Yesterday morning in Manhattan, a man and a woman stood on opposite sides of the entrance to Cooper Square avoiding eye contact with one another and pressing competing handouts on passersby. The woman was distributing Nick Kristof’s now-famous New York Times column about a a girl who, at age 16, was forced into prostitution and advertised on Backpage.com, an online classified ad service with an extensive “adult” section. The man was wearing an “I love sex workers” shirt and distributing pro-Backpage.com flyers. He did look like the kind of guy who would love sex workers.
The occasion was a rally to protest Backpage.com on the steps of the Village Voice, whose parent company owns the site. About 100 people had gathered to hear speakers—including Voice co-founder Norman Mailer’s son (above)—denounce Village Voice Media for running a site they claim enables underage prostitutes and sex trafficking.
One hundred protestors is just the tip of the iceberg as far as anti-Backpage.com outrage goes. A petition demanding the company stop running adult advertisements altogether had gotten more than 200,000 signatures, and a host of attorneys general and anti-sex trafficking activists have written letters to Village Voice Media asking for the same thing.
No one in the Voice offices came down to say anything, probably because they’ve decided that staying silent is the best tactic. Last summer, the paper published a combative article claiming that estimates of the number of child prostitutes in America often cited by celebrity spokespeople Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore were wildly overblown. The article started a Twitter fight with Kutcher (sigh) and even led to the paper losing advertisers (and thus probably depending on Backpage.com revenue more than ever).
But there were still people willing to defend Backpage.com in public, like that I-love-sex-workers guy. He was with Sex Workers Outreach Project and Sex Workers Action New York, organizations for current and former sex workers and those with experience in the sex trade. They haven’t received as much media attention as their anti-trafficking opponents, but they claim shutting down backpage.com would be ineffective and might actually increase victimization.
“We feel strongly that shutting down Backpage would be a superficial solution,” said staff attorney Melissa Broudo, who represents sex workers and survivors of trafficking. She, as well as others, believe closing Backpage would just make sex slavery less visible.
As I talked to Melissa, dozens of anti-Backpage protestors went about their business, putting 100 pairs of children’s shoes on the Voice’s doorstep. Speakers said the sparkly purple sneakers and orange sandals represented children who will be trafficked on the site. It was a somber scene. They even began to sing:
Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
Anti-adult section activists have said in the past they aren’t targeting adult sex workers who are there because of their own choices. They care about the children. Oh, won’t someone please think of the children! In October, Groundswell, the group that organized the petition, took out a full page ad in the New York Times that said, “it is a basic fact of the moral universe that girls and boys should not be sold for sex,” and “Backpage.com has been used as a platform for the trafficking of minors.”
But others think that Groundswell’s solution to the sex trafficking problem would be throwing the sexy baby out with the scummy bathwater. Broudo says the public needs to realize sex work and trafficking are not the same thing. Trafficking means the person is working under force, fraud, or coercion, while sex work is something someone chooses to do. For sex workers, Backpage.com is actually a useful tool, Broudo points out: They can screen potential clients on the internet instead of on the street where the dangers are greater. If the site is shut down, workers may have to go to smaller sites that aren’t as wiling to work with law enforcement.
Rally attendees I spoke with questioned why the Voice would continue its adult section advertising if they know there have been instances of child trafficking. But, Broudo says, that might not be the right question to ask.
“The definitions of trafficking and sex work need to be separated out,” Broudo says. “They should ask, what is it we need to address?”
More than an hour later the protest ended. The shoes were put in boxes and taken home by the anti-traffickers, who probably didn’t see the point in letting good footwear go to waste. But the man in the “I love sex workers” shirt remained, still holding his stack of pink flyers.