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Eliminating the "Adult Entertainment" Section of the Classified Advertising Web Site Backpage.com

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. KIRK. Mr. President, we often hear and read about stories of young boys and girls in foreign countries forced into sexual slavery. Helpless children as young as 11 and 12 years old are threatened, abused, raped, and sold for sex. But we rarely hear about the child sex trafficking that happens here at home in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Miami, and most major metropolitan cities in the United States. Experts estimate that each year as many as 300,000 children are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S. An alarming 40 percent of incidents investigated by federally funded task forces on human trafficking between 2008 and 2010 involved the sexual exploitation of a child, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report.

The numbers are rising, in part because it has become frighteningly simple to order a child prostitute on the Internet. One merely needs to look at the classified ads on Backpage.com, the leading Web site for prostitution advertising in the United States according to the Advanced Interactive Media, AIM, Group. The website's ``adult entertainment'' section generates more than 80 percent of total prostitution advertising revenue on the web. This section includes services such as ``escorts'' and ``body rubs,'' a thinly veiled code for prostitution. Just a few clicks on this site easily enables ``johns'' to purchase children for sex. Law enforcement believes that the existence of Backpage encourages the recruitment of victims for sexual exploitation because it allows traffickers to operate out of sight from police patrols.

Backpage.com is owned and operated by Village Voice Media Holdings, the former parent company of the alternative weekly Village Voice publications. The company, which makes an estimated $26 million per year from these ads, claims it polices the ads on its site, but the statistics and devastating reports say otherwise. According to the National Association of Attorneys General, 23 States have cumulatively filed more than 50 charges against suspects trafficking minors on Backpage.com.

In August 2011, nine members of the Vice Lords and other south and west side of Chicago gangs were charged with operating a major sex trafficking ring. Some of the girls forced into sexual slavery were as young as 12 years old. Victims suffered immense abuse, including beatings, branding, tattooing, death threats, being locked in car trunk, and forced to sleep outside even in cold Chicago winters. The gang members used Backpage.com to facilitate their operation.

In August 2012, Marques Williams was arrested and charged with a Federal sex trafficking complaint for trafficking a 15-year-old girl in Rochester, NY. Advertising the young girls services on Backpage.com, Williams forced her to take up to 15 customers a day.

In December 2012, Fernando Gonzales was sentenced to 20 years in prison for child sex trafficking. Fernando raped and impregnated a 16-year-old girl, then forced her into prostitution and advertised her services on Backpage.com. When the victim tried to escape, Fernando threatened to kill her and her child and then carved his initial into her arm.

Unfortunately, there are too many stories like these. As news reports of pimps and traffickers using Backpage.com to advertise sexual services by minors continue to increase, we cannot leave our children defenseless. The profit-first mentality at Village Voice Media, which prioritizes the rights of pimps, not children, must end.

Fifty-one attorneys general, 36 clergymen, dozens of anti-trafficking organizations, columnists and editorial boards across the country, and 240,000 individuals through change.org have called on Village Voice Media to shutdown the ``adult entertainment'' section on Backpage.com. Even John Buffalo Mailer, son of Village Voice's co-founder, publicly urged Backpage.com to eliminate the section.

Over the past year, I joined with several of my colleagues in a bipartisan fashion to work to prevent children from being exploited and trafficked on Backpage.com. In March 2012, 18 Senators joined me in a letter to the Chairman and CEO of Village Voice Media Holdings, demanding the elimination of the adult entertainment section on the classified advertising Web site. I then led an effort to bring to the attention of those advertising on Village Voice publications the kinds of activities supported by the company. As a result, eight companies and organizations responded to our letter announcing the end of their advertising relationship with the publications. This had a clear effect, as a number of then-executives at Village Voice Media Holdings spun off the weekly publications as a new company in an apparent effort to circumvent the public relations disaster Backpage.com rightly caused Village Voice Media. But children continue to be bought and sold on Backpage.com.

Senator Blumenthal and I introduced S. Res. 439 as part of this effort to curb online child sexual exploitation. The legislation calls on Village Voice Media Holdings to eliminate the ``adult entertainment'' section of Backpage.com. By passing S. Res. 439, the U.S. Senate will present a united front in the fight against online child sex trafficking. We will be making it clear that the American public strongly condemns the facilitation and perpetuation of human trafficking by website operators. I want to especially thank Senators Blumenthal, Rubio, and Cornyn for their great partnership and leadership on this effort, hope the rest of our colleagues will join us and pass S. Res. 439.

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