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Escort Ads, Sex Slaves and Four Dead Women

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Four dead young women, leaving a total of six motherless children. Found dead in the same Detroit neighborhood under horrible circumstances -- two in the trunk of a brand new car belonging to one of them, two found on Christmas morning in the trunk of a 1997 Buick, burned beyond recognition. And three linked to escort service ads on Backpage.com.

News stories like this make me sick at heart. The young victims of these crimes could have been Covenant House kids, many of whom have survived being prostituted, advertised like used furniture through Internet sites, to be sexually exploited, usually for someone else's profit. But these four young women were older than the young people we serve, and, from news accounts, had more stable jobs and family lives. Our kids, overall, are even more vulnerable to meeting violent ends than these women were.

Maybe you could wax philosophical and say lessons will be learned from these murders, which police believe are connected. But the sad thing is, they're lessons we already know, but haven't, as a society, been willing to act on.

Prostitution is dangerous, often deadly. According to Canadian figures, women who have been prostituted have a 40 times higher mortality rate than other women. As seen in our own backyard here in New York, a serial killer is believed to have targeted at least four sex workers who had advertised on Craigslist, dumping their bodies, and seven others, on or near Jones Beach Island on Long Island. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer in Washington state, killed at least 48 women, and Willie Pickton, a pig farmer from near Vancouver, British Columbia, who confessed in 2007 to killing 49 women. These notorious serial killers targeted prostitutes specifically because they knew no one would be looking for them.

Pimps and johns are not the ones who suffer in the sex trade. Prostituted people are far more likely to get arrested, go to jail, be killed, or become infected with diseases, compared to the people who use them. The Nordic Model of legislation, adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Philippines and South Korea, is worth pursuing. It makes the purchase of sex a crime, so johns end up in trouble, not prostituted people. The laws reduced the demand for commercial sex, and in Sweden, have reduced the number of women in prostitution from 2,500 to 1,500 during the first three years. It recognizes that the human rights of prostituted people are far too often abused, and it punishes people who exploit other people's bodies, instead of punishing the exploited people a second time, as our system too often does.

Every prostituted person under 18 is a trafficking victim, and a rape victim. You can't give consent if you haven't reached the age of consent. Sex without consent is rape. And minors who are prostituted are automatically considered human trafficking victims, under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The act also considers adults to be trafficking victims if they are made to engage in a commercial sex act through "force, fraud, coercion" or any combination of the three.

Pimping people online can be a federal crime. Trafficking is a federal crime, and actions amounting to federal crimes are not protected by the Communications Decency Act, which otherwise protects Internet services from being liable for the material other people post through them on the Internet. The CDA does not apply to state or local crimes, like prostitution, but trafficking is a more serious offense. If Google can get in huge trouble for advertising Canadian pharmaceuticals on its site, how can Backpage.com be allowed to sell sex with underage girls?

The easier it is to prostitute someone, the more people will become victims of trafficking. We salute Craigslist.com, formerly the most active online site for adult services ads, for taking down those ads, foregoing millions of dollars in expected revenue. Faced with pressure from 17 attorneys general and Congress, Craigslist officials recognized the value of doing the right thing.

"A big part of the problem with Craigslist, we believe it actually increased the number of women being put into prostitution," said Ken Franzblau, director of the anti-trafficking program at the women's rights NGO Equality Now. It makes sense -- the more normal you can feel while searching for a girl to be your sex slave, the more likely you are to do just that.

Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights in Washington, who, with the help of two young victims, lobbied Congress and spearheaded the fight against Craigslist, said Craigslist's decision helped people understand that child sexual exploitation occurs in our own neighborhoods, and must be stopped.

"It is significant that it is less convenient, less legitimate, less accessible and normative to buy a girl for sex than it is to purchase a couch," she said.

On Craigslist at least. Unfortunately, Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, refuses to take down its ads for escorts and body rubs, which now account for two thirds of all prostitution advertising on the web, and brought in $2.1 million in revenue in November, according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group. All 51 attorneys general have asked Backpage.com to stop its sexual advertising, but it has refused.

According to an August letter from the attorneys general to Backpage.com, the company estimates it identified more than 400 adult services posts every month that may involve minors.

Four days after the second bodies were discovered in Detroit, Backpage.com, which has cooperated with the police investigation, announced it had given police information about 70 escort ads appearing in 22 different sites related to the case.

"We are not aware of any evidence that would indicate which of these 22 websites may have been used by the suspect to establish contact with his victims," the company's attorney, Steve Suskin, wrote. (Some Backpage.com users have complained that other websites post Backpage ads as their own, and leave them online indefinitely.)

For those of you who, like me, aren't usually convinced when one of my kids argues, "but everyone else is doing it," at least one influential elected official holds that Backpage is worse than its peers.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn pulled all the city's ads from the Seattle Weekly, owned by Village Voice Media, until Backpage.com and the Weekly agreed to require age verification with a photo ID for every ad placed. He calls Backpage.com "a well-known accelerant of underage sex trafficking."

"Since the beginning of 2010, 22 kids advertised on Backpage.com were recovered by the Seattle Police Department," he wrote last July. "No juveniles were discovered on any other sites in that time - that includes ads on craigslist, The Stranger, and other adult sites. The problem is specific to Backpage.com."

To be sure, Backpage has forbidden people to edit their ads inappropriately, a common technique to get past monitors, and it aims to review all ads within 20 minutes of uploading. It also created a process for public users to report illegal postings, and it forwards questionable ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C. (It reported 1,600 such ads to the group, according to its president.)

But policing the underbelly of the web is difficult, and nudity and pictures of very young-looking women continue to show up on the site, even though its rules prohibits them.

Change.org has a petition, signed by more than 80,000 people so far, to ask Backpage.com to take down its erotic ads. Religious leaders, in a full-page ad in The New York Times called on the company to stop posting the ads.

Backpage.com has discussed its rights to free speech, and rights to free commerce; according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, it sold $24.3 million in escort and body rub ads in the last year. As for free speech, Rob McKenna, Washington State's attorney general, who spearheaded the pressure from his peers on both Craigslist and Backpage, put it clearly: "Free speech does not extend to the knowing facilitation of criminal activity," he said. "This is not just about children being prostituted, this is about human beings being trafficked into the sex trades, as adults and as children."

If Backpage.com can't monitor its ads carefully enough to keep nudity out of its ads, how can anyone believe that it can keep underage people from being offered up for sale? How can it know that it isn't advertising trafficked people, those who are selling their bodies as a result of fraud or coercion? It can't. It should cease and desist. Today. Before another person affiliated with it -- someone's child, someone's mother -- shows up dead in a trunk in Detroit.