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Malika Saada Saar

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The Internet, Backpage, Child Trafficking, Congress -- and Our Responsibility to Vulnerable Children

Posted: 07/10/2012 2:00 pm

The day that Craigslist shut down its adult services section, I got a call from a mother whose daughter was still under the control of a trafficker. "You did it" she said. "The pimps are losing their minds because they can't put the girls up on the site anymore. They don't know what to do."

For a period of time, it did feel as if we had won. I worked with a powerful constellation of the Attorneys General, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, anti-trafficking organizations, the media, and most importantly survivors, to shine the light on how Craigslist was the go-to site for child sex trafficking.

Many folks criticized those of us who fought so hard for the shut down. We were told that shutting down these ads would not end child sex trafficking, and that the ads would simply migrate to another site.

Two years later, Backpage.com is now that other site. At present, it makes up 80 percent of all online prostitution ad revenue.

Were folks right, then, that the Craigslist sex ads shutdown would not do anything to curb child trafficking and exploitation in the U.S.? Are they right now in saying that it is useless to go after Backpage?

No, they are not. The ads did migrate to Backpage, but not in the same numbers. We knew that when the iconic, respected Craigslist got out of the business of child sex trafficking, so too would many of the buyers. In fact, after Craigslist shut down its adult services section, a study revealed that the site's closure precipitated a 48 percent drop in the overall volume of prostitution ads online.

And the success of the Craigslist shutdown also signaled to survivors and victims of trafficking that their lives were valued. The girls who dared to speak out against how they were sold off of Craigslist were finally heard by a larger public that rarely sees or listens to these hurt girls.

This is exactly why Backpage cannot be allowed to continue to profit from child sex trafficking. We must go after Backpage because no website should be allowed to rely on people selling children for sex for its business model. In just a 12 month period, Backpage has generated almost $27 million in revenue from online prostitution advertising.

And we must go after Backpage because purchasing a child for sex should never be as easy, convenient and acceptable as ordering up a pizza. As long as mainstream -- and not the salacious and marginalized -- websites like Craigslist before and now Backpage are used to exploit children, demand for a 14-year-old girl for sex will be normalized.

On Thursday July 12th, there will a Congressional briefing hosted by Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) and the Victims Rights Caucus on child trafficking and the Internet. Human Rights Project for Girls, Ernie Allen from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as representatives from the law enforcement and tech industry will be participating. Certainly those of us from human rights and children organizations will raise the issue of how Backpage is playing a dangerous role in the trafficking of very vulnerable children.

Yes, if Backpage's sex ads close down tomorrow, child sex trafficking will still continue. But a business model that unapologetically relies on the selling of children for profit will have been dismantled -- as well as the legitimization of very young girls' bodies being bought and sold for sex.

And that is worth fighting for. Because, whether we want to admit it or not, our daughters are the new commodity that gangs and organized crime are now selling. The girl trade has replaced the drug trade.

Sadly, these girls are among the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children who are vulnerable to being sold for sex by traffickers every year in the United States, according to the Department of Justice. And, astonishingly, the average age of a prostituted girl in the U.S. is 12-14 years old.

We can obfuscate the dirty little secret in America that girls are being sold for sex. We can make ourselves feel comfortable by talking about the girls who are prostituted in India and Thailand as victims of sex trafficking, but cast aside the girls sold off of Backpage as hookers or just bad girls. We can minimize the ugly business of commercial sexual exploitation of both women and girls as just escort services. And we can talk about the first amendment and the Internet, rather than the human rights issue of American children propertied and sold for sex.

Or, we can start asking the very difficult question of why in 21st century America, is any girl for sale, and off of a legitimate website like Backpage?

 

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