Why Is It So Hard to Fight Child Sex Trafficking on Backpage.com?
According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 71 percent of child sex trafficking cases reported come from Backpage listings, nevertheless law enforcement seems powerless to stop it.
Illustrations by Eric Nyquist
Christian Dior "Gucci Prada" Womack was a Philadelphia pimp with the reputation of recruiting women by force. Womack, then 30, was assisted in his exploits by Rashidah "Camille" Brice. Brice would train young girls how to trick. She would deliver brutal, closed-fist assaults on any girls who did not comply.
In May 2012, Womack and Brice encountered a 16-year-old girl in an Atlantic City casino. The young girl had been ditched by a group of friends and was wandering alone. Womack and Brice took the girl to Trump Plaza; there, Brice punched and threatened the girl until she agreed to have sex with an adult man.
Brice videotaped the forced sexual encounter and extorted money from the man for having sex with an underage girl. Womack and Brice then posted a listing on Backpage.com advertising the 16-year-old victim. They drove her to a Virginia Beach house and forced her, at gunpoint, to have sex with approximately 15 different men. She was threatened with a handgun throughout the ordeal.
Next, Womack and Brice took the victim to a motel; there, she was forced to prostitute for several consecutive days while being repeatedly threatened at gunpoint. At some point, the victim convinced a stranger to give her $50 for a taxi ride. Then she made her escape.
What happened to the 16-year-old girl in Atlantic City is a cancer that is metastasizing across the country: Violent pimps and sex traffickers use online services like Backpage to exploit and profit off of unwilling victims. To avoid detection, those creating the listings often use code words or phrases. "New to town," for example, is typically code for listing a teenager.
The lead counsel for Backpage, Liz McDougall, has corroborated Ferrer's claim, stating, "This matter involves important constitutional questions regarding the scope of the Senate's investigative authority when First Amendment and other constitutional rights are implicated."
Even when those who currently moderate Backpage are told, often by parents and relatives of underage victims, that their loved ones are being trafficked, the listings do not immediately come down. Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), presented the subcommittee with emails, sent by relatives to moderators at Backpage, pleading with them to remove listings for trafficked, underage family members. They read:
"No the girl in the is 16 shes my cousin she ra[n] away from home two months ago . . . The cops r trying to get her and her pimp She is a runaway She got tattoos of her pimp on her lower stomach and upper right eyebrow."
"My daughter is on the escort site and she is 13 n mental ill. I want the damn picture's removed now."
"This ad has photos of my 16 year old sister who currently being trafficked and we are trying to get home. We have an active investigation going on and am trying to get her away from her pimp and bring her home. Please stop allowing whoever it is to post her. She only a minor and we want her home."
Souras also testified before the subcommittee about the link between human trafficking and Backpage. According to Souras, the NCMEC has seen an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking over the last five years. The increase, according to NCMEC, is "directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex." Souras added that 71 percent of child sex trafficking cases reported to NCMEC are related to Backpage listings.
This ad has photos of my 16 year old sister who currently being trafficked and we are trying to get home.
"We know that, from our records, one in five runaways is likely a sex trafficking victim," Souras tells Broadly, adding that "Backpage has the bulk of those, and is always the first place we look when we think someone is being trafficked."
A cursory search of Backpage mentions in local news outlets supports Souras's claim.
In Florida, a man named Reginal Hardy drugged, raped, and kidnapped a 14-year-old runaway girl. Hardy threatened to kill her, and her family, if she didn't work for him as a prostitute. He continued to drug her while listing her on Backpage. To avoid detection, Hardy listed her under the name "Jenny" and used pictures of another woman. The police discovered the victim when Hardy was pulled over for a traffic violation. The victim was under the influence and, according to the Orlando Sentinel, wept while telling police what Hardy had done to her.
In California, long-time pimp Lenny Paul "2 Much" Haskins encountered two young girls in Sacramento, one 15, the other 17. Both girls had run away from foster care. Haskins, 34 at the time, convinced the two to prostitute for him. He put the victims on a bus to Herndon, Virginia, and set up listings for the two on Backpage. The victims took johns to a hotel, paid for by Haskins, and were told to send nearly all the money they made from prostituting back to Haskins. By the time police caught up to Haskins, the victims had been prostituted in over five states.
