This is a historic week for the movement to end trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation! On Jan. 9, Backpage.com, a website notorious for its facilitation of prostitution and sex trafficking finally shut down the “adult” sexual services advertising section of its website.
The website, which Polaris Project calls “the world’s top online brothel,” removed the prostitution ads section only hours after a scathing U.S. Senate report concluded that the website was the “largest commercial sex services advertising platform in the United States.” The Senate report also noted that “Backpage officials have publicly acknowledged that criminals use the website for sex trafficking, including trafficking of minors.”
This has been a very long battle for those in the movement to combat sex trafficking and we’re excited to see this amazing breakthrough come to fruition.
Backpage.com was developed 13 years ago to compete with Craigslist, the nation’s largest online classified ad platform. The site offers ads in 600 cities and 90 countries. In 2013, of the nearly $45 million generated annually by prostitution-based online advertising, Backpage.com accounted for 82 percent of the overall revenue. Backpage was now the leading publisher of these types of ads.
Over the years, thousands of people—including children—have been exploited for sex by pimps and traffickers via the website’s’ advertising platform.
The Senate report concludes that not only was the site hosting ads for domestic minor sex trafficking victims, but it was also actively concealing it. The report alleges Backpage.com President Carl Ferrer knew his company tasked employees to delete words such as “Lolita,” “rape,” “Amber Alert,” “fresh,” and “school girl” from listings.
Spokespeople for Backpage.com have tried to spin the story to one of government censorship and a violation of First Amendment rights. However, that argument holds little weight in the face of evidence showing the extreme harm that the site has caused to countless victims.
What some fail to realize is that the rights of free speech are not unlimited.
When people are put in a clear and present danger, the government has the right to intervene to limit or stop that kind of speech. The prohibition of child pornography and the censoring of hate speech are but two examples of when the government has exercised the right to intervene when necessary.
Many sex trafficking survivor leaders have come out against Backpage.com, pointing to the role that it played in aiding their exploitation and abuse.
“This is a monumental time in history,” says our friend Rebecca Bender, a sex trafficking survivor and CEO of the Rebecca Bender Initiative. “What Backpage has done, by knowingly allowing online ads of children, is not a matter of censorship; it is an organized company using an online avenue to conduct criminal activity and finally that avenue has been brought to the light. Now we must fight, we must call our senators and attorney generals and rally for prosecution. The fight to hold companies accountable is just beginning.”
Exodus Cry’s Efforts to Reach Women on Backpage
Beginning in 2013, Exodus Cry’s own Intervention Team used Backpage, among other sites, to locate and contact trafficking victims and those caught in the commercial sex industry. We found this to be a very useful way to gain immediate contact with those exploited, and sometimes we’d get an immediate text back wanting help.
“In the last few years we’ve seen the internet become the world’s largest brothel network and within that, Backpage became its largest mega-brothel,” says Helen Taylor, Exodus Cry’s Director of Intervention.
“Although Backpage provided an immediate way for us to reach out to exploited individuals, we celebrate the closure of its adult section. A battle was won with Backpage but the war is far from over as many other websites still sell women for sex. So until then we will continue to reach out to women exploited through the sex trade, while still advocating for sites that facilitate trafficking, such as Backpage, to be held accountable for their knowing complicity and receive due penalty for their actions.”
We recently wrote our in-depth Intervention Manual on how to reach individuals in the sex trade, including a section detailing online outreach methods. It’s our hope that many would be trained and equipped to offer a way out of the sex industry to the countless lives who are trapped.
Although other sites for advertising illicit sex still litter the internet, this Backpage closure is truly a giant step forward in fighting for a world without trafficking and the sale of our society’s most vulnerable ones. We invite you to join in the fight as the battle continues!
If you’re interested in getting a copy of Exodus Cry’s Intervention Manual Kit, email [email protected]
A version of this article also appears on Charisma News here.