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Sex Trafficking in America: The Role of Online Advertisers

Each year, websites make millions from advertising women for sale.

"!!! @ ALL Submissive @ All Bottom @ Slave Coco Chick in need of a DOMINANT master" — an online advertisement for a teenage girl on Backpage.com, June 1, 2012.

Sex trafficking is serial rape for profit. That is the simple, non-legal definition. It is a distinct crime from that of sexual assault, where there are the rapists and the victims. In the underworld of sex trafficking, traditionally the law has defined three "actors": the victim, the trafficker, and the less talked about "buyer." However, there is a new fourth face of sex trafficking emerging in America and around the world. Where does it fit in?

The Victim

"Later on that night, I went (out) again and… the officers stopped me… I just broke down in tears. I said 'I’m 15. I’m a runaway and I’ve been telling everybody I’m 24, 25 and I’m out here prostituting. I want help!'" – a 15-year-old girl victim of sex trafficking.

First, there is the victim. The average age of entry for victims of sex trafficking in America is between 13- and 15-years-old. The typical victim is an American teenage girl who has already experienced life inside the foster care system, previous sexual abuse, neglect, and a host of other challenges that render her the ideal victim. Every single aspect of a victim’s life, including when she eats or showers, is controlled by the trafficker. 

I first met the teenager who I call the "girl in the sunflower dress" when looking for another missing girl in 2011 through Backpage.com, the online classified-advertising website. FAIR Girls frequently searches for missing girls, and because Backpage.com is the number one marketplace where traffickers sell their victims, we search there. I thought the girl in the sunflower dress looked young, so I made a report to the abuse section of Backpage.com, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and local law enforcement. I also looked into ads for her on other websites and learned that she did, in fact, have a pimp. Shortly afterward, I learned that she had recently turned 18. At the time, her ads referred to her as "addictive," "bubbly," and "playful." In them, she’s smiling into the camera like a typical teenage girl. She looked like a senior in high school or a college freshman.

A few months later, her ads changed in a very disturbing way. Suddenly this same girl, who by then was 19, was being sold as a "bottom slave." Maybe her pimp could see that she was becoming less and less attractive after years of abuse; she no longer looked like a senior in high school. Maybe she was kidnapped by another pimp. I do not know because I couldn't find her.

There are 100,000 children at risk of sex trafficking in America each year, according to a 2002 University of Pennsylvania study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner.

In the beginning, the girl in the sunflower dress was one of them. Now that she is over 18, she is an adult, however, she is still a victim.

The Trafficker

"You’re not supposed to talk without him saying you could talk. You’re not supposed to back talk. You’re not supposed to leave when you want to leave. You cannot walk to the store. You can’t go outside. You can’t sit on the front porch. You just have to do whatever he says… No boyfriends. Nothing; you… you have no life. You stay" — a teenage female victim of sex trafficking.

Then there is the trafficker, who is often referred to as a "pimp" in more contemporary terms. The faces of the average trafficker are diverse. The primary objective of the trafficker is to make money. They do this by forcing their victims to have sex with five to 40 men a day, and then taking all of the money. Many of the hundreds of teenage girls and young women FAIR Girls has assisted in the past ten years were lured by traffickers who used the “boyfriend” approach – false promises of love to control and abuse their victims. Similar to domestic violence, these traffickers alternate moments of kindness with extreme violence to keep their victims confused and scared.

Traffickers will also often manipulate girls to turn against one another by pretending to only love one of them, while abusing the other. They utilize an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, more often than chains or locks, to keep their victims from trying to escape. Some traffickers kidnap their victims, although this is considerably more rare than media portrayals would have you believe. Still, other traffickers are family members or other women playing a big sister or motherly role. Since love is the driving desire of these often neglected and abused young women and girls, it is a powerful ploy. Sadly, this leads to many girls not knowing how to trust other women in their lives.

The girl in the sunflower dress had a pimp. She is not the only one, however. While not all young women who are posted in online sex advertisements have a pimp or are trafficking victims, many do and are. Given the clandestine nature of sex trafficking, it is often challenging to find those who are in need of help among the thousands of daily ads. When looking online for potential victims, FAIR Girls’ Direct Services team looks for such indicators as: multiple girls in one ad; phone numbers on the ads that are linked to multiple girls in different ads; direct references to pimps; and aggressive and violent language — such as what we saw with the girl in the sunflower dress. "Degrade me, spit on me, I’ll do anything," were just a few of the phrases that concerned us — well, those and the reference to her being a “slave.” Anyone reading her ad would have known she was in trouble. Yet, even after a direct letter to the owners of Backpage.com, her ads often showed up multiple times a day. Her trafficker continued to profit alongside Backpage.com. Her slavery continued.

The Buyer

"Ok, i saw her ad and seem to good to be true, did some look and it seemed she was new so i said let's have a look went there. Stay away!!! I repeat stay away! She has a pimp thats the only reason I stayed" – the buyer of the girl in the sunflower dress, EroticReview.com.

Then there is the buyer. The term "buyer" is too simple and clean a term for what is actually taking place when a person buys another human being against his or her will. If the individual being bought is an unwilling adult, then the more accurate term is rapist. When that victim is a child under the age of 18, the more accurate term would be a pedophile. The objective of the rapist or pedophile is often a combination of sexual objectification and the desire to have total control over another human being. Unlike Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman or Stevie J’s in Love and Hip Hop, men buying sex are not looking for love; they are not going to leave their wives or jobs; and they're not going to treat the woman or girl they have just bought with love and respect. They are buying another human being for their own pleasure and control — nothing else. 

