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Will shutting down Backpage.com end the scourge of child sex trafficking in America?

by Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco | @MehlmanOrozco | Human trafficking expert
Tuesday, 30 May 2017 15:45 GMT

A still image from documentary film "I Am Jane Doe," to be released in U.S. theaters on Feb. 10, 2017 (Courtesy 50 Eggs, Inc.)

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sometimes it is better the devil you know than the one you don't

You might have heard about Backpage.com -- the classified advertisement website embroiled in a white-hot debate about sex trafficking online. For the last seven years, sex workers and sex traffickers have posted advertisements on the escort, adult, and dating sections of the website, prompting a slew of litigation and legislative proposals. Anti-trafficking advocates, law enforcement, and legislators opine that holding Backpage liable for the advertisements will reduce the incidence of sex trafficking; while others contend that these type of actions would infringe on the first amendment protections of websites and more importantly, simply result in a displacement effect.

The potential for displacing the advertisements is what raises considerable concern for anti-trafficking researchers like me. 

While you may have heard about Backpage.com, you are probably unaware of the numerous other commercial sex forums currently in operation. For my forthcoming book, Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium, I conducted interviews with commercial sex consumers and analyzed  thousands of commercial sex advertisements and reviews online in an effort to take readers behind the headlines of the sex trafficking scourge in the United States. 

I learned about Preferred411.com aka P411 from a commercial sex consumer who claimed to patronize sex workers after his wife contracted cancer and lost her sex drive during chemotherapy. This man told me that we was a PhD educated economist and he described using the website because it was an escort screening service for "discreet experiences in upscale adult companionship." 

I first became aware of AlwaysOnTheHunt.com after a commercial sex consumer posted on USASexGuide.info, another commercial sex review forum, that the site included threads where men provided "cookbook instructions for stealthing" (removal of a condom mid-coitus) and "raping passed-out women." There isn't a single media report on this website and law enforcement is also likely unaware, considering that access is restricted though peer referral and vetting.

In their description of the commercial sex advertisements and reviews of services from another website called Humaniplex.com aka HX, men again describe "stealthing," which is a form of rape, as well as procuring sexual services from women covered in bruises or with prominent track marks from intravenous drug use. Once more, there is little to no media coverage on this website as well. 

These are the type of websites where the Backpage.com advertisements could be displaced if legislators, law enforcement, and anti-trafficking advocates continue their crusade. Some are hosted offshore and therefore potentially out of the reach of American-based law enforcement. Others will be likely less cooperative than Backpage.com administrators in sex trafficking investigations by law enforcement.

Outward facing, the people and organizations vilifying Backpage.com allege that holding them liable will combat advertisements for the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children on the Internet. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. Instead, there will likely be a displacement effect, which has happened already on two separate occasions. 

First, when Craigslist.org shuttered the adult section of its classified advertisement website in 2010, the commercial sex advertisements were displaced to Backpage.com.  Second, when Backpage.com shuttered its own adult section earlier this year, the advertisements were simply displaced to the dating section of the website. 

While it is very easy to disparage Backpage.com when children are found being sold for sex on their website, the reality is that their advertisements have been used as the catalyst for rescues and investigations across the United States. In addition, they actively cooperate with police. Instead of trying to hold the website civilly and/or criminally liable for the crimes committed by third parties, it is imperative to facilitate information sharing and cooperation between Backpage.com and law enforcement. This type of collaboration is necessary to ensure the already clandestine crime of sex trafficking isn't pushed further underground. 

Sometimes it is better the devil you know than the one you don't.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, Ph.D. 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 fall. 

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