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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. Department of Justice estimates more than , 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.
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. 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 , 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. Because you are losing a key tool for law enforcement to get insights into this illicit activity, to get data, greater data than it's ever existed before, to locate, to identify the perpetrators, and to rescue victims.
Backpage disputes that figure, but despite repeated requests from "Nightline," refused to provide numbers for how many escort ads get posted or how much revenue the company takes in from them. McKenna, a Republican who is also the head of the National Association of Attorneys General, has been leading the political charge to shut down the sex ads on Backpage.
They're making it easy for men who exploit girls and women to get away with it. But McDougall said what happened in the wake of Craigslist shutting down its prostitution ads is evidence that McKenna's strategy won't work.
McDougall is new on the job as Backpage's in-house counsel, a role she said she accepted only on the condition that she would be given free rein to address the problem of sex trafficking on the website. I would love to see us eradicate sexual exploitation in the United States. I don't know if that's an achievable goal. But eradicating it online, I think is an achievable goal.
And that's what I intend to lead the industry in doing. Anti-trafficking advocates say both online classified and social networking sites have made ordering sex with a minor as easy as ordering a pizza. The cyber world provides johns with round-the-clock accessibility and provides pimps with an efficient, low-risk and anonymous method by which to recruit and sell women and children.
Kyle Oki of the San Jose, Calif. Backpage is not the only website that sells classified escort ads; there are also Eros. But, according to AIM Group, when Craigslist famously shut down its escort ads in due to public pressure, Backpage quickly emerged as the market leader. Backpage often points to the work of one scholar, danah boyd, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, who has written that the Internet provides new opportunities to intervene in the underground sex trade because it makes trafficking more visible than it once was.
McDougall lauded the systems Backpage already has in place to keep underage girls out of its adult ads. Our goal is to stay the industry leader, and to set the standard for everyone else to meet," she pledged.
McDougall took "Nightline" inside one of their screening rooms, the first time they have ever let reporters see how their filters function. According to McDougall, first an automated system screens for key words. Then, a real human being looks at each and every ad that goes up in the site's adult services section. Of course pimps and the underage girls they traffic often find ways to work around the safeguards, including using pre-paid gift cards instead of credit cards linked to an address.
Backpage does work with law enforcement, responding to subpoenas and reporting about ads a month to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Law enforcement officials from across the country told "Nightline" that they'd rather work with Backpage than be at odds with them.
But many said the inescapable fact is that Backpage and other sites like it have made the buying and selling of sex exponentially easier than it was in the pre-Internet era. You had to build up the courage to make contact with someone.
You had to stop out in public view," Oki said. And he objects to the profits that Backpage and other sites like it are making off prostitution ads. But Oki said he has mixed emotions on what the solution should be, noting that when Craigslist shut down its classified sex ads, the traffic moved to other sites. Like many exploited minors, Megan had a troubled childhood fraught with family dysfunction and a sense of abandonment. She said she spent her early years searching for a father figure, as she bounced from relative to relative trying to find a stable home.
I was used to being, like, the troubled child," she said with tears in her eyes. It all made her an easy and vulnerable target for the pimp who first approached her after she had spent the night sleeping at a bus stop. And so, you know, he was like, 'Take a shower. Get ready and stuff.
And we can take some pictures of you. Megan said her pimp posted the provocative photos on Backpage. She had never heard of the site before and did not know how to use it, but after two months, she said, she started posting the ads for herself.
Megan said once an ad went up, the phone rang off the hook. She'd perform up to 20 or more tricks a night. I was in pain and I would just act like I didn't hear my phone ringing. If she wanted something to eat, she had to ask her pimp for permission. Then one day, he kicked Megan out, leaving her on the street in only a trench coat and no shoes. Her family rejected her calls for help and eventually the police picked her up.
StreetlightUSA, which is funded primarily by area churches, is one of the few facilities in the country where girls who have been sold for sex, ages 11 to 17, can come for rehabilitation. In addition to food and shelter, the girls at StreetlightUSA receive counseling, mentorship, schooling and recreational activities like art classes and yoga. Lynn echoed that street work is incredibly dangerous. Once, Lynn said a gang kidnapped her friend and forced her to be a sex slave for a year — after they picked her up off of the streets.
Even though SESTA-FOSTA itself only covers crime related to prostitution, sex workers and internet activists say it sets a precedent for the government to require platforms to police any and all content users post online, lest the platforms be held accountable. Decriminalizing sex work does not help sex traffickers- it puts them out of business. This will endanger the lives of sex workers.
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