General. And it’s not a fly-by-night operation. Backpage is owned by Village Voice Media, which also owns the estimable Village Voice newspaper.
Attorneys general from 48 states have written a joint letter to Village Voice Media, pleading with it to get out of the flesh trade. An online petition at Change.org has gathered 94,000 signatures asking Village Voice Media to stop taking prostitution advertising. Instead, the company has used The Village Voice to mock its critics. Alissa thought about using her real name for this article but decided not to for fear that Village Voice would retaliate.
Paradoxically, Village Voice began as an alternative newspaper to speak truth to power. It publishes some superb journalism. So it’s sad to see it accept business from pimps in the greediest and most depraved kind of exploitation.
True, many prostitution ads on Backpage are placed by adult women acting on their own without coercion; they’re not my concern. Other ads are placed by pimps: the Brooklyn district attorney’s office says that the great majority of the sex trafficking cases it prosecutes involve girls marketed on Backpage.
Inside counsel for Village Voice Media disputes charges regarding adult sex ads and maintains all sorts of efforts are taken to prevent prostitutes from being bought and sold online. Here’s their statement:
We do not disagree with the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) about trafficking underage children for sex.
Of course, Village Voice Media stands against such repugnant criminal behavior. But we are not going to sit quietly while officeholders exploit crimes against kids for political purposes.
Backpage – the Voice’s classified section — is an industry leader in utilizing Internet technology, as well as hundreds of employees, to prevent such crimes.
“Backpage has been aggressively reviewing their ads and trying to remove those ads that are unlawful and suggest they involve the sale of kids for sex,” Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), told the Dayton Daily News on September 27, 2011. Backpage has developed strong cooperative relationships with frontline state and federal police agencies.
“We can’t thank you and your staff enough for being so responsive and supportive of [our] and other law enforcement efforts concerning these cases. Your company’s level of cooperation is not the norm and makes a huge difference in our ability to target and ultimately arrest the offender,” reads one note from a law enforcement agency on August 29, 2011. “Certainly, your staff did a great job! We appreciate Backpage’s vigilance to help protect kids. On our team over the weekend were the Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and several law enforcement agencies, and all commented on how effective Backpage was on getting the ads removed quickly and blocking future ads from the same posters,” reads another note from a law enforcement agency, on September 23, 2011 Because of Backpage’s reports to law enforcement agency, efforts to traffic minors for sex on our site are detected, perpetrators are arrested, and minors are rescued. Our recent detection of a suspicious ad in the Seattle area resulted in the arrest of a suspect and the rescue of a 16-year-old victim within hours of its being reported.
But no amount of vigilance on our part — or cooperation with law enforcement — is perfect. This is something every responsible parent whose child confronts the temptations of the street and drugs understands. With tens of millions of classified ads under review in hundreds of cities, there is going to be a small percentage that involve human trafficking and that are difficult to detect and eliminate. But improving technologies for monitoring and moderating classified sites, not taking them down, is the effective solution.
The interesting part of Kristof’s story is that the former prostitute he interviewed for his column feared retaliation not from her former pimps, but from Village Voice Media.
There are no simple solutions to end sex trafficking, but it would help to have public pressure on Village Voice Media to stop carrying prostitution advertising. The Film Forum has already announced that it will stop buying ads in The Village Voice. About 100 advertisers have dropped Rush Limbaugh’s radio show because of his demeaning remarks about women. Isn’t it infinitely more insulting to provide a forum for the sale of women and girls?
Let’s be honest: Backpage’s exit from prostitution advertising wouldn’t solve the problem, for smaller Web sites would take on some of the ads. But it would be a setback for pimps to lose a major online marketplace. When Craigslist stopped taking such ads in 2010, many did not migrate to new sites: online prostitution advertising plummeted by more than 50 percent, according to AIM Group.
Alissa, who now balances her college study with part-time work at a restaurant and at Fair Girls, an antitrafficking organization, deserves the last word. “For a Web site like Backpage to make $22 million off our backs,” she said, “it’s like going back to slave times.”
