In recent years, we have become more aware of how prostitution almost always involves someone exploiting another person. Individuals coerced into selling themselves are frequently brutalized; and the violence involved in these cases is horrific.This reality has led to major shifts in public policy—increased police efforts to rescue young victims, to provide specialized recovery services to victims and to prosecute their predators—pimps and "johns”. Washington State law now encourages diverting minors out of the criminal justice system, an approach that recognizes their victimization. The Seattle Police Department’s Vice Unit is now called the Vice and High Risk Victims Unit and it is focused on locating victims and on pursuing their predators.
Since joining the Council four years ago, I have been deeply engaged in fighting against exploitive prostitution, a modern day version of slavery. I also worked hard to find sufficient government and private funding to establish a safe-haven residential treatment center for victims. This facility was only the fourth such facility in the nation when it opened in June 2010. It is nearly always full.
Exploitation of women through prostitution is easily marketed online. There are really good reasons for that—it allows for quick and simple access to customers and it promises both buyers and sellers—pimps—the security of anonymity. According to police investigators, individuals engaged in commercial sexual exploitation go to great lengths to conceal their identities. These individuals know they are engaging in criminal behavior, so they hide behind false identities, using prepaid credit cards and pay-as-you-go cell phones that are difficult to trace.
Recently, there has been significant local debate about Village Voice Media Holdings and its online advertising site, backpage.com. Law enforcement officials cite backpage.com as complicit in exploitation through prostitution—whether such services are thinly disguised as “escort services” or more explicitly described. Our police and prosecutors see backpage.com as an enabler of exploitation.
The focus of the debate has been on how owners of these advertising venues can responsibly prevent victimization, specifically of juveniles. Mayor McGinn asked Village Voice to screen online adult escort advertisers much like The Seattle Weekly (owned by Village Voice) and The Stranger do for their print publications. We know that when those paying for and placing the ads must appear in-person with government-issued identification and when models must also appear and sign releases to place photos, there are far fewer instances of sexual exploitation of juveniles. This is the practice of and our experience with The Seattle Weekly and The Stranger.
Village Voice claims that proper online technology doesn't exist to screen ad buyers like they can at the offices of their print publications. But that’s not true.
A virtual version of the “in-person check-in” is readily available using technology that many of us use on a regular basis to conduct Internet-based transactions. To truly reduce the sexual exploitation of girls and young women, backpage.com—and other online advertising portals—could immediately change their payment practices to only accept payment from ad buyers through services like PayPal that have accurate and reliable protocols in place to verify the identity of the person making the payment and their bank account details. If they can’t hide their identities, these criminal predators will be far less likely to make use of these sites.
Will backpage.com and other online sites make the switch? Not likely.
Of course, the right choice is to take the simple and easy step of only accepting payment through verification services like PayPal. But, since this step will almost always reveal the true identity of the ad buyer (most often a pimp or the exploited women), placements are likely to plummet and the Internet portal will likely lose millions of dirty dollars earned from sexual exploitation.
The profitable choice is to maintain the lie, deny the scope of the problem and make excuses for why they can’t do much to prevent it. This choice continues the exploitation of our children and young women.