Men who buy sex online are highly under-researched. An Arizona State University study has given the most dynamic review of online sex buyers to date. According to the August 2013 research conducted in 15 US cities, one out of every 20 males over the age of 18 has bought sex online. Houston had the highest rate of males buying sex at 21.4 percent, while San Francisco had the lowest.

The Advertiser: The Fourth Face

There is a new fourth face in the world of sex trafficking. It is the face of the online advertisers, where victims are advertised by traffickers for sex. If slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, what gives online advertisers impunity from allowing advertisements placed by traffickers selling women and girls on their website? Unlike traffickers and buyers, advertisers are currently protected by law under the US Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Who are the online classified advertisers who allow sex trafficking to proliferate on their websites across America? In fact, there are countless online classified advertisers in the US that allow users to publish illegal content, including ads for prostitution. While this is not an article about prostitution, it is difficult to draw a clear line when traffickers design their advertisements to appear as willing adult women. Even law enforcement and seasoned advocates struggle amid the thousands of annual ads to find victims hidden inside these inherently deceptive posts. These online classified advertisers are referred to as "publishers," and are protected from criminal and civil liability from advertisements posted directly on their websites if they have not previously reviewed the ads.

Backpage.com is the predominant website used to advertise girls and women online. According to an AIM Group Study, from June 2012 to May 2013, online classified advertisers made more than $45 million dollars from such ads, with Backpage.com constituting 83.3 percent of that revenue. The majority of these ads can be found in the thinly veiled "escort" and "body rub" sections, where ads use taglines such as "Fresh, New, Addictive, and Young," or "2 Girls 4 the Price of 1."  Backpage.com charges between $7 and $17 per advertisement in these sections. Beyond Backpage.com, other websites include AdultSearch.com, MyRedBook.com, EroticReview.com, and others.

In June, a Toledo man, Brady D. Jackson, was convicted of advertising two minor teenage girls for sex using Backpage.com. In December 2012, a Florida man, Deangelo Jones, was convicted of sex trafficking girls as young as 12-years-old by advertising them on Backpage.com and selling them in hotels across South Florida. In July 2012, a violent pimp, Johnelle Bell, who branded and beat his victims, was convicted of sex trafficking girls as young as 16. He used Backpage.com to advertise his victims across Iowa. These are dozens of verified trafficking cases linked to online classified advertisers.

Much like the buyers of books or used cars, buyers can rate their "purchase" of a woman or girl.  Their reviews often include details on how willing and able a bought woman or girl will perform. These buyers rate and share comments on what are referred to as "John boards." Frequent complaints focus on the health of the girl they bought, her (un)willingness to perform specific sex acts, her appearance, and the presence of a pimp. 

Owners of Backpage.com, Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, claim that they have a special team of screeners who actively search for potential sex trafficking ads of minors, which they then report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

However, in my own experience in reporting potential minors and victims of sex trafficking, there was no response. The number of advertisements per day – in the thousands – simply overpowers dedicated law enforcement searching for victims. Girls, such as the one in the sunflower dress, are lost in the avalanche of ads every day. Few girls are found; fewer pimps and even fewer buyers are arrested and held accountable. Online advertisers continue to profit at the expense of victims. This is the world of online sex trafficking in America. Backpage.com and other similar advertisers claim to be helping law enforcement by allowing traffickers to post on their websites.   

Holding Advertisers Accountable

On July 24 of this year, 47 Attorney Generals released a letter encouraging Congress to amend the 1996 Communications Decency Act, in order to grant state and local governments the ability to criminally investigate organizations and the management culpable for aiding and abetting prostitution and similar crimes. The result of this amendment, if passed by Congress, will mean that companies which profit from advertising victims of sex trafficking could finally be held liable for their actions. 

In March 2012, Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law a bill aimed at requiring commercial websites to show age verification for those placing online classified sex ads. This bill specifically looked to combat the sex trafficking of minors. However, Backpage.com sued Washington State and in July 2012, US District Court Judge Richardo Martinez issued a preliminary injunction against the law. This law, and others like it in Tennessee, has not been successfully passed. 

Rather, traffickers continue to advertise their victims online, buyers continue to pay for sex, and the marketplace where girls are exploited expands every year. Meanwhile, the few girls who do escape their traffickers often face a lifetime of trauma, sexual abuse, and even death. Organizations like FAIR Girls continue to serve hundreds of young survivors. FAIR Girls provides access to emergency shelter and long-term housing, counseling, job training and assistance, life skills, and survivor mentorship for dozens of girls. Our team believes in each survivor, no matter what her past or future. These resilient young girls have endured unimaginable trauma, while those who have exploited and profited from them often walk away free, having made a hefty profit.

A Girl Lost

So, what happened to the girl in the sunflower dress? No one knows. After over 50 sex advertisements describing her as a "submissive slave," she finally disappeared. While I would like to believe she escaped from her trafficker into a life full of love and free from abuse, I fear that she finally succumbed to the abuse and degradation she experienced at the hands of the men who bought and raped her via Backpage.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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