Girls Sold for Sex Online, Backpage Defends Decision to Keep Ads Up

PHOTO: The San Jose Police Departments Human Trafficking Task Force performs an Internet sting with the goal of rescuing minors from commercial sexual exploitation.
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Most of Megan's bedroom is filled with the paraphernalia of a typical teenage girl -- piles of T-shirts, posters of her favorite stars, some stuffed animals she hasn't quite outgrown.

But then she goes to her closet and digs out a pair of sky-high silver stilettos. They are a glimpse into another kind of life -- the memory of which haunts her.

"I made my pimp about over $30,000 and I got nothing out of it," said Megan, who is just 17. "The most I've gotten is a pair of heels."

Those shoes are a painful reminder of how she was coerced into selling her body for sex by an older man she hoped would become her boyfriend. Instead, she worked long hours in hotel rooms where she would service up to 20 men a night.

Megan's pimp did not make her walk the streets, she said. Instead, he advertised her online in the adult services section of the nationwide classified website, Backpage.com.

"My first ad, I had no idea what it said. I had no idea what they put on it. All I know is that they put the pictures that I took on there, and people started calling me," she said.

It's a phenomenon that has become commonplace in the lucrative and illegal commercial sex trade of minors: using the Internet as an instrument to facilitate business.

"It's safer than walking a track," Megan said, comparing the traditional approach with the newer cyber market. "People say, like, a 12-year-old can do it."

Megan is one of the thousands of American teens who fall victim to commercial sexual exploitation every year. Although sex trafficking is a major problem in the developing world, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates more than 250,000 youth are at risk domestically, and studies indicate the Internet could be making the problem worse by increasing demand. According to Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking organization, the average age of entry for female prostitution is 13 years old.

And while there may be consensus that the exploitation of underage girls online is a problem, there is a white-hot debate over how to stop it. At the center of the storm is Backpage.com, which hosts an estimated 70 percent of the web's online prostitution ads. Critics say it's also a hub for the sex trafficking of minors, and have been mounting a public campaign to pressure Backpage to shut down its adult services section.

Despite Backpage screening their ads to look for minors, police around the country told "Nightline" they routinely find underage girls advertised on the website. But, the company argues, while Backpage might be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution, by working with law enforcement to catch the pimps who are selling minors.

"I think it's very important to understand that to stop human trafficking online, you have to fight human trafficking online. And we provide an extraordinary tool to do that, because we are online," said Liz McDougall, the lawyer for Backpage.

McDougall has made this case before. In 2010, she was part of the legal team that defended Craigslist when it came under fire for its adult ads. Craigslist eventually decided to shut down that portion of its site, at which point much of that traffic moved to Backpage.

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