World's Top Online Brothel Falls

Human trafficking survivor Rebecca Bender now trains law enforcement to look out for victims.
Human trafficking survivor Rebecca Bender now trains law enforcement to look out for victims. (Sergey Kolivayko)

This is a historic week! On Jan. 9, backpage.com, a website notorious for its facilitation of prostitution and sex trafficking finally shut down the "adult" sexual services advertising section of its website.

The website, which Polaris Project calls "the world's top online brothel," removed the prostitution ads section only hours after a scathing U.S. Senate report concluded that the website was the "largest commercial sex services advertising platform in the United States." The Senate report also noted that "Backpage officials have publicly acknowledged that criminals use the website for sex trafficking, including trafficking of minors."

This has been a very long battle for leaders in the movement to combat sex trafficking, and we are excited to see this amazing breakthrough come to fruition.

Backpage.com was developed 13 years ago to compete with Craigslist, the nation's largest online classified ad platform. The site offers ads in 600 cities and 90 countries. In 2013, of the nearly $45 million generated annually by prostitution-based online advertising, backpage.com accounted for 82 percent of the overall revenue, making it the leading publisher of these types of ads.  

Over the years, thousands of people including children, have been exploited for sex by pimps and traffickers via the website's' advertising platform. The Senate report concludes that not only was the site hosting ads for domestic minor sex trafficking victims, but was also actively concealing it. The report alleges backpage.com President Carl Ferrer knew his company tasked employees to delete words such as "Lolita," "rape," "Amber Alert," "fresh" and "school girl" from listings.

Spokespeople for backpage.com have tried to spin the story to one of government censorship and a violation of First Amendment rights. However, that argument holds little weight in the face of evidence showing the extreme harm that the site has caused to countless victims. What some fail to realize is that the rights of free speech are not unlimited. When people will be put in a clear and present danger, the government has the right to intervene to limit or stop that kind of speech. The prohibition of child pornography and the censoring of hate speech are but two examples of when the government has exercised the right to intervene when necessary.

Many sex trafficking survivor leaders have come out against backpage.com, pointing to the role that it played in aiding their exploitation and abuse.

This battle over online commercial sexual exploitation is far from over, as it is expected that other avenues for advertising will open up. Yet this moment is truly a giant step forward for those fighting for a world without commercial sexual exploitation.

"This is a monumental time in history," says Rebecca Bender, a sex trafficking survivor and CEO of the Rebecca Bender Initiative. "What Backpage has done, by knowingly allowing online ads of children, is not a matter of censorship; it is an organized company using an online avenue to conduct criminal activity and finally that avenue has been brought to the light. Now we must fight, we must call our senators and attorney generals and rally for prosecution. The fight to hold companies accountable is just beginning."


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