Is Backpage Responsible for Kidnapping and Rape?


In a New York Times column that begins with the horrifying story of "Baby Face," a 13-year-old runaway forced into prostitution by a pimp who advertised her on Backpage.com, Nicholas Kristof assails Village Voice Media, which owns the classified ad site, for profiting from such crimes. He quotes Brooklyn prosecutor Lauren Hersh, who says "Backpage is a great vehicle for pimps trying to sell girls," and sums up the situation this way: "When Baby Face ran away from her pimp and desperately knocked on that apartment door in Brooklyn, she was also in effect pounding on the door of the executive suites of Backpage and Village Voice Media. Those executives should listen to her pleas."

The emotional punch of Kristof's opening anecdote should not blind readers to the illogic of his argument. Village Voice Media is morally responsible for the crimes against this girl, he implies, because its ad service facilitated them. By the same reasoning, Craigslist is responsible for the deaths of men who respond to employment ads that serial killers use to lure their victims. It would be neither fair nor sensible to respond to such crimes by banning job ads. Yet Kristof thinks the solution to the kidnapping and rape of girls like Baby Face is for Backpage to eliminate its "adult" section, as the attorneys general of 48 states have demanded. He is not fazed by the fact that Craigslist, responding to similar pressures, eliminated its "adult services" section in 2010, after which the world's oldest profession continued unabated. The problem, Kristof says, is that the sex ads moved to Backpage. And what will happen to the ads if Backpage follows Craigslist's example? "It's true," he concedes, "that there's some risk that pimps will migrate to new Web sites, possibly based overseas, that are less cooperative" with law enforcement agencies. But he thinks "that's a risk worth taking," because "the present system is failing." In short, nothing we've done until now has worked, so why not try more of the same?

As Daniel Fisher points out at Forbes, the reality of sex marketing is more complicated than Kristof admits. While Craigslist no longer has an "adult services" section, for example, thinly veiled sex-for-money ads have migrated to the "personals" section, where they are harder to monitor. "Want to find more professionals quick?" Fisher writes. "Search for 'Asian massage' on Google, or 'site:facebook.com escorts new york.'" Fisher argues that Village Voice Media has been unfairly singled out for criticism, especially since it cooperates with police, endeavors to make advertisers traceable by requiring credit card numbers, and "responds to subpoenas within hours." In fact, he says, that is how police identified Baby Face's pimp, who had written "a plain-vanilla personal ad for 'labor day weekend fun' with a 21-year-old."

Fisher hastens to add, "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with trying to shut down the vigorous market for human flesh." Well, I am saying that, if by "the vigorous market for human flesh" he means the exchange of sex for money. It makes as much sense to ban prostitution because some prostitutes are forced into the trade as it does to ban agriculture because farms have been known to use slaves. Far from helping victims like Baby Face, prohibition forces the entire market underground, making it harder to enforce the distinction between minors and adults or between willing and coerced participants. Prohibition forces prostitutes to work in dangerous conditions, picking up customers on the street or covertly connecting with them online, and makes it harder for them to seek legal remedies when they are cheated or abused. These hazards, similar to those seen in black markets for drugs and gambling, are not inherent to the business of selling sex; they are inherent to the policy of using force to suppress peaceful commerce. Since these dangers are entirely predictable, prohibitionists like Kristof should be reflecting on their role in perpetuating them, instead of making scapegoats out of businesses that run classified ads.