Warning: This post discusses sexual violence against children and human trafficking.
By Alicia Kysar
Alicia Kysar is a senior at Columbia University studying English and Political Science with a concentration in Pre-Law.
In June of this year, MasterCard joined Visa and American Express in announcing that it would no longer allow its services to be used for purchasing advertising space on the adult ad part of Backpage.com, a website that hosts advertisements uploaded by users for a wide range of services and products. In recent years, the site has become particularly notorious for featuring advertisements for sex, a large number—more than on other such major websites—of which support the child sex trade or human trafficking. 
Of the five major websites that host advertisements for sex, Backpage.com hosts about 70 percent of the advertising for prostitution. In 2012, the AIM Group estimated that Backpage earned more than 22 million dollars a year merely from prostitution advertisements.  In April of 2015, Backpage.com published over 1.4 million advertisements on its section for sex, and most of them were certainly legal. The significant percentage of those that are advertising children or victims of trafficking, however, cannot be ignored.  Credit card companies, in a move to curb the ability of sex traffickers to advertise their victims on the website, have withdrawn their services from all “adult” ads featuring any sort of prostitution, thus making it impossible for traffickers to pay Backpage.com with any major credit card.
This move has garnered praise from human rights activists and columnists such as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. However, it has faced legal opposition from Backpage.com, as well as criticism from others who claim that this is a violation of First Amendment rights to free speech. Kristof notes, “My guess is that a majority of sex ads on Backpage are for consenting adults. But a significant minority are for sex with children or with women who are coerced — representing some of the largest and most mistreated classes of human rights victims in America.” 
In a column, Kristof relates the story of a girl who was advertised against her will on Backpage.com for two years, beginning when she was fifteen. Because of the advertisements, she was raped about a thousand times. Clearly, even one instance of sexual assault is heinous, but to be assaulted approximately one thousand times in two years (meaning that she was raped on average at least once every day) shows a staggering and unimaginable level of brutality. Another victim, who managed to escape her pimp when he dropped her off at the apartment building of someone who had purchased her services through Backpage.com, was thirteen years old. 
Although the majority of those forced into the sex trade are female, it is important to note that men, and more frequently, boys make up a significant percentage of the victims. The statistics vary, as it is impossible to have a reliable system for tallying the victims of the sex trade, but according to one estimate, in 2003, 1400 children in the United States were arrested for prostitution or similar sex crimes, and thirty one percent of the children arrested were boys.  To fight back against the credit card companies, Backpage.com has filed a lawsuit against Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois who persuaded MasterCard, Visa, and American Express to cease to allowtheir cards to be used for purchasing sex on Backpage. The suit accuses him of violating the First Amendment rights of the website and of its users. 
However, this claim is likely to be legally indefensible. The move by the credit card companies simply suspends their services to one part of a website that hosts user-uploaded advertisements, just as several other websites do. If Backpage is unique in any way, it is in its willingness to advertise victims of sex trafficking, a distinction which they will certainly not formally pursue. Advertisers who seek to advertise consensual sex can continue to do so on a variety of other websites, or on Backpage if they are willing to pay the website in Bitcoin. And as for those who want to advertise children or victims of sex trafficking, well, as Kristof writes, we can “celebrate the struggles of America’s sex traffickers as their business model is upended.” 
 Annie Sweeney, “Visa, Mastercard: Cards Can’t be Used for Backpage.com Adult Ads,” The Chicago Tribune, July 1, 2015.
 Aamer Madhani, “Backpage.com Thumbs Nose at Sheriff After Visa, Mastercard Cut Ties,” USA Today, July 9, 2015.
 Nicholas Kristof, “Making Life Harder for Pimps,” The New York Times, August 6, 2015.
 Nicholas Kristof, “Teenagers Stand Up to Backpage,” The New York Times, November 1, 2014.
 Heather J. Clawson, Nicole Dutch, Amy Solomon, and Lisa Goldblatt Grace, “Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature,” United States Department of Health and Human Services, August 2009.
 Michelle Hackman, “Backpage Files Suit Against Cook County Sheriff Over Credit Card Service,” The Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2015.
Photo Credit: Flickr User frankieleon
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