Yesterday I testified at a hearing by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley on commercial sexual exploitation and the Internet. When I first learned about it, I feared the worst: time to demonize the Internet. After all, the hearing announcement openly targeted Craigslist and websites generally. But this was not the case at all—as we heard, NGOs, law enforcement, and industry all have roles to play.
Instead of Internet-bashing, the hearing was a constructive dialogue. We learned why children are forced into prostitution and how classified ads on the Internet can promote this illegal activity. I was there to learn how we can help.
Commercial sexual exploitation is big business. Over 100,000 women are in the illegal sex trade. Often these women are actually teenage girls, vulnerable and with no place to go. Their lives are run by pimps, they cater to “johns,” and their lives are a living hell – except that these women become so desensitized that they eventually have no life at all.
These child prostitutes show up in advertisements for “escort services” or “adult services.” Traditionally, these ads were in the yellow pages. Now they exist on the Internet, and these listings can often be graphic. But it’s hard to tell whether these ads involve women against their will or underage girls. That’s why there are folks who would like to see all these ads disappear. And they’ll blame Internet classifieds—indeed, one witness called sites like Craigslist and Backpage “electronic pimps.”
While there are those that think it is better to force the shut down of the adult services section of these sites, that’s the wrong approach. As we heard from danah boyd of Microsoft and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center, merely shutting down the listed supply of adult services is superficial. Online classifieds may be the most visible aspect of human anti-trafficking, which is perhaps why they attract the ire of some advocates – but they can also be a honeypot where pimps advertise and johns congregate. This should be the first place to start an investigation, not end a prosecution.
It’s far better for law enforcement to use these sites to identify what they think are ads of women in forced prostitution, and then infiltrate their criminal networks to reduce both the supply of women and the demand for their services. If we can develop strategies to break these networks, we can get to the root of the problem.
To this end, danah boyd also made great points about not getting distracted by the technology. Bad actors are sexually exploiting young girls by using the Internet to further their criminal enterprise, but it’s not an Internet problem per se. Focusing on removing websites or portions of sites addresses only the symptoms of a much deeper criminal syndicate. For the most part, I think this point resonated with the Attorney General’s staff.
What certainly resonated throughout the entire hearing was that sex trafficking is a complex problem that requires a multi-disciplinary approach. We heard this from child welfare and victimization groups, law enforcement, and the online industry.
And that’s why we heard AG Coakley call for a task force to study the issue. We support her desire for the task force and look forward to working with her to help eliminate commercial sexual exploitation.