“Five websites that carry prostitution advertisements in the United States set a record with combined revenue of nearly $3.3 million during January. The total was up 1.4 percent from December and 3.3 percent from January 2011.
About 70 percent of the revenue was attributed to Backpage.com, which generated at least $2.6 million from the sale of online ads for prostitution and body rubs in 23 U.S. cities… prostitution advertising in 23 U.S. cities has generated at least $36.3 million, the AIM Group estimates. More than two-thirds of that amount, $25.4 million, was generated by Backpage.com, a general classifieds site owned by Village Voice Media.” (AIM Group)
CHICAGO, April 2, 2012— The above picture is a public service ad by the Polaris Project and the Rebecca Project for Human rights. It is targeting Backpage.com and Village Voice Media, who owns the general classified advertising site.
Backpage.com is similar to Craigslist.
The adult services section on Backpage.com contains cleverly and not so cleverly worded ads for prostitution, body rubs, massages, escort, and other sexual services for sale. There is also a separate section for recruiting sex workers for various careers, jobs, and positions. There are also ads for services to sex workers and the trade.
Law enforcement agencies and various non-profit groups claim that Backpage.com is the number one website in the nation enabling underage sex slavery and sex trafficking. Underage victims have been making accusations their services for prostitution were advertised on Backpage.com by their controllers, pimps, kidnappers, etc.
Kirsten Powers reported in the Daily Beast that last month a 15-year-old girl came forward, making claims she was kidnapped, gang raped and drugged before her services were sold through Backpage.com.
Last year another 15-year-old girl came forward and claimed her services were sold through Backpage.com.
One fifteen-year old sex trafficking victim, only known as “M.A.” sued Village Voice Media in federal court in 2010 over claims her services were sold through Backpage.com. That case was dismissed due legal technicalities, especially immunity given to Internet sites under the Community Decency Act.
In cases where criminal activities are promoted through classified advertising various federal courts ruled that in order to hold media entities liable for ads they sell, the ads must pose a substantial risk of harm. The Communications Decency Act also protects sites from liability and gives them immunity.
Backpage.com has come under intense scrutiny by national commentators, law enforcement, and several state attorneys general, over its continued role in enabling sex trafficking and sex slavery involving underage girls through classified advertising.
VVM is resisting any and all attempts to discontinue advertising adult services and they are on the counter-attack. The Village Voice has run several articles using a Media Matters for America template, style, and tone to defend the practice and tell the “truth behind sex trafficking”. Columnist Nick Kristoff is one of their favorite targets.
Kristoff, of the New York Times, has spotlighted VVM’s participation in sex trade advertising through his column and blog. Kristoff exposed and questioned Goldman Sachs over their 16% stake in VVM. This purportedly caused the investment bank to divest themselves of the privately held company.
VVM claims they fully cooperate with law enforcement, honor subpoenas, and send employees to testify in court. They also assert groups exposing or trying to stop sex trafficking and slavery are doing more harm than good.
VVM is counterattacking any notion and backlash that they should drop the adult services section from Backpage.com. The profits are just too lucrative.
There is little doubt ads for prostitution, and its various forms, are unambiguous and easily recognizable in Backpage.com’s ads. Even code phrases like amounts of smooches or roses per hour or cups of coffee cannot be mistaken for anything except rates for service and sex acts.
Some ads are upfront, like this one (redacted for space):
I’m Gorgeous and Charming. Classy and Playful… Refreshing and Affectionate.. With a desire for SEXY adventure… I possess the qualities of the Perfect Playmate!! I enjoy spending quality time with affluent, professional gentlemen who enjoy the finer things in life.
Im 5‘7 150 34D Long Flowing hair sexy Curves in All the right places!!
Jxxxxx 7xx-xxx-xxxx (edited)
Poster’s age: 23
• Location: City of Chicago, NORTHSIDE INCALL
Some are upfront and truly audacious- The Queen Of The Biggest Booty Supreme Diva bbw 98in Beauty Is Here! Dont Miss Me!! – 38… (Redacted for space) “200Hr/ Ask Ask about Special Rates/ No Block Calls.
Disclaimer: By calling the number above you agree that you’re not the Law Enforcement nor have no Affliation with them. All service are Solely for entertainment or companionship.”
Craig Newhart, owner of Craigslist, took his adult services section down in 2010. He did not think the legal attacks and negative publicity were worth the time and effort he spent fending them off.
It has been reported that Backpage.com received a high percentage of the 40 million dollars Craigslist gave up from adult services ads that year.
Author Norman Mailer was one of the original founders of the Village Voice. His son, John Buffalo Mailer, has been led protests against the Village Voice and VVM over the sex services ads:
“I am here today to say that my father would be against this and completely opposed to what they are doing,”… “It’s not a question. They need to take [these ads] down. This is diametrically opposed to what this paper was supposed to be, which was a paper of the people. It was meant to hold people who abuse power accountable.” (Daily Beast)
Sex trafficking and sex slavery are very real. Trafficking and enslavement of underage teens and children is real. The extent and scope of the problem is not known. It may be exaggerated, as some maintain, or it may be larger than reported.
Village Voice Media may have every legal and constitutional right to run these ads. They may be immune from criminal prosecution or civil liability. In an era where media of all kinds are facing low or no profits, profiting from ads promoting prostitution- directly or indirectly- may even be a good business plan.
But, is the backlash and tarnished reputation worth it? Is the time and effort spent on counter attacks worth it? Is being accused of enabling or exploiting sex slavery and sex trafficking of children good public or community relations?
Apparently Village Voice Media thinks so. Tens of millions of dollars in pure profit salves a lot of conscience.
Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance writer and photographer, cook, and raconteur. He likes to be the irreverent sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys. His opinions are his and his alone.
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