In Georgia, a 17-year-old immigrant girl was left abandoned and homeless by relatives who decided to migrate back to West Africa, without her. Steven E. "Silk" Thompson offered the girl a place to stay while she waited to get accepted into Job Corps. After a few weeks of living with Thompson and a female accomplice, Tierra Waters, Thompson demanded that the victim provide him with money by prostituting.
Thompson and Waters listed the victim on Backpage as both 19 and 20 years old, and forced her to give them all the money she made from prostituting. According to reports, Thompson and Waters would angrily confront the victim when she avoided calls from potential Backpage customers. One of the johns cooperated with the police investigation only when he discovered the victim's true age—after extortion attempts by Thompson, who planned to blackmail the john for sleeping with a minor.
In St. Louis, Latasha Jewell McFarland, then, recruited a 14-year-old runaway girl to prostitute alongside her. McFarland told the victim she would give her $100 per sex act, and that they could get more money if they had sex with men who requested multiple women. McFarland photographed the victim, naked and in "pornographic" poses, posted the photos to Backpage, and set up dates for her in motels along the interstate, according to reports. McFarland took half of the victim's earnings. McFarland was eventually arrested and prosecuted for human trafficking.
The victim tried to sue Backpage for being a party to her abuse and exploitation. The lawsuit claimed that Backpage had a strong indication that the victim was underage based on the photographs being posted to the site. "Yet," the suit argued, "[Backpage] was so indifferent that it failed to investigate for fear [of] what it would learn."
The suit also argued that, because Backpage has inherent incentive to turn a blind eye to illegal activity—the site charges users a fee for their listings—it therefore remains deliberately ignorant of the crimes being committed on the site.
The suit was dismissed—as were several others brought by victims seeking financial redress—based on the grounds that Backpage is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which holds that website publishing companies are not liable for the user-generated content they host. That's despite Backpage's own terms of service saying it allows neither graphic photos nor the barter of sex for money on the site—though no one (besides the website's team of lawyers) actually believes that.
To try to gain some traction in bringing Backpage down, law enforcement officers have brought their own suits against the site. One officer who works in a Midwestern sheriff's department spoke to Broadly about his department's lawsuits against Backpage on the condition of anonymity. (Broadly has verified his identity.)
"We started advocating for the CDA to be changed, because it basically said that these third parties aren't liable for what these people post on them. It protected Craigslist, but when Craigslist removed its adult services, Backpage filled that gap," the officer says. "When we do a sting, we're not arresting these girls, we're not putting them behind bars. For those that are independent, that want to do it on their own, we try to leave them behind."
"Hopefully," he says, "this will all be over soon, because this is such an important issue, and we think it is brutal."
There is some legal hope on the horizon. In 2015, three minors who were trafficked on Backpage brought a similar lawsuit against the site, claiming that Backpage's policies and indifference actively encourage illegal sex trafficking. The suit argued that Backpage is "designed to help pimps develop advertisements that can evade the unwanted attention of law enforcement, while still conveying the illegal message."
In other words, Backpage's content rules are just window dressing to appease law enforcement, while the site continues to profit off illegal activity. Several court skirmishes ensued; Backpage repeatedly filed a motion to dismiss under the CDA's immunity from liability. But the Washington Supreme Court denied the motions, ruling that the lawsuit could continue at the lower court level. Like the Senate subcommittee, the Washington Supreme Court holds that it's unclear whether Backpage's content rules bar or enable criminals. From the majority opinion:
It is important to ascertain whether in fact Backpage designed its posting rules to induce sex trafficking to determine whether Backpage is subject to suit under the CDA because 'a website helps to develop unlawful content, and thus falls within the exception to section 230, if it contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.
Of course, if attempts to close Backpage were to succeed, what would take its place? As McDougall is quick to point out, Backpage does assist police with criminal investigations and will hand over relevant data, if it has access to it, because "it's the right thing to do."
While some in law enforcement roll their eyes at McDougall's assertion, others warn that, if Backpage goes away, then so does any kind of paper trail. "I know that there's a lot of talk in trying to shut down Backpage and that kind of stuff. I'm actually against that, because if you shut down Backpage, you shut down those things that we use; it'll only go further underground," says one San Diego-based law enforcement officer.
For the time being, Backpage continues to operate above ground—and, technically, aboveboard.