Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sex, Lies and Suicide: What's Wrong with the War on Sex Trafficking

One of the commentators on my piece last week in Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendi-adelson/children-dont-belong-on-t_b_1663726.html) suggested that I read this.  Good article. Love to hear your thoughts:


Sex, Lies and Suicide: What's Wrong with the War on Sex Trafficking
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At the close of the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum at NYU last week, I delivered a relentlessly logical argument that the anti-sex trafficking movement’s war on classified site Backpage.com shows an alarming lack of understanding of how the internet works.

We are fighting a war that can’t be won online. There is a better way – if we embrace technology instead of running from it.

Sara Critchfield at Upworthy said, “This Is The Most Unpopular Opinion On Child Porn You’ll Ever See — And I’m Asking You To Agree With It.”

I’ve heard from online sex trafficking experts, journalists, and feminists who agreed with me, and a feminist journalist who said I didn’t go far enough.

I’ve heard from a woman who helped fund anti-Cragislist efforts who said, “If there is a better way, funders would surely be open to the most effective investment of their time and money as they attempt to halt the sale of underage bodies.”

I’ve even heard from a victim of child sex trafficking who said, “As a survivor, I saw how many buyers and traffickers there were out there. Too many. I don’t think that will change by shutting down Backpage. I tend not to focus on how to deter buyers and traffickers; I almost think it’s impossible. Instead I try to focus on prevention and empowerment education for young girls.”

But I have not heard a word from Ashton and Demi, New York Times op-ed writer Nick Kristof, USA Today Board Member Kirsten Powers, New York City Councilman Brad Lander, Gloria Steinem, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women founder Dorchen Leidholdt, Polaris Project or any of these NGOs, attorney generals from 46 states,  Alicia Keys, The Roots, Talib Kweli and members of REM, or the 245,982 Change.org petitioners who think shutting down Backpage.com is anything more than a royal waste of time  that could be better spent figuring out how to make the internet a safter place for sex trafficking victims and prostitutes alike.

My argument starts with suicide.

About every two weeks, someone jumps off Golden Gate Bridge.

It’s less than one in a million people, but it’s enough to make Golden Gate Bridge the most popular suicide destination on the planet.

The Empire State Building, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Eiffel Tower and a volcano in Japan were hot spots too until they put up barriers and saw the number of jumpers plummet.

But not Golden Gate Bridge. They refuse to put up barriers, fences, safety nets, high-voltage laser beams or anything else that will ruin the view.

They cite non-physical barriers like the blue suicide hotline phones scattered across the bridge, or Officer Kevin Briggs, a motorcycle cop who’s talked down over 200 people without losing one over the side.

“The bridge is about beauty,” Officer Briggs told The New Yorker. “They’re going to jump anyway, and you can’t stop them.”

The suicide threat could be eliminated by simply tearing the bridge down. And if that sounds like a ridiculous idea, it’s exactly how we’re fighting sex trafficking online.

Our bridge is Backpage.com, a site for classified ads run by Village Voice Media. They have ads for rentals, jobs, automobiles and prostitutes.

The problem is, some of those ads are not exactly as advertised. They are posted by criminals to advertise minors and victims of sex trafficking.

How many victims is impossible to know, but one statistic that has made its rounds in the media comes from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which reported 2,695 suspicious ads in 2011 alone.

The problem is, there are so many ads on Backpage for escorts, escorts with pimps, escorts with agencies, male escorts, transexuals, strippers and strip clubs, dom and fetish, body rubs, and “adult jobs” – those are actual categories – that it’s making it hard to find the victims.

How many ads, Village Voice isn’t saying, but one NGO called Polaris Project (using a ridiculously analog strategy) “manually counted the number of adult ads on Backpage on a few different days this year and came up with 14,000 to 19,000 ads.”

So let’s have some fun with numbers. If we assume 14,000 adult ads a day on Backpage, times 365 days a year, divided by 2,695 suspicious ads, we’re looking at something like 1/20 of a percent of the ads might be advertising something that shouldn’t be for sale.

Granted, this is a guestimate based on other guestimates. We don’t actually know how many ads are for victims, but one online trafficking researcher told me it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

This does not diminish the problem of online sex trafficking – but it informs how we should be fighting it.

So how do you find a needle in a haystack?

