Global: Call on Village Voice Media to stop facilitating sex trafficking

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Action Number: 
40.1
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Date: 
19 Mar 2012

“BRAND NEW JAPANESE girl open minded very submissive $100 SPECIAL!!!”
-posted 7 March 2012 in “escort” section of Backpage.com’s New York, US section

“Size 20BBW with massive tits, I do what ever (sic) my master tells me to do”
-posted 24 February 2012 in “escort” section of Backpage.com’s Leeds, UK section
 

In 2009, pornographic nude photographs of a 14-year-old runaway girl, “M.A.”, began showing up on the website Backpage.com, a classifieds website selling everything from used sofas to opportunities for sexual exploitation. Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC (Village Voice), the owner of Backpage.com webpages around the world, willingly hosted the posting placed by M.A.’s pimp advertising her services as an “adult” escort for sex, providing an easy way for men to contact her pimp and make arrangements to rape M.A. Though she ultimately escaped this abuse and sued Village Voice for enabling her exploitation, the judge dismissed her case, lamenting M.A.’s "horrific victimization," but deferring to a U.S. law absolving websites from responsibility for “injuries” to innocents resulting from information posted on their sites.

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Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that violates the human rights of women and girls around the world. According to the United Nations (UN), women and girls make up 98% of sex trafficking victims, and about two million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade. Traffickers, pimps, the “buyers” of commercial sex, and the companies that profit from this exploitation – including websites hosting “adult” advertisements like Backpage – fuel the demand for sex trafficking and exploitation in the sex trade; in the United States, the internet is now the most frequently used platform that traffickers and “johns” use to buy and sell women and children for sex. Head of the anti-trafficking organization Courtney’s House and sex trafficking survivor Tina Frundt has noted that the internet has played a part in the sex trafficking of every survivor her organization has assisted.

Despite legal protections against sexual exploitation and prostitution, the “adult” advertisements posted under “escorts” and “body rubs” are thinly disguised advertisements for commercial sex. Backpage carries “adult” advertisements in hundreds of cities in all 50 U.S. states, as well as in 14 other countries, including the UK, France, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and the Dominican Republic. These “adult” sections on mainstream classified websites normalize easy, anonymous ways for traffickers and pimps to recruit, market and deliver women and girls as commodities for sexual exploitation. Village Voice profits considerably from its facilitation of sex trafficking: according to AIM Group, a media and advertising research agency, in January 2012 alone Village Voice collected at least $2.6 million from hosting “adult” ads in 23 U.S. cities.

Regardless of attempts by Village Voice to screen out ads that promote sex trafficking – by instituting a ban on nudity in posts, key word searches to identify misuse in “adult” ads and manual review of ads  – its ads continue to result in the rape of women and girls. Just last month, a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped and sold by traffickers via Backpage to multiple men who raped and sodomized her. Her traffickers’ use of “adult” ads, including nude photographs, further proves the ineffectiveness of Village Voice’s screening efforts. Law enforcement officials across the U.S. continue to encounter cases of women and girls being trafficked and pimped through advertisements on Backpage. In fact, a top Village Voice executive admitted that there were more than 400 “adult” advertisements every month on Backpage that may involve children.

Sex trafficking is criminalized under international law through the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.1  As of mid-2011, 128 countries, including the U.S. which passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, criminalize all forms of trafficking in persons. Sex trafficking violates basic human rights, including the rights to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, security, and freedom from violence and torture. It can cause life-long harm, severe emotional trauma, increased vulnerability to sexually-transmitted infections and forced pregnancies. Girls and women subjected to sex trafficking are often saddled with criminal convictions which limit their access to employment and educational opportunities, often forcing them back into prostitution.

Non-state actors, including private companies, must work together to end the scourge of sex trafficking. All 193 countries in the UN General Assembly have acknowledged the role that websites like Backpage play in sex trafficking, and in 2011 called for “media providers…to adopt or strengthen self-regulatory measures to promote the responsible use of media, particularly the Internet, with a view to eliminating the exploitation of women and children…which could foster trafficking.”  The UN Global Compact outlines human rights standards for private companies including their obligation to “make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses” such as sex trafficking and exploitation. Specific to private companies and human trafficking, the Athens Ethical Principles, a set of measures developed by the private sector, NGOs and governments to counter human trafficking, require that companies “demonstrate the position of zero tolerance towards trafficking in human beings, especially women and children for sexual exploitation.”

As a widely-used and well-known website, Backpage through its corporate owner Village Voice must end its complicity in the rape and exploitation of girls and women. Numerous newspapers and online advertisement websites, including The Washington Post, Newsquest (a large UK newspaper publisher), El Universal (a major newspaper in Mexico) and Craigslist have already taken a stand against human trafficking and exploitation by refusing to run/post and profit from “adult” advertisements for massage parlors and escort services. Thus far, Village Voice has rebuffed any calls to close down its “adult” section and is unwilling to give up the over $2 million a month it receives for these ads. Continued public pressure is needed to get the attention of Village Voice and convince them to stop facilitating sex trafficking. 

1Sex trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat, force or coercion including the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, for the purpose of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. Any minor in prostitution is considered a trafficking victim.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Village Voice asking it to remove all “adult” advertisements from Backpage.com and their newspapers. Please also write letters to the editors of the 13 local Village Voice Media newspapers (for information about these papers go to www.villagevoicemedia.com). Urge Village Voice to abide by international human rights principles, exhibit corporate social responsibility and recognize that sex trafficking is a human rights violation we must work together to end. >> TAKE ACTION NOW!

Letters should go to:

Mr. Jim Larkin
Village Voice Media CEO and Board Chair
1201 East Jefferson
Phoenix, AZ 85034
USA
Telephone:  +1-602-271-0040
Fax: +1-602-495-9954; +1-602-340-8806

Mr. Carl Ferrer
Vice President, Backpage.com LLC
1201 East Jefferson
Phoenix, AZ 85034
USA
Telephone:  +1-602-271-0040
Fax: +1-602-407-1717

Letters: 

Dear ____ :

I write to you with deep concern regarding the human rights issue of sex trafficking. The selling and buying of women and girls for sexual exploitation violates their rights to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, and freedom from violence and torture.

I was concerned to learn that Village Voice Media, through its “adult” advertisements on Backpage, facilitates the sex trafficking and exploitation of women and girls in countries around the world. Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar global criminal industry that is fuelled by those who exploit and profit from the commercial sex industry, including traffickers, pimps, the “buyers” of commercial sex and companies that profit from and facilitate exploitation. Girls and women who have been trafficked suffer life-long harm.

Governments, human rights advocates and private companies must work together to end this human rights scourge. I understand that the internet is now the most frequently used platform by traffickers and “johns” to buy and sell women and children for sex in the United States, and as one of the most widely-used websites for “adult” advertisements, Backpage.com profits greatly from them. The United Nations has recognized the role the internet can play in facilitating sex trafficking, and has called on private businesses to make sure they are not complicit in sex trafficking making them “partners in exploitation.”  I urge you to join other newspapers and online advertisement websites who have taken an unequivocal stand against sex trafficking and exploitation by refusing to post and profit from “adult” advertisements. I hope you will show corporate responsibility and uphold human rights by shutting down the “adult” section on Backpage.com and in your newspapers to help put an end to the rape and exploitation of girls and women.

Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely