Nicholas Kristof says, “The biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-age girls in the United States appears to be a Web site called Backpage.com.” Not exactly sure why he can say that; but I’ll let him continue for now, because he’s hell-bent on getting to the financial bottom of things:
This emporium for girls and women — some under age or forced into prostitution — is in turn owned by an opaque private company called Village Voice Media. Until now it has been unclear who the ultimate owners are.
That mystery is solved. The owners turn out to include private equity financiers, including Goldman Sachs with a 16 percent stake.
Goldman Sachs was mortified when I began inquiring last week about its stake in America’s leading Web site for prostitution ads. It began working frantically to unload its shares, and on Friday afternoon it called to say that it had just signed an agreement to sell its stake to management.
After more discourse on the corporate side, and discussion on legal action designed to make BackPage and therefore Village Voice Media more accountable (put a pin in this point for now), Kristof gets back to what I think he believes is his point:
I think the most important single step is for prosecutors to focus more on pimps and johns. Closing down the leading Web site used by traffickers would complicate their lives, and after so many years of girls being trafficked on this site, it’s time to hold owners accountable.
Closing down “the leading website used by traffickers” might complicate the lives of those using sex slaves; as may the legislation (whether you think it has too many loop-holes or is unfair to legitimate businesses in the adult sector). But that’s a pretty ignorant view of how sex trafficking works.
Most johns and hobbiests aren’t into sex slaves. These guys are completely different animals than sex slave users and owners. If you knew anything about how marketing works, you’d know that your typical seeker of sex services is going to be freaked to find himself in the presence of a sex slave. There aren’t ads for “sex slaves” or “trafficked women” or “underage girls.” There he is, meeting the woman he thought promised anal sex and maybe a swing from a chandelier, and what the hell! There’s a crying girl, a minor, an abused woman there… Perhaps too drugged to even speak. Not only is he feeling ripped-off, but there’s vomit in the back of his throat and perhaps tears in his own eyes… But how is he going to report it? Just saying you were shopping for sex makes you a criminal. That’s problem number one in shutting down sex trafficking: The fact that sex work is a crime and therefore holds every participant, willing or not, hostage.
Going after BackPage or any other publication for doing big business in adult entertainment isn’t going to solve that problem.
Nor does the largest sales volume in prostitution ads mean that’s where the biggest number of sex slaves can be found. The sex slave trade is an underground business. A silent business, unless you know where to look… Unless you know a guy who knows a guy. It’s like child porn not being a part of the regular porn business. Saying, “Where the legal and consensual sex is, that’s where the illegal sex slave stuff is,” is like saying that the local gas station with the most cigarette sales must also sell the most pot. Yes, the criminal stuff is out there, but it’s not a part of the regular business dealings.
What all these attempts to root-out sex slavery are doing is harming legitimate adult work. Not just those consenting to prostitution, but those who provide completely legal sex services, such as phone sex and erotica. Many of these folks are already vulnerable in our society, from the criminally penalized and abused by the system escorts to the struggling woman trying to pay the bills. If BackPage has the reported 70% of the revenue from “prostitution and body rubs” ~ generating at least $2.6 million from in 23 U.S. cities ~ where are all those business folks going to place their ads?
They might be forced out of business; but the sex traffickers won’t.
This is what happens when folks with little-to-no experience with the realities of sex work try to solve the problem of sex trafficking. While we all admire the sincere effort, they just don’t know what they are dealing with. It would be better to have those with sex work experience assist in the solutions. But, again, until sex work is at least decriminalized, that can’t really happen. Only then can we begin to discuss the possibility of accepting that there are women not only willing but eager “to be gagged, choked, and ‘triple penetrated’ on camera”, or off; for pay, or for free. We must learn how to separate sex-loving women from the professional sex workers, those who choose sex work from the victims of sex slavery. Accurately identifying them, the folks who use and abuse them, is the first step in saving them.
Kristof invites comments on this subject at this post at his official blog, where you will find many well-educated in the subject voicing concerns.