Over the last few weeks, anti-trafficking advocates, partisan opponents and the media have been blasting politicians who accepted donations from the online classified advertisement site, Backpage.com.
However, this opinion does not facilitate the rescue of victims and prosecution of sex traffickers.
In fact, Backpage.com not only actively cooperates with law enforcement, but is a critical tool for investigation.
For example, on April 24th I identified a potential case of sex trafficking through online commercial sex advertisement and review forums. At the time, I was cross-referencing quotes from commercial sex consumers online for my forthcoming book, Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium.
The book—an effort to take readers behind the headlines of the human trafficking scourge in America—features direct quotes from convicted human traffickers, victims, sex workers, and commercial sex consumers (who refer to themselves as “mongers” or “hobbyists”).
At approximately 9:30pm, I came across a Backpage.com advertisement for a young woman in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina that read:
“Hey baby I’m PANDORA come give me a call see what in my box and come on show me some love or what ever u like baby I even do massage too with nice touch to unwind from hard day work I rub u down with the magic touch come on down give PANDORA a call.”
Prima facie, this young woman, who claimed to be 25, may have been perceived as a consenting sex worker. However, reviews about her—which were posted on USASexGuide.info, a commercial sex review forum—told a different story.
Men on the website provided information that suggested the young woman was being trafficked.
On March 31, one man wrote:
“This girl has a developmental disability and is being used by her mother. Even mongers, need to draw a line somewhere. It can be argued that her disability means she doesn’t really know what she is consenting to. This is not like a woman who has demons (that) she should have known better to avoid. This is someone who is fully being abused by a parent.”
Upon seeing this review and the accompanying advertisement, I took a break from editing my book and immediately alerted the Winston-Salem and Thomasville police. Since the advertisement didn’t include a specific address, the police officers I spoke with weren’t sure which jurisdiction the case fell under.
I was uncertain whether the information from the websites was reliable, but on the off-chance it was, I wanted to report it to the police.
After notifying law enforcement, I took screenshots of the advertisements and reviews for evidence, and alerted Backpage.com administrators as well. Within minutes, the advertisements for this girl were removed from their website.
Less than two hours later, by approximately 11:30pm, the police had conducted an undercover sting at a hotel and had the girl from the advertisements in custody. One of the officers confirmed to me that the woman appeared to suffer from a developmental disability, but explained they needed to conduct further investigation to determine if and how she was being exploited.
The officers told me that they would try to connect the woman with social services and thanked me for bringing the information to their attention.
This is why my anti-trafficking advocacy doesn’t conflict with my support of cooperative policing with websites like Backpage.com. Although people can use classified advertisement forums to publicize marginalized women and children who may be sex-trafficked, these websites are also the catalyst for rescues and investigations across the United States.
They have been for years.
The movement of the commercial sex industry off the streets and online brought the previously clandestine crime of sex trafficking into the open. However, although Backpage.com ads initiate a large proportion of child sex-trafficking identifications and victim recoveries, the website continues to be publicly vilified through arrests and civil lawsuits, as well as by public shaming of supporters and politicians who receive donations from them.
Criminalizing Backpage.com will not reduce the commercial sex industry. If anything, it will simply displace commercial sex advertisements from Backpage.com to other websites, such as CityVibe.com–Your Local Escort Directory.
It’s like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole.
Instead of continuing to criminalize these websites and hold them liable for the actions of third parties, anti-trafficking advocates, law enforcement, and victim service providers should identify mechanisms to facilitate more information sharing and cooperation.
Internet-based commercial sex advertisement and review websites are undeniably contributing to the knowledge base of researchers and law enforcement, and we should facilitate–not stymie–this information-sharing.
In less than two hours, the aforementioned Backpage.com advertisement allowed me—a Washington D.C. based criminologist—to initiate an investigation, which brought a potential victim into custody over 300 miles away. This is one out of hundreds of examples of how the website has been used as an effective tool.
America needs to start focusing our anti-trafficking efforts toward policies and interventions that have measurable impacts, instead of blaming scapegoats and avoiding hard decisions just to collect cheap headlines.
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year. She welcomes comments from readers.