Shocking information shows that for years now Backpage.com has been profiting from the exploitation of both women and children through their online classifieds system. But what is even more appalling is that, so far, the site has gone largely unpunished by law enforcement for their facilitation of this despicable criminal activity. The “adult” section of the site has become a horrific hub for the sex trafficking industry as women and children are being illegally sold for sex through classified ads posted to their page.
A recent court case, Doe v. Backpage.com LLC, brings the issue in to astounding focus. The case filed through the Massachusetts federal court by two women details the horrifying abuses they endured as minors when they were sold for sex through ads placed on Backpage.com. Unfortunately, this case is not the first time we are hearing about this; it is one of the numerous accounts that have been reported in the last few years.
The issues regarding Backpage.com are especially significant because they expose the stories of real children (some now adults) who have personally been exploited by pimps through the website. Reports include instances like the Iowa sex trafficking ring that used Backpage.com to find and force women between the ages of 17 and 21into prostitution, using the site as a means to advertise their “services”. Not to mention thethree Detroit women found dead after being placed under the “escort” section of the site. If that didn’t make law enforcement take notice, one would think CNN’s heart-wrenching account in 2012 would have. The report interviewed moms who watched their young daughters be coerced by pimps to run away from home–only to be prostituted through ads on Backpage.com. All of these events lead up to the more recent aforementioned case of Doe v. Backpage.com LLC. The details are horrific. Together the two women claimed to have been sold for sex a combined 1,900 times when they were between the ages of 15-17.
What more will it take for prosecutors wake up? Clearly these crimes are crossing state lines; it’s time both federal and state law enforcement takes more drastic measures. American celebrities often speak about ending the nebulous “sex trafficking epidemic”–yet a crime is going on right under our noses and we are doing nothing about it. According to a report by Kirsten Powers, human trafficking is the third largest enterprise in the world, and it’s going on in our own backyard–72 percent of human trafficking victims are actually Americans. She states in her report that in Minnesota alone about 200 young people are sold each month through online outlets. These numbers should outrage Americans, especially Americans with children. The issue of sexual exploitation through online sites does not simply deal with statistics or free speech as Backpage paints it; these are real women and children being manipulated into sexual slavery that will affect them for the rest of their lives–that is if they can even make it out.
Sources have now exposed Backpage.com as not only a facilitator of but also a contributor to sex trafficking. The industry is a huge source of income, and who is benefitting from the profits? It’s leaders like Elizabeth McDougall, general counsel for Backpage, who said the despicable statement that she believes Backpage.com is actually helping to prevent sex trafficking.
It appears the problem with Backpage.com is the site has deliberately chosen to only filter posts that use certain terms while still allowing words like “young” and “girl”. Apparently sex traffickers can slip through the cracks by merely leaving a few letters out of a word so that pedophiles looking for young children will still be able to understand the gist of the post and the words won’t be blocked. Furthermore, Backpage guards the identities of sex traffickers by allowing the use of bitcoin–leaving these offenders virtually untraceable. Bitcoin is especially enticing for those who wish to remain anonymous and outside of government regulation or tracking. Hence, the reason why bitcoin is being used by sex traffickers on sites like Backpage.com that allow this form of currency.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Backpage wants no accountability. They actually sued the state of Washington for attempting to put a bill into law that would criminalize those who publish child sex ads and also make the site verify the ages of those being advertised.
It is law enforcement’s duty to call out an injustice when they see it. Yes, there are multiple sites that pimps work through, but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to continue to profit from human suffering. Backpage may seem like a drop in the pond, but it is a very large drop–seeing that it is one of the largest internet sex trade pages on the web hailing 80 percent of all online commercial sex advertising in the U.S. today.
It comes down to this: if Backpage.com really cared about ending the sexual slave trade, they would have done something long ago. But instead, they’ve deflected away from the issue by arguing freedom of speech while countless victims are trafficked and even killed as pimps continue to go unidentified and scot-free. It is time law enforcement stand up for the precious, overlooked victims of online sexual exploitation. Backpage.com isn’t the only company profiting from the online sex trade; however, removing even one facilitator in the online sex trade is a necessary and important step that must be taken seriously in order to ultimately eradicate sexual exploitation.
Penny Nance is President and CEO of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization. Find out more at concernedwomen.org.