Sex Work

Critics of Online Sex Ads Hide Behind Children

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Last week three dozen religious leaders took out a full-page ad in The New York Times that urges Village Voice Media, which owns the online classified ad service Backpage.com, to follow Craigslist's example by eliminating its "adult" section. In an open letter to Village Voice Media CEO Jim Larkin, the 36 rabbis, imams, and ministers, led by Auburn Theological Seminary President Katharine Rhodes Henderson, echo the demands of the 51 attorneys general who sent the company's lawyer a similar letter (PDF) in August:

It is a basic fact of the moral universe that girls and boys should not be sold for sex.

So we were surprised and stunned to realize your company…continues to publish an Adult section on its classifieds Web site Backpage.com that has been used as a platform for the trafficking of minors….We trust that your company shares our outrage over the sex trafficking of minors. While we empathize with your business challenges and the increasingly difficult marketplace in which Village Voice Media competes, we trust that you are committed to running your business without compromising the lives of our nation's girls and boys.

Got that? If you help adults connect with adults for consensual sex, you are objectively in favor of raping children. "We agree with the attorney generals on the legal issues, but we are raising this as a moral issue," Henderson tells New York Times media columnist David Carr. "Even if one minor is sold for sex, it is one too many." By the same logic, the only morally acceptable course of action for manufacturers of cars, knives, and baseball bats is to go out of business, because otherwise their products inevitably will be used for nefarious ends, including the victimization of children.

But it is not really about the kids. "This is not just about children being prostituted," Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna tells Carr. "This is about human beings being trafficked into the sex trades, as adults and as children." In short, since McKenna and other Backpage.com detractors equate all prostitution with slavery, it is about exchanging sex for money. Although Backpage.com is not legally responsible for its customers' ads or subsequent actions, McKenna is right that such transactions are generally illegal. Whether they should be is another question, one that should interest Henderson et al., since they ostensibly are concerned about morality and not just legality. Is the use of force justified to prevent adults from engaging in consensual, mutually beneficial transactions that violate no one's rights? Assuming it is justified in principle, does it reduce or increase harm on balance, given all the ways in which prohibition makes this business less transparent and more dangerous? Moralizing bullies like Henderson should be addressing these issues instead of hiding behind children.

More on the Backpage.com controversy here. I criticized the Craigslist crusade in a column last year.