Each week, a developing sexuality professional that works with The CSPH reviews a sexuality or gender-related issue that appears in the media and reflects upon how it challenged them in ways they didn’t expect in an effort to show the process of growth they undergo while becoming sexuality professionals. This week, we’re responding to an article from The New York Times, “Where Pimps Peddle Their Goods” by Nicholas D. Kristoff.
It’s not always easy to set aside anger at underage sex trafficking, but when that anger impairs your judgment, as it does with Kristoff’s article, it can lead to alarmingly rash opinions on legal issues. Backpage.com is an online advertising site, much like Craigslist, that has recently come under attack for its adult section being a widely used platform for prostitution ads. Understandably, law enforcement and elected officials are particularly upset that the listings have been used by pimps selling underage prostitutes.
That said, I’m disappointed that Kristoff’s misguided anger has found its target in Backpage, regardless of whether Backpage is good or bad for underage sex-trafficked individuals, the site still has a right to feature an adult section. Kristoff asks, “If street pimps go to jail for profiteering on under-age girls, should their media partners like Village Voice Media really get a pass?” Suppose an individual stabs their partner, should his manufacturing partner—the company who produced the knife—be implicated in the crime? No, of course not. Companies cannot be held accountable for individuals using their products for illegal activities unless the primary purpose of those products is illegal. Of course, if the man were to tell the company that he was going to stab his girlfriend, the company has a legal obligation to tell the police. Similarly, if it is apparent to Backpage that a minor is involved in sex work, they have the same legal obligation to report it to law enforcement.
Amid his anger however, Kristoff ignores one factor that could mollify his hasty rage: Backpage is a key aid in incarcerating known traffickers using their service. Backpage rigorously monitors its posts using automatic flagging of certain key words and “two levels of manual review” to root out any posts involving minors. They also cooperate with law enforcement officials and collaborate with child protection groups. Considering the traceability of IP addresses, it seems more beneficial to underage prostitutes if pimps keep advertising on Backpage where Backpage employees can report them to authorities.
Despite the flaws in Kristoff’s post, his overall fear for underage sex workers is understandable: underage sex trafficking is almost impossible to prevent when it is immersed in an even larger criminal industry. I encourage sexuality educators to continue discussing the benefits of legal sex work with the rest of the population to make it easier for myself and other professionals to change legislation criminalizing sex work. Additionally, sexuality professionals need to take a more active role in changing legislation. The legislation needs to change and sexuality professionals are uniquely suited to inducing this change. If we legalize sex work, we will be able to regulate it and provide protection against activities that lack consensual participation. As it is difficult to change legislation without a foundation of public support, educators take on an important role in creating these discussions. In the future, I hope to campaign and lobby for the decriminalization of sex work, which will, in turn, help to cleanse the industry of trafficking and underage prostitution.
Jaclyn B. Boudreau