With the protest of Village Voice Media in New York City last month, more attention was brought to its controversial website, backpage.com. The Village Voice is known across the country for being one of the leading facilitators of online prostitution and, relatedly, domestic sex trafficking of minors. With the growing worldwide interest in human trafficking, the Village Voice has come under fire from a multitude of sources, all with the same goal: the removal of the adult entertainment section from Village Voice's backpage.com.
The chorus of dissenters has grown louder and stronger as an increasing number of cases involving minors forced into a life of sexual exploitation have surfaced across the country. Many cases have occurred in Houston, a national hub of sex trafficking due to its proximity to the Mexican border, its location on Interstate 10 and to the city's abundance of sexually oriented businesses. In July 2011, a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim was rescued from a Houston-area hotel on the Katy Freeway. A 25-year-old madam posted her pictures on backpage.com. The now-closed hotel was well within the 610 loop and exemplifies how close to home this issue is to Houstonians. Flip through the back pages of any Village Voice publication or peruse the adult section of Houston's backpage.com to see a number of ads salaciously offering services ranging from "table showers" to "4-hands massage." It is easy to see through the façade. These services are little more than fronts for prostitution, some of which undoubtedly exploit minors.
How has the Village Voice been able to avoid legal consequences for its illicit online prostitution ads, despite 50 known incidents of child sexual services being sold on the site? Simply put, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 releases Internet service providers from liability concerning third party posts on their websites. In other words, backpage.com cannot be held liable for prostitution ads posted by other individuals.
Nonetheless, there have been a myriad of attempts to remove backpage.com's adult section. A letter from the National Association of Attorneys General was sent to Village Voice urging it to remove its adult section, and 600 clergy members of varying faiths sent a letter expressing their solidarity with the attorneys general. Additionally, a petition on change.org has gathered more than 230,000 signatures; over 30 companies, including Best Buy and American Airlines, have pulled advertisements from Village Voice publications; and the U.S. House of Representatives has introduced a resolution expressing its opinion that Village Voice Media should remove the adult entertainment section from backpage.com.
How many more cases of child sex trafficking on backpage.com need to surface before the Village Voice recognizes its role in facilitating the sexual abuse of children and pulls the adult section from backpage.com? Craigslist pulled its adult section in 2010; it's time for backpage.com to follow suit. Village Voice argues that since the number of cases attributed to backpage.com is small, the problem has been blown out of proportion by the media. Let's be clear - 50 cases isn't small, and these are just the known cases. And isn't just one case of child sex trafficking one too many? Human trafficking is not a media craze but a real issue with a devastating impact on those involved. The pressure on the Village Voice must not wane until the company agrees to remove the illicit and damaging material from its website backpage.com. Just because Houston is the nation's hub for human trafficking doesn't mean that Houstonians have to sit idly by while thousands of adults and minors are sold into a life of sexual slavery.
Sanborn is president and CEO of Children at Risk.