Hunting the Internet’s Sex Predators

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Most Americans have heard about the pernicious crime of sex trafficking. There has been no shortage of coverage on the suspected red flags, undercover stings, arrests and victim rescues in the media.

However, politicians, law enforcement and anti-trafficking advocates often tout hollow victories for public accolade, while human trafficking crimes continue undeterred. In a previous column for The Crime Report, I noted that some of the common targets chosen by advocates reveal a short-sighted approach by those who want to end such trafficking.

More evidence of this misguided approach came last month with the release of Mary Mazzio’s documentary entitled “I Am Jane Doe” on Netflix. The documentary features videotaped interviews with three girls who were sex-trafficked as children and advertised by their pimps on Backpage.com—a classified advertisement website.

The girls, including one who was only 13, made headlines after they sued the website in civil court. Mazzio claims she wanted to record the girl’s experiences of exploitation to “spare a few children the horrors recounted in the film.”

The director admits that three years ago she had “no idea what child sex trafficking was,” but she has now become a forceful advocate for legislative change to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which has thus far protected U.S.- based websites like Backpage from liability for third-party content. Recently, as part of her national publicity campaign for the film, her views appeared in the entertainment section of The Washington Post.

That might sound compelling to readers accustomed to browsing swiftly through reviews of the latest movies and celebrity sightings. But it is not only misleading; it’s potentially counterproductive and can be considered as exploiting the girls’ victimization.

Mazzio’s argument­ that third-party liability would result in the removal of commercial sex advertisements from the Internet and therefore reduce the incidence of sex-trafficking is not supported by research.

In fact, it could actually reduce the likelihood of victim identification.

The vilification of Backpage.com is reminiscent of the rhetoric directed against Craigslist.org less than a decade ago. For example, Nic McKinley, Founder of DeliverFund­, was featured in Mazzio’s film, saying  “Backpage is the Wal-Mart of human trafficking.”  His comments were subsequently quoted in stories about the documentary published in The New York Times and Vogue, among others.

In fact, almost the exact same description was used by Andrea Powell, Director of the anti-trafficking group FAIR Fund in 2010 interview, in which she called Craigslist “the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.”

What these presumably well-meaning advocates miss is that the Internet modernized the commercial sex industry—not one particular website.

Both Craigslist.org, and its spinoff, Backpage.com, were created as virtual commons for the exchange of information, but they also became platforms for individuals who posted classified advertisements for the commercial sex industry. Dismantling one platform only makes space for another.

After Craigslist.org shuttered the adult section of its website, the advertisements just migrated to Backpage.com. This displacement effect was also apparent when Backpage.com subsequently shuttered its “adult section,” which pushed the same ads to the dating section of the website.

Although Backpage.com is the classified website most inextricably linked to sex trafficking at the moment, there are numerous forums for commercial sex consumers to exchange information and peruse sex for sale. For example, online commercial sex reviewers claim to have purchased unprotected sex with suspected drug users on Humaniplex.com, while men brag about “stealthing” (removal of a condom mid-coitus) with commercial sex providers and raping unconscious women on AlwaysOnTheHunt.com.

Some of the women advertised and discussed on these websites are likely victims of sex trafficking or sexual assault. However, these websites are almost completely absent from the media and operate under the radar of most law enforcement agencies.

The crusade against Backpage.com will result in nothing more than another displacement of commercial sex advertisements to offshore and/or referral based membership forums. For example, in response to the attempted criminalization of Backpage.com executives, the administrator of USASexGuide.info wrote, “Are you kidding? That’s great news for us, we are ready. New version coming out soon. Unlike them we aren’t tied to the USA.”

Following his post, he added a hyperlink to an offshore-based classified advertisement website, called USAAdultClassifieds.info.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Documentaries like the one produced by Mary Mazzio may be useful for alerting Americans about a danger than can reach into their homes, but policy prescriptions that are neither well thought-out nor backed by sound research can make an already clandestine crime even more difficult to identify.

If anti-trafficking advocates truly want to reduce the incidence of sex trafficking, as well as increase rescues of victims and prosecution of offenders, they should instead lobby for more cooperation and exchange of information between U.S.-based websites like Backpage.com and law enforcement.

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. 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.

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