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Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson

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Why the Village Voice Must Shut Down Backpage.com's Adult Section

Posted: 03/28/2012 3:31 pm

Meet Alissa. At 16, she was picked up by a pimp and began to be sold for sex repeatedly up and down the Eastern seaboard. Sold from pimp to pimp over the course of a few years, she once even had her cheek gouged with a potato peeler as a warning not to escape.

Alissa's horror story, made public recently in the New York Times by columnist Nicholas Kristof, should shock us all into action to end sex trafficking of teens and children happening right here in America.

She could have been my daughter. They could have been any of our daughters.

Now, her pimps are in jail and Alissa is studying for a college degree. But the executives who run a website on which Alissa was advertised -- Village Voice Media's Backpage.com -- sit in their offices, maintaining that their business, which made money connecting these girls' buyers and sellers, is legal and argue they have implemented sufficient safeguards to protect other kids from being advertised on the site.

But society does not weigh actions just on legality, and Village Voice should not either. It has a responsibility to behave morally.

My experience tells of a world that is not simply drawn in shades of black and white, and of ethical choices that are not always clear-cut.

Except on those rare occasions when they are. The sale of girls and boys for sex -- and profiting off of these kids by any means -- is one of those occasions. Last year, Village Voice was estimated to have earned more than $20 million from the adult section of its website, where this activity takes place. Some of those revenues were from advertisements of girls like Alissa, who were living a nightmare.

Given that Village Voice Media appears to understand that minors are trafficked via its website Backpage.com, it is all the more shocking that they continue to operate it. The trafficking of minors via Backpage.com has been copiously documented. In August of this year, 51 of the nation's Attorneys General stated, in a letter to Village Voice, that they had tracked more than 50 cases, in 22 states, of the sex trafficking of minors. And these were only the cases that were prosecuted or made it into the media.

Called upon to act by a multifaith clergy coalition of hundreds of rabbis, ministers, imams, priests, and other religious and moral leaders, Village Voice has claimed that this issue is "complicated" -- but, frankly, it is not complicated. Forcing anyone to sell his or her body for sex is illegal. But when the body being sold is that of a minor, we add horrifying to illegal.

It is true and commendable that Village Voice has implemented some safeguards to try to prevent the sale of minors on its website. But, as the 51 Attorneys General and countless advocates have stated, these safeguards cannot guarantee that no kids will be sold for sex on the site. And one child sold for sex is one too many.

Village Voice Media has claimed protection under the First Amendment. As a religious leader, a person of faith and a mother, I simply cannot accept that there is a world in which we have to choose between free speech and protecting our children.

Further, the First Amendment does not extend to sex trafficking. Village Voice Media is providing a platform for others' criminal activity and that is beyond free speech. Regardless of the law, religious leaders must decry injustice.

There are many factors that can contribute to the prostitution of minors. Many of these boys and girls are runaways. Some are LGBTQ youth who have been kicked out of their homes. Others have drug abuse in the home.

Each of these stories is a horror unto itself, and each requires our attention -- but none of these factors should be used as an excuse to dodge the immediate need for Village Voice to act, right now. While Village Voice delays and argues, one more girl, one more boy, is likely led into a motel room and told to perform.

Perhaps the adults at Village Voice need to hear the kinds of stories I've heard, or see girls and boys try to reassemble their lives and psyches in rehabilitation homes. Perhaps, like the friend who drew me to this urgent cause, they should go shopping for the survivors -- pick up schools supplies or clothes.

"Do you know when I really understood that these survivors were children?" my friend asked me one day. "When I could not find shoes to fit them in the adult section."

In an age of increasing complexity, this one is simple. All children are our children. They are made in the image of God. We have an obligation to protect them. For the sake of these children, Village Voice must act.

This post has been updated since its original publication.