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Sold on Backpage – A Story Of Child Sex Trafficking

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Dozens of men were responding to purchase my daughter – my 15-year-old child – as easily as they would purchase a pizza.

  • Angela, mother of Jane Doe #3, 2018

When we think of child sex trafficking, we think of foreign countries, strange accents and Liam Neeson from ‘Taken’. The harsh reality, however, is that for decades, it was happening to everyday families all across America.

Angela, the mother of a girl who was abducted and sold on backpage.com, was a normal suburban mum. She was the type of mother who would go on school trips with her children, take them to their sport and music lessons, and cut crusts off their sandwiches. One day, she let her daughter go to the shops unattended with a friend – a normal occurrence. It was a day that changed her life.

One day, she let her daughter go to the shops unattended with a friend – a normal occurrence. It was a day that changed her life.

When her daughter didn’t return home at the agreed-upon hour, Angela knew something had gone wrong. She called and texted her daughter – but there was no response. Then, a flicker of hope: ‘I’m OK, I’m with a friend,’ her daughter replied, but none of her daughter’s friends knew where she was.

Angela was a tech-savvy mother. She was tracking the calls and texts her daughter was receiving, and none of them were good. Random, inappropriate texts from unknown numbers. When Angela called one, she received news that no mother would ever want to hear – that her child was listed for sale online. She immediately went to Backpage and saw an advertisement for her daughter: lewd photos of her teenager in provocative poses. She contacted Backpage, letting them know the photos were of a minor, and they responded saying they wouldn’t take the photos down.

When Angela’s daughter returned home later that night – the damage had already been done. She had been raped multiple times, and the only reason she was allowed to come home was because her abductors had realised Angela had been tracking the calls and texts her daughter was receiving.

What happened to Angela’s daughter was just the tip of the iceberg. Crystal, a 14 year old, and her mother Debbie had an argument – and Crystal responded by storming out. She was meant to stay with a friend’s boyfriend’s mum – but instead of giving her a place to sleep, the mother forced her into prostitution.

In 2015, Alexus Garcia, a 20-year-old studying to become a veterinarian, was murdered and her corpse burnt by Manuel Rocha. The two had met after he solicited her for sex.

The common thread between these stories and many others like them is that they were only made possible by websites like backpage.com – a classified advertising website, like Gumtree. The difference between Backpage and Gumtree, however, was that Backpage was facilitating and encouraging users to post ads selling children for sex.

The difference between Backpage and Gumtree, however, was that Backpage was facilitating and encouraging users to post ads selling children for sex.

THE CASE THAT SHOOK THE WORLD

The lawsuits started coming in 2011, driven by mothers whose children had been raped and sold for sex. They wanted justice, but most of all, they wanted to stop the sex trafficking of children, some of whom were as young as 13.

So why Backpage? It’s simple: Backpage hosted an estimated 70 percent of the world’s online prostitution ads. It was the most popular worldwide website for people looking to hire a sex worker – but that in of itself isn’t always a crime.

The issue with Backpage was that, rather than blocking ads suspected of child prostitution, they were editing the ads so the ads wouldn’t show up in police radars: removing words like ‘young’, ‘fresh’ and ‘new’, sometimes replacing them with emojis instead.

The issue with Backpage was that, rather than blocking ads suspected of child prostitution, they were editing the ads so the ads wouldn’t show up in police radars: removing words like ‘young’, ‘fresh’ and ‘new’, sometimes replacing them with emojis instead.

To make it worse, Backpage was able to continue promoting child sex trafficking for years, because somehow, they were protected under law.  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provided immunity to websites from being held responsible for information that was published on the site by others.

Every time the case was brought to court by a new victim, Backpage won, because they were covered by the act. For many years, the victims were swept under the rug, and the case was made to be about internet freedoms instead of the truth: child sex trafficking.

Yet victims kept fighting – and after more than eight years of excruciating legal battles, the courts ruled in favour of the victims: any website that facilitates the prostitution of another person can be held liable. Backpage was shut down, with many other similar sites, like MyRedBook and RedBoy, to follow.

THE CONSEQUENCES

Whilst the victims and advocates that fought so hard for the decision to happen rejoice – another group battles hard against the decision. Jacq, an American stripper, gave an interview with the New York Times about how the decision has affected sex workers, in which she explained that Backpage shutting down essentially took their jobs away from them. It means they can no longer find clients online, where they can easily screen them, but rather they have to turn to the streets to find unknown clients, where the risk of violence is significantly higher.

So whilst The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) help to protect one extremely vulnerable group, they put another in further danger. The mission to help curb child sex trafficking was achieved – now it’s time to re-evaluate the sex work industry as a whole and decide which actions we can take to help make it safer.

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