A Dangerous Groundswell: Banning Adult Classifieds Is Not a Panacea for Child Sex Trafficking
Attention to the issue of sex trafficking in the United States has risen dramatically over the last few years to the point of a moral panic.
As defined by the Department of Health and Human Services, “sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under the age of eighteen years.” Statistics for trafficking victims are hard to determine given the shadowy, illegal nature of the practice, however misconstrued figures, religious and celebrity-endorsed campaigns, and media outlets hungry for a good story have fueled a national hysteria. And the blame for the perceived epidemic has been placed squarely on the shoulders of online advertisers who offer adult service ads, namely Craigslist and backpage.com, the online classifed site owned by Village Voice Media (VVM).
In September 2010, after several murders were linked to adult ads on Craigslist, the site announced it would ban sex-related advertising in the United States (in truth, the ads are still there, just well hidden). A year later, Auburn Theological Seminary launched a “social action initiative” called Groundswell which began what they called a multi-faith campaign to target backpage.com’s adult services section. This included an open letter to VVM published in the New York Times on October 25, 2011. The letter was signed by prominent religious and moral leaders (including Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein), and claimed the backing of fifty-one state attorneys general.
The apparent groundswell of support for Groundswell’s campaign can be traced back to a 2009 paper from two University of Pennsylvania professors stating that “an estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation” (emphasis mine). Runaways and those living near an international border were among those considered at risk. The actor Ashton Kutcher, who with his wife Demi Moore started a foundation to combat child sex trafficking, then misreported the figure as fact in an interview on CNN with Peirs Morgan in April 2011.
“There’s between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today,” Kutcher stated. “If you don’t do something to stop that—that’s when there’s something wrong with you.” With the help of other celebrities, they then launched a Public Service Announcement campaign called “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.” These PSA’s led to an explosion of mainstream media and blog discussions across the United States and helped launch thousands of activists eager to stop the supposed child sex-trafficking epidemic. Enter Groundswell and their campaign against online adult services advertising.
It goes without saying that child sex trafficking destroys lives and is a complete affront to any reasonable understanding of human ethics and morality. Yet Groundswell’s campaign is fueled by scare tactics with very little basis in real facts, is an assault on free speech, and is against the best interests of actual sex workers who use online services to conduct business in a much safer and more regulated fashion than other forms of sex work.