Headlines blared when the global classified ad giant Backpage.com shut down its adult section on Monday. The move was a desperate attempt to head off a scathing U.S. Senate subcommittee report linking Backpage to the selling of underage girls for sex.
For years, Backpage had hosted ads that often used coded language and salacious photos offering sex for sale, often with young girls. When challenged, the company’s owners routinely hid behind constitutional protections of the free press.
However, after a two-year cat-and-mouse game, the gig was up, and Backpage’s owners scrambled for a different constitutional protection — against self-incrimination. When called before a Senate subcommittee, they refused to answer questions about how their company automatically scrubbed words like “Lolita,” “teen,” “rape,” “innocent,” “little girl” and “Amber Alert” from ads before allowing them to post.
It was a cowardly silence, but one to be expected from people who can no longer dodge accusations that they profited from the sexual exploitation of children.
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There was panic in other quarters, as well. Teenagers and women who use Backpage to solicit tricks were frantic. If they couldn’t post themselves as available, they wouldn’t be able to satisfy the cash demands of their pimps. And pimps are violent, known to beat, burn, brand and rape women as punishment.
In Kansas City, Kris Wade’s phone blew up. She is executive director of Justice Project KC, a group dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking. She serves multiple task forces and is linked to the Justice Department. The youngest victim she’s aided was a 9-year-old girl, but she estimates that 11 is the average age of those she sees trafficked. These girls grow into sexually exploited women.
“A lot of them don’t know what day it is,” Wade said of “the girls.” And earlier this week, all they knew was that they couldn’t post on Backpage.
The girls do not make a habit of following the news, Wade said, not unless one of them goes missing or winds up dead. So the play-by-play between Backpage and Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio escaped their notice.
But Wade followed it. She applauded the relentless pursuit by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, its use of subpoena powers and the courts, and its diligence in analyzing more than a million pages of documents to reach the conclusions of the report.
Wade is also realistic.
“Backpage is only the tip of the iceberg; even if it is put entirely out of operation, there are so many sites that will pick up their business,” she said.
And you can bet the scramble is on. Prostitution is a fiercely competitive business. The rules are simple. The younger the merchandise, the higher the profits they can draw — but not for themselves. The money goes to the pimps.
A cautionary note: Wade hates the term sex worker. It implies legitimacy. “This is exploitation,” she said. “And for a lot of people, it’s torture.”
Enslavement is her preferred term. According to Wade, people need to disabuse themselves of the notion that prostitution is a voluntary choice. People prostitute when they don’t think they have other options. They often do it after being tricked, forced or compromised into selling themselves sexually. Renegades — women or young girls who try to operate solo — don’t last long.
Pimps troll Backpage and similar sites, too, Wade said. They’re on the lookout for newbies, anyone who might cut into their business. Then they go get them. The approach might be slow: The woman is contacted and taken on a few dates, which might entail buying them clothes, drugs or a new hairstyle. Then they are told that it’s payback time. Don’t like it? That’s when the abuse starts.
Nothing will ever change unless the demand is decreased. More people — primarily male johns — need to understand their role. They are buying exploited humans.
That is why Wade calls for tougher penalties, fines and mandatory attendance at educational sessions for tricks, to make them understand the consequences of their solicitation. She also wants others who are knowingly complicit, such as bribed taxi drivers and concierges, to feel the pressure as well.
But the fact of the matter is that the internet is a wide-open venue for sex trafficking. There are myriad ways it can aid people seeking to make a profit from sexually exploiting others, especially children.
It will take equally efficient and disciplined pushback by Congress, police, the courts and advocates to meet the challenge.