Stop Selling Girls

human-traffickingLike most girls who end up in prostitution “Alissa” grew up in an abusive home. But at age 16 a deceptive Prince not-so-Charming came to her “rescue.” He told her she was attractive and that he’d like to be her boyfriend. Flattered, she accepted. Soon after, he prostituted her.

Alissa stayed with him, partly because she felt emotionally attached. Girls who have lived without love crave it and often take whatever they can get. Pimps know this and use it. But she also stayed because she feared his violence.

Nick Kristof told this story in the New York Times:

She was sold to johns seven days a week, 365 days a year. After a couple of years, she fled, but a pimp tracked her down and — with the women he controlled — beat and stomped Alissa, breaking her jaw and several ribs, she said. That led her to cooperate with the police.

Perhaps the strangest part of this story is that she was sold on, which is owned by Village Voice Media. Strange, since Village Voice is a well-known alternative journal whose aim is to speak truth to power. Yet Backpage makes up about 70% of prostitution advertising among similar Web sites. Most of the Backpage ads are legit, but the sex slavery that it promotes is troubling.

John Mailer, son of Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer, has called for Backpage to shut down. As he put it:

The Village Voice was born out of the desire for an independent media voice for the people, a voice that had the freedom and authority to hold those who abuse power accountable for their actions… As my father’s son, knowing all of the hopes and dreams that went into the work of creating this particular paper, the Village Voice appears to have lost its way…

Pandora Young, now at Media BistroI, has also felt the pangs of conscience. For years she worked at the Village Voice-owned LA Weekly. She said:

I knew that I was being paid in some small part by blood money. And while I felt lousy about it, I did nothing beyond kvetching about the problem with fellow employees. I always cashed my paychecks, and I never gave a dime to help victims of sex trafficking.

Some defend Backpage’s right to free speech. And Village Voice says they work hard to make sure all ads are legit. But too much gets through.

The only reasonable argument I’ve heard to keep from shuttering Backpage is that it provides a tool for law enforcement to identify trafficking victims. But Kristof points out that:

Village Voice makes some effort to screen out ads placed by traffickers and to alert authorities to abuses, but neither law enforcement officials nor antitrafficking organizations are much impressed. As a result, pressure is growing on the company to drop escort ads. has a petition to shut down Backpage. Weigh the pros and cons yourself. If you want Backpage shut down, sign the petition here.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.”

–        Edmund Burke.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 15, 2013, in feminism, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. It is tragic that human trafficking is part of our society. It is absolutely frustrating that in most cases, when people are caught, it is the girls who get arrested more often than “Johns,” and arresting a pimp is close to impossible. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to get out once you have been coerced into the lifestyle; especially if the girl started young or was brought over to this country with empty promises of a better life. I agree, this issue is a complex one; there is no definitive answer, but shutting down websites that sell sex doesn’t seem like a completely unreasonable place to start.

    • ” I agree, this issue is a complex one; there is no definitive answer, but shutting down websites that sell sex doesn’t seem like a completely unreasonable place to start.”
      It does to me. I have never heard a convincing argument that it actually does any good for people coerced into sex, but I have heard many arguments that it harms sex workers in general.

  2. Here is an excellent reference that I read and I encourage all to read. Its called, “Half the Sky”. It talks about countering the oppression over women world wide and helping them see opportunities for better lives.

  3. Please tell me what you think of the points made in this article:
    I am continually frustrated by how much complex issues of human rights and safety are simplified in mainstream feminist discourse. I understand how shutting down prostitution ads might seem like the right thing to do, but I am not convinced that it will do more good than harm.

    • I tried to present both sides in my piece, which includes Jezebel’s point.

      Feminists don’t have to follow a party line.

      Feminists make a variety of points, as they see it. Others can decide what they think.

      • I’m not saying that feminists have to follow a party line. I’m saying that I think the issue is oversimplified.
        I happen to think that the safety of non-trafficked prostitutes is an important issue that is being ignored in the calls to shut down prostitution ads.
        I think the question of whether to sign the petition comes down to the effect of shutting down the ads on trafficking victims vs. the effect on non-trafficked prostitutes. When I look at that what I see is unknown vs. very bad.

      • When you write in 500 block pieces points come out in dribbles. I wanted to write about the harm first. Will eventually write about solutions. Mine, and most feminists, is to decriminalize prostitution while criminalizing pimps, trafficking.

        Now you’ve got me wondering. What are your non-simplified thoughts on the topic?

        Here’s what I’ve posted so far, creating an arch:

        Becoming a Sex Worker – The Benign Side
        Becoming A Sex Worker – The Brutal Side
        Ex-Hooker’s Letter to her Younger Self

      • I think the biggest issue is that we need to stop asking whether sex work is benign or brutal and instead ask what effect both activist actions and legislation will have on sex workers, trafficked and otherwise.
        Here is one blog post I wrote on the subject a few years ago:
        I wrote my senior thesis on the effects of four different legal models according to news media and and I’ve been thinking of uploading it as a wordpress blog.

        Here is a blog post that I think is more to the point than anything I’ve written:

      • I’m curious as to why you think that we should stop asking whether sex work is benign or brutal. I think it’s important that people understand that different types of sex workers have different types of experiences, and what you do will be affected by that. In fact, I hardly know how you could come up with a strategy if you can’t tell the difference.

