As the Senate considers amending long-established internet law in order to punish Backpage.com for running sex ads, many folks have pointed out that this change could be ruinous for social media and online publishing as a whole. But fewer seem willing to defend Backpage per se, which has been lied about by politicians for so long that many smart and otherwise savvy people seem to think the site is run by sexual-slavery-loving sociopaths. Anyone under that misguided impression—and anyone seeking to push back against it—should check out some new research published in the Wake Forest Law Review.
In the paper, "The Virtue of Unvirtuous Spaces," Notre Dame Law School lecturer Alex F. Levy explores similarities between the Progressive Era's pageantry around "white slavery" and the modern-day activists against the alleged "epidemic" of U.S. sex trafficking.
In both cases, people have conflated consensual prostitution among adults with forced prostitution—or "modern slavery," as current reformers call it, and "white slavery," as yesteryear Progressives called it— and the sexual exploitation of minors. Activists in both eras have also mistaken prostitution's increasing visibility to middle-class audiences for an increase in prostitution itself. Conversely, they take the eradication of prostitution from certain highly visible spaces as an absolute victory against exploitation, despite all evidence suggesting the activity will simply migrate elsewhere.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the focal point of this symbolic fighting was the dance hall. Now it's online venues such as the classified ad sites Craigslist and Backpage. Levy finds that both campaigns are "pageantry: a kind of theater designed to satisfy people's need to identify and fight bad guys without regard to nuance or long-term outcome." And while "removing exploitation from view" may settle some middle-class queasiness, it is "at odds with recovering victims."
If we really want to make long-term headway against sexual exploitation, we must embrace platforms like Backpage, argues Levy:
A closer and more rigorous inspection reveals that the war on Internet platforms like Craigslist and, more recently, Backpage.com ("Backpage") is (at best) based on a misunderstanding of their relationship to human trafficking. Even though some traffickers make use of these platforms, there is neither an empirical foundation for the assumption that the platforms cause trafficking, nor any evidence that shuttering them would reduce trafficking. To the contrary, allowing Internet platforms on which sexual services are brokered to thrive may be key to apprehending traffickers and recovering victims.
Both law enforcement and nonprofits such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) routinely use sites like Backpage to search for teenagers reported missing. The cross-country nature of the site allows authorities to track potential victims who may move around a lot, and provides tangible evidence for prosecutors to use against their exploiters. Police also use Backpage extensively when conducting sting operations ostensibly targeting the recovery of minors. Backpage itself has, at least historically, reported suspicious ads (such as those featuring pictures of people who look underage) to NCMEC or local law enforcement.
All of this is used by politicians and professional activists as evidence that Backpage causes sex trafficking, or is especially complicit in it. But that only holds water if, in the absence of the site, there would be no alternative options for exploitation. This simply isn't true. There are plenty of other websites, apps, and physical spaces that traffickers can access just as easily in order to incite exploitation—spaces that are frequently far less accessible or useful to law enforcement than open online ad platforms are.
Tellingly, these same folks never admit to Backpage's utility in locating and recovering victims, an asymmetry Levy attributes to "a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of online intermediaries in human trafficking." She continues:
Internet platforms are, by definition, nothing more than forums—forums for the good and the bad and the vulgar and the humorous. To the extent that they are forums for trafficking, they are also forums for its antidote. Indeed, all they provide is a space in which people become visible. The consequences of visibility are up to users—exploiters, law enforcement, nongovernment organizations ("NGOs"), and concerned citizens, among others.
Like many forums, Internet platforms are generally not legally liable for content created by others. The fantasy that these websites are bad actors—and are thus worthy enemies of antitrafficking advocates—not only distracts from efforts to hold traffickers accountable, but causes an invaluable resource for apprehending traffickers and recovering victims to be squandered.
Later, Levy slams "initiatives to shutter these venues." Such crusaders, she writes, do not understand "the difference between causing exploitation and revealing exploitation," and their efforts simply "send trafficking back into the shadows." The idea "that they cause trafficking is unsubstantiated, and ultimately part of the fantasy articulated, in so many words, by [one popular Progressive Era activist]: that the complex and fearsome array of social changes can be undone by shuttering the places in which they play out."
But the battle "against trafficking—real trafficking—is won by making victims more visible," writes Levy, and "to the extent that websites bring abuses to light, their existence is a tremendous help" to the anti-exploitation cause:
While more visibility invites more business, it also increases the possibility that victims will be discovered by law enforcement, or anyone else looking for them. By extension, it also makes it more likely that the trafficker himself will be apprehended: exposure to customers necessarily means exposure to law enforcement.
The tendency to confuse "a problem's disappearance with its resolution" winds up "doubly dangerous where, as here, visibility actually contributes to the solution." Ultimately, writes Levy, "the greatest casualties in the war on online intermediaries may well be trafficking victims themselves."