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Lately I have been wrestling with the realization that in a previous job I may have inadvertently facilitated the trafficking of children.

I was reminded of this recently when reading about how a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate has been looking into Backpage.com, a website infamous for hosting “adult” ads — “adult” being a euphemism for ads promoting sex-related commerce, from personal classifieds to massage parlors, escort services, and beyond. Backpage has become notorious for running ads from child sex traffickers; hence the interest from lawmakers. According to a subcommittee document, one Federal judge called Backpage.com the “leading forum for unlawful sexual commerce on the internet, including the prostitution [sic] of minors.”

Backpage.com sprung from the actual back pages of actual newspapers — one of the nation’s largest chains of alternative newsweeklies. If you’re over 40, you probably remember the genre — free tabloids with liberal news stories and arts coverage, and classified ads on the back pages, including “adult” ads for “gentlemen’s” clubs, escort services, and thinly veiled “massage” parlors. There were lots of photos of people, mostly women in hyper-sexualized provocative poses.  

I am deeply familiar with these ads. For about 10 years during the early 2000s I was the publisher of a three-newspaper chain of alternative weeklies in Connecticut. We were aware that many of the advertisers were likely engaged in unlawful activity. And much of what we told ourselves to justify the ads sound familiar to me today in the debate over Backpage.com.

Backpage claims it has numerous procedures in place to weed out advertising from traffickers who control youth and market them to the sex trade. It maintains its Constitutional right to publish the ads. And they argue that the ads help the government target and even prosecute potential offenders.

Still, some horrendous ads get through the screening process, including one cited by U.S. Senator Rob Portman in a Wall Street Journal report in which he charged that an ad run by the website “actually contained a missing-child poster” of a girl, along with topless photos of the same child.

The latest news in the investigation is that Backpage has declined to respond to a subpoena asking them to turn over documents relating to their screening processes. The Senate responded by finding Backpage.com in contempt of Congress in a 96-0 vote.

This got me thinking about the processes and procedures at the newspapers I used to run. We used to debate the merits of the ads — not so much around trafficking, which we were only minimally alerted to, but whether the ads were a vehicle for adult sex workers to promote their trade, or, as some staffers argued, that the ads themselves exploited and objectified women.

Over the years we tried to find some procedures and philosophical positions that attempted to make the section more ethical, somewhat similar to what Backpage.com claims: We prohibited photos of minors; we did not print images with key body parts exposed, and banned using terms like “XXX.” On the business side, though, the pressure to meet revenue targets was high, and these ads were a key part of the business model. So we rationalized our continued publishing of adult ads with three main principles:

  1. As liberal newspapers, we supported decriminalized prostitution, believing that it would financially benefit sex workers, and keep them safer.
  2. We believed that what two consenting adults did in privacy was their own business.
  3. We were OK with cooperating with law enforcement, and knew that police often used our ads to find and prosecute unscrupulous exploiters.

Were these procedures effective in weeding out bad actors? I don’t think so.

Even ads for adult massages and escort services that complied with the restrictions may have been involved with trafficking. There was simply no way for us to know. Sure, police would sometimes raid our advertisers, but it rarely seemed to hurt their business. Sometimes they just sprang up somewhere else under a different name. It was also not uncommon for ads to show up in print that clearly violated our code; the result of ad reps bending the rules in order to meet their sales goals. Run the ad; get the commission; apologize later, seemed to be the mantra.

If I knew then what I know now about child sex trafficking, though, I would like to think I would have viewed revenue from these ads as tainted. I’d like to think I would have shut down our sex industry ads — that the “harm” of no longer being a source for adults to find other adults with whom to enjoy whatever it is they consensually enjoy would be less of a harm than allowing a trafficker to profit from the sexual commodification of a child. I would like to think that I would have come to this conclusion even though the traffickers would just find another channel to find clients, and that their business would likely go on barely undeterred. Anti-traffickers may not be able to win this game of whack-a-mole, but why not make it as hard as we can for traffickers to do business?

I’d like to think that I would have done this despite the fact that it’s not always easy to make the right call, especially when revenue targets and people’s jobs depend on your decision. As a lifetime defender of the First Amendment, it is harder still. I have come to this conclusion despite the fact that I still personally believe consensual, paid-for sex between adults shouldn’t be criminal. Some of my co-workers at Love146 feel differently about this question, but one thing we all agree on is that it is different when a minor is involved, or when it’s commerce involving coercion, exploitation, or force.

The right to run an ad is not the same thing as doing the right thing.

It’s hard to sympathize with Backpage.com when you think about the image of that missing child. And it’s hard for me to find my own internal peace in retrospect when I think about the fact that my newspapers likely did something very, very similar.

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