By Aaron Blevins, 7/19/2012
Advocates demand L.A. Weekly’s owner take down Backpage.com
An organization that provides resources to victims of sex trafficking is asking for the public’s help to shut down Backpage.com, an online classifieds section owned by Village Voice Media and used in its publications, such as LA Weekly.
Andrea Powell, the executive director of FAIR Girls, said that the website enables pimps to advertise girls, sometimes as young as 12 years old, to “buyers” online. The organization recently released an ad with a young actress portraying one of their 13-year-old clients who was advertised on the website’s adult section.
“Like everyone using the Internet for marketing, so are the pimps,” Powell said. “It’s easier to sell a girl hundreds and hundreds of times than to sell a drug once.”
She said Village Voice Media, previously The Village Voice, was founded as a paper for the people. However, the company refuses to take Backpage.com down, citing freedom of speech protections, Powell said. A phone call to Jim Larkin, the CEO of Village Voice Media, was not returned by deadline.
Powell said underage girls are frequently advertised on the site, though pimps make it difficult to discern adults from children. She said underage girls are typically advertised as being 19 years old.
“It’s just a very complicated situation,” Powell added.
She said Village Voice Media has also argued that the site assists law enforcement in catching sex traffickers. While that has occurred a handful of times, Village Voice Media makes almost $27 million annually on body-rub and escort advertisements, according to an AIM Group study referenced by Powell. According to AIM Group, when Craigslist dropped its adult service ads in 2010, Backpage.com became the leading U.S. site for prostitution advertising.
“They’re clearly not going to budge,” Powell said.
She said many FAIR Girls clients are between the ages of 11 and 21 years old. The company is nine years old and based in Washington, D.C., and generally, its clients are referred to them or are “self-reporting,” Powell said. FAIR Girls aims to prevent the exploitation of girls worldwide through prevention education, support and survivor advocacy.
The girls’ average age is 16, and many come from foster care or are run-aways, she said. Powell said many have been through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Such girls are ideal for pimps because they are vulnerable and “off the radar,” she said, adding that very few had Amber alerts issued when they went missing.
“It’s sad that’s what you see,” Powell said.
The executive director said online advertising for sex is enticing to pimps, as girls are more accessible to a larger number of people, and “buyers” prefer to seek such services at home, as opposed to the streets at night, Powell said. She said Backpage.com enables this activity, and that 44 of the organization’s 47 current clients were advertised on the site.
“It’s made the marketplace a lot more viable,” Powell added.
John Buffalo Mailer, the son of Norman Mailer, one of The Village Voice’s co-founders, said it is “disgusting” what the new owners have done to his father’s publications through their use of Backpage.com.
“It’s the antithesis to what the founders had in mind when they started the company,” he said, adding that classifieds section now serves as a middleman for prostitution. “For my money, it’s unforgivable.”
Mailer said The Village Voice did not participate in such activities when it was still controlled by its co-founders. In fact, years ago, when one of the co-founders, Ed Fancher, learned that the massage parlors advertising in the publication were likely “shifty,” they phased them out, he said. Staffers noticed that the ad revenue from these companies did not seem to fall in line with the foot traffic they would get from the publication, Mailer added.
He said Village Voice Media’s reluctance to scrap Backpage.com is likely profit-driven.
“It makes sense in a cold, economic point of view,” Mailer added.
Powell said FAIR Girls has been garnering signatures for an online petition, and calling on the public to contact the company’s advertisers, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to request that they cease advertising in Village Voice Media publications. The petition has nearly 40,000 signatures.
For information, visit www.fairgirls.org. To sign the petition, visit www.signon.org/sign/village-voice-media-please.