But that doesn’t mean we should burn the bridge
By Julie Ruvolo; edited by Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
When waging war, strategy is as important as blunt force. The war on human trafficking is one that has reached beyond the borders of the physical world and, in this technological age, must also be waged on the Internet. While we all share the goal of putting an end to human trafficking, some fighters in the battle online feel that the best course of action is to shut down the sites that lend themselves to traffickers means, while others feel such sites offer an opportunity to combat the enemy from within.
Digital anthropologist Julie Ruvolo has argued for the latter position in articles she has written for Forbes and TechCrunch. When the adult section of online classified site Craigslist was taken down and a similar site, Backpage, was under fire for the role it unintentionally played in the trafficking of persons, Ruvolo contended the following:
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.
[Backpage has] 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.
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.)
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 R.E.M. 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: If you search for “roses” in Craigslist’s Casual Encounters section you’ll find over 14,000 ads.
So we should really shut down all of Craiglist this time, because who’s saying where the roses will pop up next? The Gardening section?
Then let’s shut down all the other sites for sex ads, like AdultSearch, MyRedbook and Eros.com.
Next should probably take a look at AdultFriendFinder, “The world’s largest sex dating site,” with over 40 million members. You’re going to tell me all these women are giving it away for free?
The college kids are doing it, too, so we’re going to have to shut down SeekingArrangement, a dating site that has signed up over 100,000 college women looking for sugar daddies. Top 10 universities (as verified by their .edu address) include NYU, UCLA and even Harvard, according to Huffington Post reporter Amanda Fairbanks.
I have bad news for you, because we’re also going to have to shut down Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YellowPages.com and About.com because a research group found sex ads on all of these sites, too.
But wait, there’s more Internet!
The deep web is one of them, and it makes Backpage look like Disneyland. There are marketplaces for drugs, chemicals, assassins and enough child pornography to make you lose your faith in humanity.
How are we going to build any barriers if we keep looking for bridges to burn?
It turns out the anti-sex trafficking movement is deeply divided. As in Montague-and-Capulet divided. As in pro-choice-and-pro-life-divided.
Not between pro-traffickers and anti-traffickers; we’re all on the same side here. The divide is digital, between those who fear technology and those who want to embrace it.
I sat down with Liz McDougall, General Counsel for Village Voice Media [former parent company of Backpage], and asked her to disclose Internal data about their adult ad business and the measures they’re taking to detect ads for victims of sex trafficking.
It’s much ado about (statistically) nothing.
Backpage publishes about 3.2 million classified ads a month in dozens of countries and hundreds of categories.
About 1/25 of 1 percent (.04 percent) of the ads Backpage removes from its site on a monthly basis are suspected of advertising a minor for sexual services, a number that represents 1/100 of one percent (.01 percent) of its monthly ad volume.
Backpage’s critics maintain that a lot of the ads – and sex traffickers – will just go away if Backpage shuts down.
McDougall, for her part, is adamant that shutting down adult ads on Backpage will push the adult ad business underground and offshore, “and we are going to lose those kids and we are going to lose prosecutions.”
Can we use the best available technology to fight one of the most deplorable crimes on the planet?
We just might be able to figure out how to make the Internet a safer place for victims of sex trafficking.
Julie Ruvolo’s articles can be read in full online. “Sex, Lies and Suicide: What’s Wrong with the War on Sex Trafficking” was originally presented as a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum called “The Other Problem with Sex Trafficking” at NYU Skirball Center on June 12, 2012 and then appeared on Forbes.com June 26, 2012. “Sex Trafficking on Backpage.com: Much Ado about (Statistically) Nothing” appeared on TechCrunch.com Oct. 6, 2012.
Contact Julie by email at
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jruv.