Rally targets New Times, online adult-services ads

Phoenix, AZ|Sex-Trafficking Minors|Add Comment
By: JJ Hensley, Arizona Republic
Village Voice Protesters

A few dozen demonstrators set up on a street corner outside the headquarters of Phoenix New Times' offices early Wednesday with a simple message for passers-by: support of the publication means support of Backpage.com -- which they equate with promoting sex trafficking.

Village Voice Media's ownership of New Times and the online advertising site Backpage.com has made the Phoenix institution the target of protests, boycott campaigns and legislative initiatives since anti-trafficking advocates drove adult-services advertising from other sites and the ads found their way to Backpage.

On Wednesday, about 50 people, mostly women, held up signs outside the New Times' Phoenix headquarters in the former Booker T. Washington school. The site was supposed to carry extra significance because Washington's great-great-grandson, Kenneth B. Morris Jr., president of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, was scheduled to make an appearance.

Morris could not make it, but the rally went on.

The Douglass Foundation developed an interest in sex-trafficking after the foundation's executive vice president, Robert Benz, read an article in National Geographic several years ago about the problem.

"It was one of those things where you either walk away or you do something about it," Benz said.

But Village Voice Media contends the website can be a solution to the problem.

Liz McDougall, an attorney working with Village Voice Media, said she has consulted with law-enforcement groups and non-governmental organizations to make changes to the site in recent months, including the addition of a link to a help line for victims and other tools that allow the company to monitor the nature of the services being advertised.

"I'm in a lot of contact with organizations to try to learn more to do more. This will be an evolution," she said. "I can't promise there will ever be a complete solution to this problem on the Internet, that's why I feel so strongly about people working together to solve this horrible problem."

Police stop short of saying the site promotes criminal activity, but they say Backpage is a common thread in vice-squad investigations and that they get the vast majority of their work from monitoring Backpage and other sites that advertise adult services.

Anti-trafficking advocates have relied on similar stories, whether they overstate the problem or not, to develop more interest in a topic that until recently was relatively unknown to the general public.

Their efforts include training police officers and prosecutors to recognize trafficking subjects and to treat those subjects, largely viewed as prostitutes, as victims instead of criminals.

"We think it's right morally, ethically and legally, and states have an obligation to protect their children," said Linda Smith, a former Washington state senator who has become a vocal advocate for trafficking victims in recent years. "I would encourage them to go after what is right in Arizona, to go after the facilitators."

Smith's group helped push through legislation in Washington this year that could hold a company criminally liable for content promoting commercial sex trafficking. Village Voice Media and civil-rights advocacy groups fought the legislation and received an injunction this month to stop it from taking effect. Hearings are scheduled for July.

Efforts also include pressuring sites like Backpage to distance themselves from adult-service providers, and developing legislation to uniformly punish anyone who engages in sexual activity with a minor, regardless of the minor's age. Arizona law creates a distinction between sexual activity with those younger than 15 and those between the ages of 15 and 18. The Arizona Foundation for Women has pushed to change that distinction in recent legislative sessions.

Though unsuccessful, the group will try again next year, said Jodi Liggett, the foundation's chief executive.

"This is a community-wide thing," Liggett said. "Everyday people, when you cast it in the right terms, really get this. Any piece of the industry needs to come under scrutiny, that includes the advertising piece."

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