In a story that ran last year, Village Voice Media used its pages to attack the statistics and evidence regarding online prostitution and the role Backpage.com plays into it. From the story:
But the most alarming words of the day came from Deborah Richardson, the chief program officer of the Women’s Funding Network. She told legislators that juvenile prostitution is exploding at an astronomical rate. “An independent tracking study released today by the Women’s Funding Network shows that over the past six months, the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states,” Richardson claimed. “Michigan: a 39.2 percent increase; New York: a 20.7 percent increase; and Minnesota: a staggering 64.7 percent increase.” In the wake of this bombshell revelation, Richardson’s disturbing figures found their way into some of the biggest newspapers in the country. USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press all repeated the dire statistics as gospel. The successful assault on Craigslist was followed by a cross-country tour by Richardson and the Women’s Funding Network.
None of the media that published Richardson’s astonishing numbers bothered to examine the study at the heart of Richardson’s claim. If they had, they would have found what we did after asking independent experts to examine the research: It’s junk science. After all, the numbers are all guesses. The data are based merely on looking at photos on the Internet. There is no science. Eric Grodsky, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who teaches about proper research construction, says that the study is fundamentally flawed. “The method’s not clean,” Grodsky says. “You couldn’t get this kind of thing into a peer-reviewed journal. There are just too many unanswered questions about their methodology.” Ric Curtis, the chairman of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, led a Justice Department-funded study on juvenile prostitution in New York City in 2008. He’s highly skeptical of the claims in the Women’s Funding Network’s study. “I wouldn’t trust those numbers,” Curtis says. “This new study seems pretty bogus.” In fact, the group behind the study admits as much. It’s now clear they used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress. And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding.
Beth Shaprio, a principal at The Shapiro Group, which conducted the study, stands by the firm’s work.
We contacted OC Weekly’s editor in chief Gustavo Arellano for comment, and he responds and a link to this Naval Gazing post where he responds to The Catholic League. His response then, and now, is:
And in a laughable lack of research that shows he probably got the idea for his press release from Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown, Donohue actually wrote that I have “never published a piece on the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy of any other religion. Nor has he written about the epidemic of sexual abuse in the public schools.” HA! Other religions? I guess Bill doesn’t consider Calvary Chapel a religion, as we’ve been on that beat for a while now. Sex-abuse in schools? So the disabled girl who got molested by a teacher’s aide at Saddleback High, a molestation hushed up by school officials who had previously hushed up sex assaults on a school campus, stories ignored by the lamestream media until we exposed them, doesn’t count? Or the other stories my colleagues have covered on tips I gave them? Laughable.
Best of all, Donohue tries to paint me as a hypocrite on covering sex-abuse scandals because my bosses at Village Voice Media run Backpage.com, where consenting adults, um, can hang out. Opponents have tried to depict us as encouraging child abuse through our classifieds–never mind that we have long-established relationships with local police and the FBI that allow predators to be identified and apprehended, and underage victims to be rescued. Our company has also run a year-long series on sex trafficking that seeks to demolish myths and identify the extent and nature of the problem–not the least of which is that it appears half the victims are boys.
All that’s not good enough for Donohue. Instead, he smugly writes about me: “He’s simply not man enough to turn his guns on the purveyors of human slavery, namely his boss.”
(Did he ever read our sister paper Phoenix New Times’ years-long coverage of Warren Jeffs, the Mormon pervert? Of course not.)
Damn straight I go against purveyors of human slavery, Bill: it’s called the Catholic Church hierarchy that continues to protect pedophiles, their protectors, and their apologists all these years later. And I can’t wait to do it for many, many more years, along with all the other pedo-protectors out there, secular and not. Gracias for the love! And heckuva job, Brownie!
Now OC Weekly has a healthy ad base of bars, restaurants, clothing stores, nightclubs, medical marijuana, and its share of adult ads which contribute to the salaries of Arellano, R. Scott Moxley, Matt Coker and the rest of the talented crew there. The Orange County Register readers aren’t spared from ads for strip clubs and massage parlors in the sports pages.
To help stop human trafficking in Orange County, the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force has an excellent website that educates readers on the issues, answers common questions and offers detailed resources for anything seeking to help victims of human trafficking. You can access the site here.