By Jonathon Van Maren
To start your Monday off with some good news, here’s the story that had friends from across the continent messaging me in excitement this weekend. From the New York Post:
Sleazy classified site Backpage.com was shut down Friday after the FBI raided the home of its co-founder, according to new reports.
Agents raided ex-owner Michael Lacey’s home, according to a local CBS affiliate — while users are sharing screenshots of a message saying it has been “seized” by the feds.
“backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division,” says the message shared by numerous sex workers across the US and Canada.
“Backpage has just been seized by the federal government and taken down. This is terrifying,” tweeted porn star Taste the Moon alongside the screengrab.
Others worried they won’t get money back from ads they’ve placed on the site, a popular marketplace for sex.
“So how much money do you think #backpage just stole from us? Thank you for getting rich off of us then kicking us while we’re down by changing the way we pay for ads, and pocketing our current balance,” wrote Miss Marla Moon.
Backpage has long been in the crosshairs of lawmakers, law enforcement and activist groups, who say its listings enable sex trafficking. The Department of Justice and FBI didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Several of my friends were at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s annual conference in Washington, DC over the weekend, and one of them said that the atmosphere when the news broke was roughly equivalent to that of a surprise Superbowl win. It’s not hard to understand why: Backpage.com has been a hub for human trafficking for a long time. Activists have been trying to shut it down for years. Consider this anecdote, related by a heartbroken mother in The Guardian last year:
The first time Kubiiki Pride used Backpage, America’s largest classified website, was to buy a fridge. The second time she sold some clothes. The third time she was looking for her 13-year-old daughter.
The family had spent nine frantic months looking for MA, posting flyers, launching public appeals and scouring the streets. It took Kubiiki less than five minutes to find her on Backpage. “We were so desperate we were trying everything, but when my husband said check Backpage I was confused because I thought it was a site where you sold stuff you didn’t want any more. It never occurred to me that children were being bought and sold, too.”
Kubiiki found the site and clicked on the adult section. “It took a minute for the page to load, but immediately the third link down from the top just caught my eye,” she says. “It was covered in hearts and these little flower pictures. It looked like something a kid would like, so I clicked on it and there was my baby.”
Initially Kubiiki was so flooded with relief at finding her daughter that she didn’t register what she was seeing. “At first I didn’t see the nakedness or what she was wearing or the poses she was in, but then it began to sink in, what the ad was for, and everything just fell apart.”
The Prides’ journey into the darkness of America’s domestic sex-trafficking industry had started the previous summer with an everyday act of teenage defiance. Kubiiki had told her daughter MA she was too young to attend an end-of-school party. Later that night MA sneaked out to join her friends, but found herself alone and without a ride home. A woman passing by offered help. “And that,” says Kubiiki, “was the start of my baby’s descent into hell.”
MA never made it home. Instead she was taken to a house, raped, beaten and fed drugs. “My 13-year-old was starved, had her head shaved, was abused and then, when her spirit was broken and she was addicted to the drugs she’d been given, they sold her on Backpage like she was a used car,” says Kubiiki, her voice cracking down the phone line from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. “When we got her home, a piece of her soul had gone forever.”
The trafficker was caught and given five years in jail, but the explicit photos of MA remained online. “I called Backpage dozens of times asking them to take down those photos, that my daughter was just a child and that what had been done to her was a crime,” says Kubiiki. “They refused and said if I didn’t pay for it, they couldn’t take it down. In the end they just stopped returning my calls”…
Nobody has a clear idea of how many children have been sold on Backpage but, currently, 73% of child sex trafficking reports NCMEC receives from the public relate to Backpage ads. NCMEC’s early collaborative relationship with Backpage soured when, Souras said, it became clear the site was using NCMEC as good PR but failing to implement adequate checks and balances that the centre believed needed to be put in place to protect vulnerable children.
Backpage.com facilitated the selling of children, sex trafficking, illegal prostitution, and the destruction of young lives. The fact that it is now shut down is an enormous victory for those who sought to protect and rescue the victims of human trafficking. It cannot repair the damage that has already been done, but hopefully it can protect countless others.
For anyone interested, my books: The Culture War, Seeing is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion, and How To Discuss Assisted Suicide, are available for sale here.