ASU study: Most ads on Backpage's adult section for prostitution
Nearly 80 percent of the ads posted on the adult-services section of the classified website Backpage.com are for prostitutes, according to an Arizona State University research project that studied content posted on the site during a week in May.
The research project drew on the expertise of law-enforcement officers to identify prostitution ads based on certain commonly used words and phrases and to identify minors based on factors including the girls' development. The researchers compared ads for services offered in Phoenix and in Philadelphia between May 12 and May 20, offering the first detailed glimpse at content on the classified site that has spawned critics around the country who accuse the site's parent company, Village Voice Media, of Phoenix, of profiting off prostitution ads and exploiting women and young girls.
An attorney for Village Voice Media, an alternative-weekly conglomerate that includes the Phoenix New Times, questioned how the researchers determined what ads were for prostitution and the ages of girls and women advertised on the site.
The ads in question typically include photos of women in lingerie asking men to meet them at specific locations.
The study looked at more than 2,000 ads posted on the site in Phoenix and Philadelphia, because of their comparable size. The researchers said they found more than 900 advertisements offering sex or prostitution in Phoenix, out of 1,145 postings, and nearly 650 ads offering sex or prostitution, out of 903 ads posted in Philadelphia during the week of the study.
The researchers reported 88 girls to Phoenix police who they believed to be under the age of 18. Phoenix police said they rescued three of the girls though at least one has since been featured on the site.
Law-enforcement officers from around the country routinely monitor the site to gather information about the prostitutes who advertise there, along with their pimps and customers. But Phoenix police have declined to say the site's operators are complicit in illegal activity.
The ASU research reinforced the Phoenix vice squad's belief that the Valley is a hub for prostitution, whether the women and girls are full-time Arizona residents or operating on a circuit rotating among cities in the Southwest.
"It illustrates the scope of the problem here in Phoenix," said Lt. Jim Gallagher, who oversees a unit that attempts to treat prostitutes as trafficking victims while targeting the men and women who control them.
"It confirmed a lot of what we already knew," Gallagher said. "But what we knew, we didn't know enough of."
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, the ASU professor in the School of Social Work who spearheaded the study, said she wants to expand the research to other cities in the hopes of better understanding the role of Internet advertising in prostitution and human trafficking.
Backpage has come under attack from critics around the country who have taken steps that include staging protests in Phoenix and New York, drafting legislation in Washington state to hold the company criminally liable for promoting commercial sex trafficking and getting attorneys general from 46 states, including Arizona, to sign a letter asking the company to ensure it enforces policies that prevent illegal activity on the site. Last month, a federal judge in Washington approved Backpage's request for an injunction to prevent the legislation from taking effect.
All that attention could be having a double-edged influence on Backpage: An online classified research service found that ads posted on the site decreased by more than 6 percent from June to July, but the number of unique visitors to the site increased 4.3 percent during the same time.
Liz McDougall, an attorney representing Village Voice Media on the issue, has said shutting down the site, as its critics have requested, would only drive the activity to off-shore Web services where U.S. law-enforcement agencies would have little or no authority to force operators to cooperate with investigations.
McDougall said her goal is to make the site a leader in developing adult-services advertising guidelines that can be implemented throughout the industry. The site has 80 people committed to reviewing ads and reporting suspected minors to law enforcement.
The ASU researchers, who received some training from Phoenix police on how to identify minors and what code words and acronyms might signal prostitution ads, said none of the minors they flagged were spotted by Backpage.
McDougall, who questioned the study's methodology, said in an e-mail that anyone with information on how to identify minors or other victims of trafficking or exploitation should not keep that knowledge to themselves.
"If an experienced Phoenix police vice/ lieutenant, or any other law-enforcement agent or person, knows of accurate methods to identify ads for illegal adult activity, including what specific language and acronyms in ads mean and especially how to identify persons under age 18 (minors), I would hope that he or she would share that information with Backpage .com and all other online service providers who monitor their services to help prevent illegal and exploitative activity," McDougall wrote.