This Seattle Times editorial posted Thursday encourages the online community to help stop sex trafficking by refusing to sell or buy goods on Backpage.com until it stops posting adult services.
A disclaimer on the site asking users to “report suspected exploitation of minors and/or human trafficking” is disingenuous. Once viewers click “I agree” to the terms, they are exposed to illicit ads that reduce people’s daughters to faceless bodyshots and subject lines consisting of emoji characters, body measurements, ages that could be fake and suggestive pseudonyms.
Here’s a screenshot of just a few of the hundreds of listings Backpage.com allowed to be posted during the lunch hour on Wednesday. Does this look to you like a website that cares about protecting people — or promoting the dirty work of pimps?
These ads are blatant and degrading. Not only do they appear to exploit young women, but I also saw ads recruiting more workers. Why isn’t Backpage.com doing more to enforce its own rules or verifying the ages of the people posting ads to their website? Its posting guidelines, seen in the screenshot below, are a joke.
Throughout the month of April, news reports around the country have linked Backpage.com’s adult section to criminal behavior. WCCO-TV in Minneapolis reported on the prevalence of child sex trafficking in the Twin Cities. On April 15, a man in Detroit was sentenced in the murder of four women he found through the site’s escort listings. A prostitution sting in Kentucky led to three arrests. On Thursday, WABI-TV in Maine broadcast a story about the recruitment of minors into the trade. Here in Seattle, a Times news story on April 17 revealed attorney and alleged rapist Danford Grant searched hundreds, if not thousands, of times for Asian massage therapists on Craigslist.org and Backpage.com.
Peter Qualliotine, a co-founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, says more public awareness is needed to help communities understand the greater societal implications of adult service ads on the Internet.
“Whenever the commercial sex industry gets normalized, what we see is an increase in violence against women and attitudes that support the subordination of women,” he says, adding that most users of Internet sites such as Backpage.com are men. “Our culture is priming them to view sex as an act of dominance rather than an act of mutuality and equality.”
Qualliotine facilitates the city of Seattle’s “john school” every month. In these intervention sessions, he says he witnesses a “serious lack of empathy” from men who don’t understand that many of the scantily clad women in adult ads are controlled by pimps and coerced into performing sex work from a young age. The program tries to teach the buyers that their interactions with women should be a “yes without fear or confusion. When you’re paying somebody, you’re paying not to hear the truth about what her reality is about.”
As long as Backpage.com continues to allow these ads and increase demand, more young people will become victims of sex trafficking.