The two survivors, who are now 17 and 20, claim their pimps were facilitated by the services of Backpage, a nationwide classified ads website with a notorious “escorts” section that allegedly facilitates prostitution.
One victim, referred to only as Jane 1, was exclusively trafficked on Backpage and raped about 1,000 times after after she ran away from home at the age of 15, according to the complaint. Her pimp allegedly used a function on Backpage that let him advertise her in multiple cities so he could move her every one to two days depending on where people wanted to buy her.
Jane 1 is just one of an estimated 100,000 kids being used as prostitutes every year in America. Just over the summer, the FBI rescued 168 children who were being trafficked in dozens of cities from New York to Omaha to Minneapolis to Los Angeles.
“These are not faraway kids in faraway lands,” FBI Director James Comey reportedly said. “These are America’s children.”
Many child sex trafficking victims are runaways, like Holly Austin Smith who met a man at a shopping mall who promised her work after she ran away from home at the age of 14. He brought her to a hotel. Within hours, she was being pimped on the streets of Atlantic City, Smith, now in her 30s, told the Associated Press in 2011.
That was 15 years ago, though. These days, child sex trafficking victims are increasingly they’re being sold online, as the AP pointed out. Backpage, in particular, provides an anonymous forum for child sex traffickers to advertise their “services” while evading authorities, according to the lawsuit filed by the well-known corporate law firm Ropes & Grey. As many as 10% of those ads feature kids being sold for sex, the lawsuit says.
The two young women who sued Backpage this week are not the first victims to blame the site for allegedly enabling pimps to break the law more easily. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof interviewed a young woman named Alissa in 2012 who says she was routinely sold on Backpage when she was 16 or 17.
“You can’t buy a child at Wal-Mart, can you?” she said to Kristof. “No, but you can go to Backpage and buy me on Backpage.”
Backpage says it does a lot to try to stop child sex traffickers from using its website.
“We vigorously dispute those allegations,” Backpage General Counsel Elizabeth McDougall told the Boston Globe, in response to the lawsuit. “We do more, to my knowledge, than any other online service provider to try to prevent the use of our service” for child sex trafficking.
“We work extremely closely with law enforcement to find and to help rescue victims and to collaborate in facilitating arrests and prosecutions of perpetrators.”
We reached out to McDougall and will update this post if we hear back.
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