On March 18, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about a young woman who was sex-trafficked using Backpage.com. Alissa was underage when she was held captive, violently abused, and sold for sex. The column gives heart-wrenching details – the last time Alissa escaped a pimp, she was punished with a brutal beat-down – before going on to cite other cases involving the sex-trafficking of underage girls on Backpage.com. Kristof denounced Village Voice Media, the company that owns Backpage (as well as Miami New Times and New Times Broward-Palm Beach), for facilitating appalling situations like Alissa’s. (Here’s where I make the awkward disclaimer that I wrote a freelance nightlife column for New Times BPB for three years.)
A few days after Kristof’s column, VVM hit back. In an article published on the Village Voice site, the company claimed Kristof was wrong, that his reporting had not “followed any of The New York Times‘ standards of journalism,” and that he “concocted a story to suit his agenda.” The reason, from that rebuttal: “According to Alissa’s court testimony, she was 16 in 2003. Backpage.com did not exist anywhere in America in 2003.”
Of course, missing from VVM’s rebuttal were statements like: “Nobody uses Backpage to sell underage girls” and “This company does not profit from human trafficking.” Village Voice Media didn’t make those claims because they aren’t true.
Kristof responded to VVM’s rebuttal the same day. He pointed out that Alissa turned 16 in 2003. Because her birthday is at the end of the year, she didn’t turn 17 till the end of 2004. That means she was 16 and 17 — still underage, folks — until the end of 2005. Kristof goes on to say that Backpage was present in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale in 2004 — two places Alissa says she was sold — as well as several other cities.
We’d like to believe that nobody at VVM thinks it would have been okay for Alissa to be trafficked at some other age, but what does that awkward defense (let’s call it “misdirection”) say about the company’s views on women — especially where profits are concerned? (Speaking of profits, even more recently Kristof reported that Goldman Sachs held shares in VVM, and thus indirectly in sex-trafficking — from which it attempted to distance itself as quickly as possible. Time magazine reports Goldman sold its $30 million stake in the media company at a huge loss over the weekend.)
Kristof acknowledged that VVM publications are founded on cutting-edge, truth-seeking journalism. So it sucks even more to see that company using its reputation for good journalism in attempts to side-step the truth regarding their financial link to child prostitution and human trafficking. Note the byline on VVM’s response: Village Voice Media. Hmm…maybe no one wanted his or her actual name on an article that reeks of a corporate office deciding that it can’t afford NOT to take money from pimps who are enslaving 16-year-olds as sex workers.
There are arguments in favor of prostitution advertisements, obviously. Look, adult women should be able to make their own choices about how they market themselves. When prostitutes aren’t posting ads, they’re often working in the streets, which is more dangerous and problematic for everyone involved. Through online interaction, prostitutes leave a trail that makes it both less likely they might go missing and easier to track them down if they do. It’s not an easy issue; there’s always the risk that any action taken will drive this stuff further underground. Legalization of prostitution, with appropriate regulation of course, would probably be the best way to prevent this shit in the first place. But these aren’t the arguments VVM is making.
Instead, VVM has consistently tried to make any reporting on its human trafficking profits sound like a big conspiracy targeting the nation’s largest alternative weekly publisher. There are mentions of Kristof’s mysterious “agenda.” But based on his articles, Kristof’s “agenda” seems to consist largely of protecting women and girls from sex-trafficking and exploitation. (Unless VVM secretly suspects The New York Times wants in on the hooker ad business.)
This isn’t the first time the company has taken this approach. In a June 2011 article that ran on the cover of every VVM paper, the company demanded that the reader “compare 827 annually with the 100,000 to 300,000 per year touted in the propaganda.” That number, 827, is cited as the national number of arrests for child prostitution. The article touts this number self-righteously, almost like it’s something to be proud of. But seriously, what it comes down to is this: 827 is not none.
The article ran with a photo of Ashton Kutcher, who dared to mention the sex trafficking on television, next to an abacus and the headline: “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight.” The fact that someone interested in drawing attention to these problems seems to bother the higher-ups at VVM so much is at best suspicious, and at worst sinister. Again, they aren’t saying this isn’t happening. They’re just saying it isn’t happening much.
That number also doesn’t account for the child sex workers who haven’t been rescued, or the pimps who haven’t been arrested. Whatever VVM would have you think, the company is not some benevolent beacon aiming to give prostitutes a place to market their wares without walking the streets. It claims “Internet records” and the “hundreds of staff” who screen ads for children is what is actually protecting children from being sold as sex slaves. (Do we really believe that right now, VVM, a company that employs less than 100 staff writers in all of its papers combined, has hundreds of people combing through its own hooker ads, searching for missing children? Not saying they don’t, but it’s a pretty vague number, and at the very least, their “hundreds of staff” is obviously not foolproof.)
Argue about the numbers. Argue about the dates, the ages. Argue about feeling victimized when people are outraged by the dark stories of Backpage. But the victims are the women who are bought and sold against their will. VVM knows this for a fact, and is choosing to ignore it for the sake of its collective wallet.