Spread the hay around to farms all across the planet, then look for the needle.
Get a magnet.
The anti-sex trafficking movement, with the support of attorney generals from 46 states, a long list of NGO’s and religious leaders, 245,982 Change.org petitioners, plus Ashton and Demi, Alicia Keys, The Roots, Talib Kweli and members of REM, says shut down Backpage.com. In other words, spread the hay.

Even Google thinks this is a good idea, indirectly at least. They just donated a bunch of money to anti-Backpage NGO Polaris Project.

(Several people, including a former Polaris Project employee, say I have unfairly characterized Polaris Project as anti-Backpage, but they are. Take a look at this interview with Executive Director Bradley Myles or this open letter to the Village Voice calling for Backpage to shut down.)

Village Voice, for their part, refuses to shut down Backpage.com.  They say it will just spread the ads over other websites and make it even harder to find the victims.

They should know – they were direct beneficiaries when Craigslist shut down their Erotic Ads section in 2009. SF Weekly saw a 569% increase in adult ads in the first week alone.

So they’ve been busy making Backpage safer.

Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon says:

All adult ad postings on Backpage require a credit card number, which can be subpoenaed by law enforcement.
An automated filter system precludes ads with suspect words and phrases.
Real-life human beings manually review all as for the adult and personal sections before they’re posted…. twice.
Ads that might be for minors are reported immediately to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Village Voice says we should be building barriers instead of burning bridges.

The anti-sex trafficking movement says they’re just saying that to protect their profits.

Kirsten Powers, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, writes in The Daily Beast that Backpage knows “they are helping sex traffickers sell kidnapped girls, and they don’t care.”

After all,” Powers writes, “Do American Apparel, Best Buy, Disney, H&M, IKEA, REI, T-Mobile and so many more mainstream companies want to be associated with sex slavery?  Unless they pull their ads from Village Voice Media’s properties, which serve nearly 400 markets, they are complicit in the buying and selling of kidnapped women and girls.”

Ashton puts it down in less than 140 characters: “Hey @disney @dominos are you aware that you are advertising on a site that owns and operates a digital brothel?”

Brad Lander on the NY City Council says, “The Village Voice should do the right thing and stop profiting from sex trafficking.”

You know who else is profiting?

Goldman Sachs, or at least they were till Nick Kristof at The New York Times revealed that “Goldman’s held a significant stake in a company notorious for ties to sex trafficking for more than six years.” Goldman unloaded their shares the next day.

Kristof was at least explicit about why he used his New York Times op-ed column and 1.2 million Twitter followers against Goldman: “To pressure Village Voice Media to get out of escort ads.”

But Village Voice is profiting mostly from sex ads, not sex trafficking. As in 99.95% mostly, according to our earlier guestimate.

So by shutting down Backpage, are we trying to stop sex trafficking or sex advertising?

For the anti-sex trafficking movement, it’s all the same.

That’s because they believe, “If there were no prostitution, there would be no sex trafficking.”

(I’m not making that up – it’s a direct quote from Taina Bien-Aime at anti-Backpage NGO EqualityNow, at a 2008 talk with Gloria Steinem. It’s a long talk; see 1:16:00.)

If there were no bridges, nobody could jump off of them.

See, they say they want to end sex trafficking, a cause every single one of us should get behind, but their strategy to get there is to abolish prostitution from the face of the internet.

They even call themselves the abolitionists. They believe prostitution (and pornography for that matter) is inherently harmful to women, so we should get rid of it.

In fact, some of the leaders of the war on Backpage are the same women who fought to make porn illegal in the 70’s. Gloria Steinem. Dorchen Leidholdt.

They lost that battle to free speech, but that was before the internet, when there were less than 90 porn publications in the entire country.

Maybe the same strategy will work now, on the internet.

Do Kirsten Powers, Nick Kristof, attorney generals from 46 states, a long list of NGO’s and religious leaders, 245,982 Change.org petitioners, Ashton and Demi, Alicia Keys, The Roots, Talib Kweli and members of REM have any idea how much internet is out there?

Because after we shut down Backpage, we’re going to have to go back to Craigslist, because the sex ads are back!

They’re just popping up in different sections, with code words like roses as in this m4m ad in Casual Encounters, “I wanna suck a dik for some roses” as if we won’t know what they’re talking about:

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