      • I’m not saying we should stop talking about different kinds of sex work. I just think benign/brutal is a false dichotomy that doesn’t help when coming up with solutions.
        For example, that last post I linked was written by a former sex slave who definitely didn’t describe her experience as “benign,” but she was also arguing that taking down prostitution ads wouldn’t have helped her escape and might have made her situation worse. (She was recently interviewed about her experiences here: (Also, I probably should have put a trigger warning on that link to the interview.)
        When I was researching my project I read about some pretty horrible experiences that prostitutes had in New Zealand, but because prostitution is decriminalized in New Zealand they had legal recourse against both abusive clients and brothel owners who pressure them to take on those clients. It hasn’t created a perfect world, but I would say it is progress.
        Having read about that, full decriminalization sounds to me like the best approach from a human rights perspective, but I am always seeing articles that say, “bad things happen to prostitutes and some people are forced into prostitution, therefore prostitution should not be decriminalized,” with very little explanation as to how criminalization is better.
        You say you want to decriminalize prostitution, but I don’t see how shutting down prostitution ads is consistent with that position. Do you think backpage ads are unique in helping traffickers? Are you in favor of the Swedish model, where pimps and johns are criminalized, but prostitutes are not? I see that one being advocated by a lot of feminists, but it comes with its own problems.
        How do you define “pimp?” Is it specifically someone who coerces girls into prostitution and keeps most of the money, or is it anyone who benefits from a prostitute’s earnings (which can include any adult members of her/his household)? Can you make a distinction between those two when there is an abusive relationship involved?

      • Anyone who sells another’s sexuality is a pimp.

        re “I just think benign/brutal is a false dichotomy that doesn’t help when coming up with solutions.”

        Seriously? It’s the furthest thing from a false dichotomy! And important to creating solutions. For instance, if the police think it’s all benign, then trafficked prostitutes get arrested instead of helped.

      • “Anyone who sells another’s sexuality is a pimp.”
        But how do we determine that legally? What is your position on legal brothels? Groups of prostitutes working together with one of them being responsible for contacting clients?

        “Seriously? It’s the furthest thing from a false dichotomy! And important to creating solutions. For instance, if the police think it’s all benign, then trafficked prostitutes get arrested instead of helped.”
        Because non-trafficked prostitutes should be arrested and not helped? That makes it a lot less benign, don’t you think? The very threat of being arrested leaves them without legal recourse if their jobs take a more brutal course. See the 4th part of Jill Brenneman’s interview for an example of how anti-prostitution laws make that situation worse.
        And didn’t you say you supported decriminalization?

      • But how do we determine that legally? What is your position on legal brothels? Groups of prostitutes working together with one of them being responsible for contacting clients?

        I’m definitely not as interested in this topic as you are. But you also seem to act like the topic is far more complex than it really is.

        Clearly, it depends on whether the woman is being coerced into selling her body or whether she has voluntarily joined a group that facilitates her work in someway. And all of her income should not be taken from her. Everything I just described happens with pimps. A pimp is selling someone else’s bodily sexuality. A Madam is helping a prostitute to facilitate selling her own.

        And you didn’t seem to understand my second comment. When police think that a prostitute is voluntarily prostituting herself, and that she’s not being harmed, then the police are more likely to arrest her and not help her, even though she may in fact be coerced by a pimp. In situations where a prostitute is freely selling her services, the police don’t need to help her. Where a pimp is involved he’s causing harm and so the police need to arrest him. Where a madam is involved and the prostitute sees that as helpful, then clearly she doesn’t need to be arrested. Whether what is happening is benign or brutal makes all the difference. Perhaps your failure to make the distinction between benign and brutal explains why you see so many complexities where they need not exist.

      • I tend to look at the issue mostly in terms of public policy, activism and its effects, and those can be very complex. My main concern is that well-intentioned activism hurts people in unintended ways.
        I understand that some people in prostitution may be very lucky and never face any brutality, while for others the experience is nothing but violence and coercion, but it is the experiences in the middle that I think are the most important to look at when deciding on solutions. That is what I mean by “false dichotomy.”

      • Well I disagree with you, for the obvious reasons I described.

        I also get the sense that you are less interested in the issues I write about than saying things in ways that you hope will make you look like you’re “so smart,” and smarter than me or any of the people who write on my blog, or probably anyone else’s blog. And for some reason you don’t get that that intention is obvious to everyone.

        If you can’t be respectful in future comments I will not post you.

      • No. It was not my intention to look “so smart.” If that’s all you took away from anything I said, then I’m sorry for phrasing it so poorly and I’m sorry for wasting your time.

      • Well, I’ve never read a comment from you that wasn’t you “trying to look smart.”

  4. While I have nothing against prostitution, I don’t think backpage should be shut down no more than I think a pitbull should be put down because its owner made it aggressive and ill mannered. I say keep backpage on because no matter what there will always be a market for flesh atleast backpage keep it to one place.

  5. excellent, thank you.

  6. Thanks for another good job.

  7. Georgia, you have done it again. I will link back here with something later 😉

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