Backpage Adult Section Shuts Down: Is this a Step Towards Dismantling Sex Trafficking?
By Amber Hopkins, Amara Intern
Backpage, the world’s second largest classified ad website, censored its adult content pages on the eve of a scathing Senate subcommittee report released January 9, 2017.[i] The Senate subcommittee report describes a 21-month investigation into the website’s commercial sex dealings.[ii] Primarily concerning evidence showing that Backpage edited as many as 80% of the adult ads in 2010.[iii] Furthermore, the report attributed 73% of all child trafficking reports received by National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to Backpage’s classified ads.[iv] The report covers the Senate subcommittee’s three principle findings: first, the subcommittee found that Backpage.com “knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its ‘adult’ ads;”[v] next, the subcommittee found that Backpage knowingly facilitated sex-trafficking.;[vi] and finally, the subcommittee found that Carl Ferrer bought Backpage through foreign shell companies.[vii] The reactions to the Senate subcommittee’s findings, will be discussed here.
Reponses to the subcommittee findings and Backpage’s censorship is polarized. In Kansas City, the Executive Director of Justice Project KC, “applauded the relentless pursuit by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, its use of subpoena powers and the courts, and its diligence in analyzing more than a million pages of documents to reach the conclusions of the report.”[viii] However, the Executive Director admits banning adult content on Backpage is only the tip of the iceberg.[ix]
In contrast, anti-trafficking and sex worker advocates alike have struggled with adopting the Director’s sentiments. After Backpage’s censorship, Children of the Night representative, Dr. Lois Lee, issued a statement condemning the subcommittee’s actions.[x] Dr. Lois Lee stated that the subcommittee “. . . dismantled three vital resources that helped rescue children and helped children recover from lives in prostitution.”[xi] Dr. Lee admonished the Senate Committee by recognizing that law enforcement agencies can no longer use the information posted on Backpage to discover individuals being trafficked.[xii] She also implied that censoring Backpage “could push these traffickers and their victims further underground, to websites that are less widely known by officials and more difficult to monitor.”[xiii] Dr. Lee further described Backpage as an active outreach mechanism, an investigatory tool, and a valued financial supporter.[xiv]
Additionally, Sasanka Jinadasa, a community resource manager at HIPS, expanded on the potential disadvantages that sex workers may face by the censorship of Backpage. Jinadasa advocates that consensual sex workers “are crucial allies in the fight against sex trafficking . . .”[xv] The Senate Committees conflation of consensual sex work with sex trafficking disincentivizes individuals from coming forward and fulfilling the ally role.[xvi] Backpage played an integral part of consensual sex work – Backpage was a safe space to screen and negotiate with clients.[xvii] Closing Backpage does more than disadvantage consensual sex workers, it further stigmatizes sex workers.[xviii] Jinadasa stated she is “particularly infuriated” because “this case is  going to help no one. It’s not going to help them find traffickers, it’s not going to help them end human trafficking, it’s not diverting resources to support survivors of trafficking or to support sex workers. It’s just an empty action to make people feel like they’ve helped curb something that they find morally ambiguous or morally wrong.”[xix]
According to The Daily Beast, Rebecca, a sex worker, describes the difficulty in screening and maintaining clients since Backpage’s censorship; she states that, “What’s unfortunate is that sex workers are constantly forced to rebuild their lives. These interruptions, whether they’re via the internet or arrest or incarceration, can do real damage to your life trajectory. It’s just unfortunate that for so many of our clients, so many sex workers in the United States, their lives can be a series of things collapsing and having to rebuild.”[xx] Backpage’s censorship began just a few weeks ago and already sex workers see “new websites com[ing] into favor.”[xxi] So, the question remains, is censoring Backpage a step towards dismantling sex trafficking?
______________________[i] Staff of Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 114th Cong., Rep. on Backpage.com’s Knowing facilitation of Sex Trafficking, available at http://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=5D0C71AE-A090-4F30-A5F5-7CFFC08AFD48.
[viii] Mary Sanchez, Backpage’s adult sections shuttered; online sex traffickers merely blinked, The Kansas City Star (Jan. 12, 2017, 6:39 PM), http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/mary-sanchez/article126253279.html#storylink=cpy.
[xii] Lois Lee, Statement of Dr. Lois Lee, Founder and President of Children of the Night, Children of the Night, http://www.backpage.com/statements/Children-of-the-Night-Statement.pdf.
[xiii] Amy Zimmerman, Backpage Is Bad. Banning It Would Be Worse., The Daily Beast, (Jan. 14, 2017, 11:00 PM), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/01/15/backpage-is-bad-banning-it-would-be-worse.html.
[xiv] Lois Lee, Statement of Dr. Lois Lee, Founder and President of Children of the Night, Children of the Night, http://www.backpage.com/statements/Children-of-the-Night-Statement.pdf.
[xv] Amy Zimmerman,
\ackpage Is Bad. Banning It Would Be Worse., The Daily Beast, (Jan. 14, 2017, 11:00 PM), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/01/15/backpage-is-bad-banning-it-would-be-worse.html.