THE BLOG
12/01/2010 04:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Deception in Advertising: Local Sex Ads and Human Trafficking Victims

In the fall of 2005, the New York Historical Society debuted "Slavery in New York," an exhibit on New York's often forgotten history of legalized slavery. Slavery was officially abolished in New York in 1827; unfortunately evidence suggests that contemporary forms of slavery continue to persist in the heart of the big apple. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof discussed his interview with a Chinese college graduate who claimed she was smuggled into New York with hopes of utilizing her accounting degree. Instead, upon her arrival she was forced into prostitution in a Midtown Manhattan brothel.

Anti-human trafficking advocates say that explicit advertisements in many of New York City's local publications fuel brothels like the one discussed in Kristof's article. Advocates say that the ads function as the marketing arm of sex traffickers. It is alleged that back of book ads for unlicensed massage parlors, and escort services, are actually advertisements for forced prostitution rings.

Many of the same law enforcement officials and advocates who were at the head of the campaign against Craigslist's adult services section have asked Village Voice Media to stop running explicit ads. The owner of The Village Voice and Backpage.com, Village Voice Media, has adamantly refused to strike the adult advertisement sections from its publications and websites. In a statement released in September, the organization said that "censorship will not create public safety nor will it rid the world of exploitation." The organization claims to cooperate willingly with authorities when asked to supply information regarding the alleged prostitution of minors. But the victims of sex trafficking are not always children. According to the U.S Department of State, sex trafficking is the most common form of domestic trafficking for both adults and children. Domestic trafficking is the trafficking of U.S citizens within the United States.

In September, a Missouri teenager sued Village Voice Media for knowingly allowing her pimp to place several advertisements for her on Backpage.com. Referred to in the suit as M.A., the child trafficking victim says the company had reason to suspect that the pornographic photos of her posted on its website were illegal, but "failed to investigate for fear of what it would learn." Suits like M.A.'s are difficult for plaintiffs to win, because websites where content can be posted by users are usually protected from liability by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. According to AIMGroup.com, an interactive media and classified advertising consulting service, "the ads on Backpage.com are considerably more graphic and explicit than Craigslist ads." At $5 per ad AIMGroup.com claims that Village Voice Media will generate $17.5 million from adult advertisements this year.

Organizations like the National Organization for Women in New York City (NOW-NYC), which lead a campaign against explicit ads in local NYC publications in 2007, say that media organizations are willing to turn a blind eye in order to increase revenue. While explicit ads on Backpage.com and other websites are offered at low cost or for free, ads in physical publications can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

"It's not just an individual who can afford these ads," said Jean Bucaria, Deputy Director of NOW-NYC. In an effort to combat the ads' impact upon human trafficking victims, NOW-NYC created a pledge and approached local publications; asking them to commit to being trafficking free. The advocacy group asked publications not to accept advertisements from escort service or ads from businesses claiming to be massage parlors that could not provide a massage therapy license from the State of New York.

Several of the publications that agreed to sign NOW-NYC's pledge did not have a history of running explicit ads. But the organization says that New York Magazine stopped running explicit ads shortly after NOW-NYC announced a boycott outside of the company's headquarters. Prior to stopping the ads, New York Magazine published an article on child prostitution and the enactment of New York State's Safe Harbor law, which aids and protects child sex trafficking victims. The article was published in April of 2007, seven months before the magazine seemingly bowed to public pressure and stopped running explicit ads. New York Magazine did not respond to a request for comment. According to NOW-NYC, El Diario stopped accepting massage parlor ads without license numbers after speaking with the organization. At that time, the Spanish language newspaper continued to run other sexually explicit advertisements.

Not all of NOW-NYC's efforts produced the results that they might have hoped for, but according to Bucaria, the process was important nonetheless. "One positive thing about the campaign was the educational value, and the information about trafficking that was put out to the City.'