More than a month after it happened, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notices the decision by Visa and Mastercard to stop processing payments for "adult" ads on Backpage.com. That decision resulted from extralegal pressure by Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart, who used his official position to crack down on speech he does not like. Kristof, an avowed defender of the First Amendment, thinks that's swell, because "some 100,000 minors are trafficked into the sex trade each year in America."
How does Kristof know that? He doesn't. As the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center warns, estimates of how many underage prostitutes there are in the United States are "mostly educated guesses or extrapolations based on questionable assumptions," and "none are based on a strong scientific foundation."
Whatever the actual number, Kristof says some of these teenagers are exploited by pimps who take out "ads in which they sell 15-year-old girls as if they were pizzas." How many of those ads have appeared on Backpage.com? Kristof doesn't know that either, but he wants us to think it's a lot. "Almost every time a girl is rescued from traffickers," he avers, "it turns out that she was peddled on Backpage." He mentions two examples. He wisely does not include the source who claimed to have been advertised on Backpage before it existed.
After creating the impression that Backpage specializes in serving kipnappers and rapists, Kristof admits halfway through the column that's not really true. "My guess is that a majority of sex ads on Backpage are for consenting adults," he says. "But a significant minority are for sex with children or with women who are coerced."
Taking Kristof's guesses at face value, he is condemning Backpage because some of its customers are criminals. Would he apply similar logic to the carmakers that produce getaway vehicles, the sporting goods stores that sell baseball bats occasionally used in vicious beatings, and the cellphone companies that help terrorists communicate with each other? Probably not.
Kristof complains that "Backpage is allowed to operate because of a loophole in the Communications Decency Act." He presumably is referring to Section 230 of that law, which says "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Among other things, that means a website such as nyt.com generally cannot be held legally responsible for content posted by third parties. Without that "loophole," The New York Times would be implicated in crimes hatched by readers in its comment threads, and it could be successfuly sued for libel based on things its readers said, even if it was not aware of them. But Kristof wants to scrap this principle, which would wreak havoc with Internet publishing and commerce, because he's offended by the ads on Backpage.
Barring that, Kristof is hoping Backpage goes out of business thanks to Dart's meddling. He quotes an activist who says, "If it's down for six months, that's six months of children who aren't raped." Writing tip for Kristof: When you approvingly quote someone saying something ridiculous, the fact that you used quotation marks does not make you any less ridiculous.
By the end of the column, it's clear (as usual) that Kristof's concern is not underage prostitution or coerced prostitution but prostitution in general, including every time one adult has consensual sex with another and money changes hands. He criticizes Amnesty International for daring to suggest that legalizing such transactions would bring them out of the shadows, making sex workers more secure and less vulnerable to abuse. That won't work, he says, because whenever it's tried "a parallel underground market emerges for underage girls." By the same reasoning, alcohol should be prohibited because of the parallel underground market serving minors, all sexually explicit material should be banned because some of it involves children, and housework for pay should be forbidden because rich Saudis have been known to beat domestic workers and hold them against their will.
Kristof is the sort of acute observer who, upon witnessing plantation slavery, decides that farming must be abolished. The fact that he has consistently proven incapable of understanding where his prostitution arguments lead suggests he has some sort of hangup about this particular occupation, as opposed to all the others that can involve elements of fraud, coercion, and violence, especially if politicians are stupid enough to make them illegal. But Kristof cannot credibly pose as a friend of sex workers as long as he insists that they and their customers be treated as criminals.