I realize few people care that Backpage, a website used by sex workers to advertise their services, has closed its adult ads section — especially when unsubstantiated reports are clogging the airways about our president-elect cavorting with prostitutes in Russian hotel rooms and making contact with Putin operatives during his campaign. But I can’t let a New York Times columnist continue to play fast and loose with the facts about Backpage. After all, what makes Nicholas Kristof any better than Trump when he omits key facts about an ongoing controversy?
In his column today, Kristof wrote that California’s attorney general “filed criminal charges in December against Backpage executives, with arraignment scheduled for this month.” What Kristof neglected to mention is that a federal judge in California cleared the same three Backpage executives of pimping and other charges earlier the same month, a ruling that I reported on here. In striking down the felony charges, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman argued that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects Backpage and other online sites from libelous or controversial content posted by third parties.
The charges that Kristof mention in his column refer to a new set of accusations then California Attorney General Kamala Harris leveled against Backpage executives for money laundering and pimping. According to the Sacramento Bee, the executives are due back in court January 24 to be arraigned on these new allegations. What I don’t get is how California prosecutors hope to make the latest allegations stick when they sound awfully similar to the charges that a federal court judge summarily dismissed December 9. Perhaps they’re hoping the money laundering charge will have some legs. Who knows?
What bothers me is that it isn’t the first time Kristof has bent the truth about sex work and trafficking to serve his purposes. Two years ago, I blogged here about how the New York Times columnist reported grossly inaccurate statistics about the number of underage youth involved in sex trafficking in the United States and leveled other misleading accusations against Backpage.
I understand Kristof’s outrage at the sex trafficking of underage girls and boys. In my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, I make it very clear that the commercial sexual exploitation of children is a major problem and one that demands our best minds to solve. But shutting down Backpage (and before it craigslist) is not the solution to eradicating underage prostitution. I spent more than four years interviewing law enforcement, sex workers and experts on the sex industry for my book, and they all said that shutting down websites that permit ads for sex work will only make things worse for youth who are being sexually exploited.
As I reported in my previous blog, Backpage not only supplies police departments and prosecutors around the country with information about specific ads and who placed them, but the website routinely send reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) about cases in which it appears that an underage youth is being advertised on the site.
Now that Backpage has shuttered its adult ads section, adults who are selling sex by choice will merely gravitate to other websites that advertise their wares (many have already done so). But those who traffic in children will just move to offshore websites that are not as accountable to American laws or law enforcement, and that simply drives trafficking victims further underground.
Nick Kristof, of course, doesn’t mention any of these facts in his column either.