Last Thursday, with a flourish of her pen, Governor Gregoire finally confronted the malignant growth of sex trafficking. It’s about time.
Most notably, the Governor’s signature places culpability on the Internet companies that have been unwilling to eradicate the presence of human trafficking from their sites (Trib 3/29).
It has been at least three years since this crime has become a repititive topic of conversation at the regional gang meetings I attend. Since then I have been briefed on numerous prostitution investigations involving young girls, most of whom where under the age of 18, and the gang members who force them into the role. The girls are often runaways who are befriended by young men with ready access to cash. Over time the girls reported that their boyfriends began threatening, hitting and sexually assaulting them, all in an effort to lower their self-esteem. Thus, their boyfriends became their pimps.
I have seen this process in action. A couple of years ago I watched a local gang member exit a halfway house for registered sex offenders. He was closely escorting two scantily clad girls who could have been no more than sixteen. As disturbing as that encounter was, the case became just one more stat in the prosecutor’s sex trafficking case against just this particular gang. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more where that came from.
Over time I also learned that, despite their individual rivalries, the gangs involved in sex trafficking were consistent in one aspect: They all used Internet websites, such as Craigslist.org, Google and Backpage.com, for their (free) advertising. At the time it was a secret known only to pimps, johns and cops. Due to exhaustive efforts by rights groups, intensive media scrutiny, and legislative work in Olympia, the issue is now out in the open where it should be.
For now, let’s leave aside the matter of adult prostitution. Yes, it is still a crime in most of the U.S., but it is also true that most police departments spend little time enforcing adult prostitution, especially given current budgetary constraints. Note the repitition of the term, “adult.”
Juvenile prostitution is a whole different ball game. A young girl’s journey into this sordid life begins with coercion, as I mentioned. It is then enforced by privations of food and illicit drugs (an addiction which is sometimes forced on them). The term sex slavery is an apt one for the problems in our state and our country. If nothing else, we have lost the moral authority to point fingers at third world countries where the sex trade also flourishes.
The re-emergence of sex trafficking in the U.S. is a trend linked to both legitimate and criminal enterprise. The latter, especially criminal street gangs, have found that promoting prostitution is a lucrative business with less risk of incarceration and property seizure as their primary enterprise, selling drugs. The emergence of the Internet, with its local and global reach, has created a means of advertising, pricing, scheduling and recruiting that would has made sex trafficking such a successful phenomenon. Advertising technology used by corporations such as Google and Craigslist.org has enabled this industry to stay ahead of law enforcement, while making huge profits (which ironically are used to lobby against legal reform). Backpage.com, a lesser known online ad forum, has increasingly been mentioned as the source for juvenile prostitutes.
The new state law – which requires companies to confirm the age of the individuals involved in online ads – has finally addressed this problem. While pimps are the true bad guys in this story, wealthy Internet companies bear a significant share of the responsibility when they fail to ensure that juveniles aren’t being sold as sex slaves on their websites.
It will be interesting to see how Backpage.com and others react to these new constraints. Will they fire up their legal teams, rush to file paperwork and vilify the government’s attempt to, once again, restrict freedom? Or will they quietly put their ill-gotten profits in their already fattened wallets and realize that they need to take a stand against the victimization of young girls and boys?
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.