Last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would make websites liable for publishing information that facilitates sex trafficking.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act has since become the center of a stormy debate between those who believe this measure will curb a practice that exploits thousands of young women every year, and tech industry giants like Google and their supporters who argue that it threatens free speech.
But the fundamental problem with the bill, sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), is that it doesn’t address the real issues at stake —and in fact may do more harm than good.
The measure is not based on any theoretical or empirical research; nor does it reflect an authoritative understanding of the scope and history of how commercial sex and sex trafficking are sold in the United States.
Editors’ Note: A vote on the bill was scheduled as early as this week.
Proponents of the bill make two critically flawed assumptions:
- Certain websites make it easier to sex traffic than others, instead of the internet as a whole;
- Website administrators can accurately discern the difference between a law- abiding business, a consenting adult sex worker, and a victim of sex trafficking—something that trained law enforcement have trouble doing.
Legislators, their constituents and anti-trafficking advocates should first understand the history and landscape of commercial sex advertisements before they rush to pass this bill.
Periodicals have been used to disseminate information about the commercial sex trade for centuries. Between 1757 and 1795 Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies—a concise almanac of prostitutes available for hire in London—was published annually and disseminated to middle and upper class men.
Harris’s descriptions suggest that many of the sex workers were actually trafficked adults or juveniles.
Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, Blue Books containing brothel advertisements and a directory of sex workers were given to visitors and tourists and those seeking a “good time” while in New Orleans, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas.
By the mid- to late-20th century, conventional newspapers and specialty erotic magazines, like Swank in New York, were used to share information about the commercial sex trade locally, by various publishers across the country.
These ads eventually transitioned online with the popularization of the internet.
Despite the claims by some legislators and anti trafficking advocates, who typically are narrowly focused on classified advertisement websites like Craigslist.org and Backpage.com, one particular website did not facilitate sex trafficking.
There are literally thousands of websites that specifically cater to the commercial sex industry. Here’s a partial list: ECCIE.net, TheEroticReview.com, RubMaps.com, P411.com, CityVibe.com, AlwaysOnTheHunt.com, and Humaniplex.com.
Many are hosted internationally, possibly beyond the reach of U.S.-based law enforcement, such as USASexGuide.info, InternationalSexGuide.info, and USAAdultClassifieds.info, or on the dark web.
Advertisements hosted on one website are often cross-posted on other forums, social media, dating websites and even in print.
For example, a recent edition of Korean Entertainment Weekly (a free publication for Korean residents in the D.C. Metropolitan Area) features prominent ads for massage parlors that are also advertised on Backpage.com:
- Diamond Spa, open for massages from 10am to midnight;
- A foot massage spa; and
- TK Therapy, which is also listed on SpaHunters and was previously raided under suspicion of operating as a front for a brothel.
Ultimately, it is often very difficult to discern legitimate businesses from consenting adult sex industries, and sex trafficked victims.
Sen. Blumenthal, especially, should know this, considering that there is documented evidence suggesting that police in his state, Connecticut, erroneously criminalized at least one victim of sex trafficking. The victim had been trafficked on and off for nearly two decades, but was arrested by the police when she reported her sex trafficker/pimp.
When Craigslist.org acquiesced to that request in 2010, the ads were simply displaced, some to the casual encounters dating section of the same website and many to Backpage.com. When Backpage.com also shuttered its adult section earlier this year, the ads were again displaced to the dating section.
Eradicating these commercial sex ads completely is a Sisyphean task.
Third-party businesses should not be held accountable for the crimes committed by traffickers. Instead of avoiding hard decisions for cheap headlines, legislators should start facilitating cooperation between these websites and law enforcement.
In order to combat the historically clandestine crime of sex trafficking, we must increase the capabilities of law enforcement to use online ads as the catalyst for more arrests and rescues.
Dr. 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. Dr. Mehlman-Orozco’s writing can be found in The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, The Baltimore Sun, The Diplomatic Courier, among other media.