Dutch lessons for sex-trafficking debate in U.S.

Backpage.com - now separated from Village Voice - denies problem but  Amsterdam experience tells different story

Julia Rooke By Julia Rooke

Over the past few years the pressure had been mounting. Activists, senators, attorney generals, non-profits as well as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had all been accusing the classified site Backpage.com of promoting the illegal sex trade and enabling human trafficking. And they weren’t just targeting the classified site, they were also going after its parent company Village Voice Media, owner of the iconic New York weekly the Village Voice.

This week it was announced that the Village Voice and 12 other alternative weeklies of the same ilk are parting ways with Backpage. com. They have been sold to the Voice Media company whose new CEO admitted that the controversy around Backpage.com “has been a distraction, there’s no doubt about it.”

Backpage.com, meanwhile, remains the property of Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, the two Arizona-based men who started their very successful media chain in 1970 as students with the alternative free weekly, The Phoenix New Times. 

As we reported previously in Latitude News, the controversy over the Backpage.com ads and their links to the trafficking of underage girls make for an interesting contrast with what happened in Amsterdam a few years ago.

 

Whose numbers are right?

According to Advanced Interactive Media Group, an online classified advertising consultancy, 70 per cent of the nation’s online ads for adult services (read, prostitution) run on Backpage.com. In the last three years, at least 50 charges of trafficking have been filed by state attorneys general against people advertising on Backpage.com. It’s estimated that 100,000 to 250,000 children in the U.S. are trafficked each year.

When they were part of the same company, the response from the Village Voice to the charges against Backpage.com was robust. Tony Ortega, who was editor of Village Voice until a few weeks ago, called underage trafficking an imaginary problem, driven by “mass panic.” He characterized the estimate of up to a quarter million kids trafficked a year “guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agendas about sex work.” He cited FBI data showing that on average about 200 underage kids a year are saved from forced prostitution. Lacey and Larkin, by all accounts, are unlikely to change this tune.

Moral Panic in Amsterdam

The Netherlands has been through a similar debate, even though in that country both adult prostitution and pimping are legal. Starting in 2006, a spate of alarmist TV and press reports claimed Dutch school girls were being groomed for prostitution by a new brand of pimp known as a “Lover Boy.” Lover Boys were purported to be second- and third-generation Dutch Moroccans and Antilleans. Frank Bovenkerk, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Amsterdam, scoffed. Bovenkerk, in fact, suggested this was just a symptom of “moral panic” (sound familiar?) and an attempt to demonize second-generation immigrants.

The mayor of Amsterdam commissioned Bovenkerk to get to the bottom of the allegations. What Bovenkerk found, in a 2006 report [in Dutch] updated in 2011 in the academic journal Crime, Media, Culture, was that Lover Boys were real. He estimated that there were 100 of them in Amsterdam, and that they each controlled several legal prostitutes, a large number of whom had been recruited as children.

Pornography shop in Amsterdam’s red light district (Julia Rooke)

Bovenkerk’s findings shocked the Dutch, stimulated a national debate and contributed to the closing of 51 red-light prostitution windows and some brothels in Amsterdam in 2007 and 2008.

The Dutch reacted to a research report, which estimated that a few hundred girls were at risk. In the U.S., the FBI’s number of 200 a year is used as proof that the problem is overblown. Backpage.com counsel Liz McDougall has, in the past, even argued that because it cooperates with prosecutors, it is better for all that the site not pull its adult services ads offline.

The sad truth is it’s extraordinarily hard to get girls to testify against their pimps, whether it be in the U.S. or in places like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Jean Custers, head of the Dutch Trafficking police team, says “girls are terrorized, pimps sometimes threaten to harm younger members of their families if they talk. Very few girls are prepared to testify in such a situation.” As Kristof noted earlier this year in his New York Times column, in the U.S., police often detain girls instead of rescuing them.

Andrea Powell thinks that, unlike the Netherlands, the U.S. is refusing to acknowledge its trafficking issue. Her anti-trafficking organization, FAIR Girls, sees about 1,000 girls a year in Washington, D.C. “A fifth tell us they are being groomed or pimped,” says Powell.

Backpage.com and its kind will certainly continue to come under pressure from lawmakers, although in one of the latest showdowns, in the state of Washington, Village Voice Media won a temporary restraining order against a state law that for the first time forced advertisers to provide documentary proof that their escorts are over 18. Lacey, according to The Arizona Republic, “likened it to holding FedEx responsible if someone used its services to mail pornography.”

“Lacey, who has the words “hold fast” tattooed on his fingers, spoke with relish about the political and court fights ahead over Backpage.com. ‘It’s a retirement from journalism,’ he said. ‘This entire thing is still a First Amendment issue.'”

Andrea Powell of FAIR Girls, however, is undeterred. As she told Latitude News: “Village Voice Media stake holders separated themselves from Backpage.com because of our campaign.” She concedes that her cause will not have the same kind of leverage they had previously given there are no advertisers to put pressure on. But, she says, “we are not going to stop.”

“There is only one acceptable solution to FAIR Girls, and that is for Backpage.com to shut the adult section of their classified advertising web site and end the selling of girls online. For as long as Backpage.com exists, we will continue to fight for the rights of the girls being advertised by their pimps on Backpage.com.”