Activism Works Against Sex Trafficking

By Letitia Campbell 10-12-2010

Atlanta activists say years of work to combat the trafficking and prostitution of girls in Georgia -- work described in "Selling Our Children", in the August issue of Sojourners -- is paying off. The number of girls trafficked in Georgia had been steadily dropping for six months -- even before Craigslist shuttered the "adult services" page at the beginning of September under mounting pressure from activists and politicians.

According to a study by the Shapiro Group, an independent research firm that works closely with Georgia anti-trafficking activists, the number of girls trafficked in Georgia has trended downward over the past two quarters (the period from March to August of this year). This is the first time the numbers have trended downward in two successive study periods since the group began collecting data in August 2007.

In contrast, in three key states where the Women's Funding Network has begun gathering statistics as it moves to support new statewide anti-trafficking efforts, domestic sex-trafficking of minors increased in the same six months, according to the Shapiro Group. In New York, Michigan, and Minnesota, the number of girls trafficked increased by double-digit percentages between February and August of this year. Deborah Richardson, Chief Program Officer of the Women's Funding Network, shared this research at the first-ever congressional hearing on domestic minor sex-trafficking last month.

The multi-state research also confirmed that in each location studied internet-based classified ads play a critical role in the child sex industry. That's why Craigslist's move to shut down its adult services listings has been greeted as good news by anti-trafficking activists.

"As far as we're concerned, that was definitely a victory," said Kaffie McCullough, who directs the A Future. Not a Past. campaign at the Atlanta-based Juvenile Justice Fund. "Craigslist was the predominant spot where buyers were going [to purchase sex with minors]." But this is only the beginning, she adds. "We're not under any illusion that this is going to stop [child sex-trafficking]."

Indeed, there is already some concern that the marketplace for selling and buying sex with minors has migrated to other websites. In September, 22 state attorneys general wrote a letter to online classified service Backpage.com asking them to remove adult services listings from their site. Backpage.com's parent company (Village Voice Media) is also being sued by a 15-year-old who says she was forced into prostitution on the website at the age of 14. The site is expected to earn about $17.5 million in profits from online sex ads this year and was rated the number two site for "adult services" in the U.S., after Craigslist.

As for the impact of the Craigslist decision, Alex Trouteaud, of the Shapiro Group, says he'll wait and see what the numbers say when the next study is conducted in November. "We get to see first hand, in an objective way, what the data says. If we find that the overall level of activity is down, this would have to be viewed as a victory for advocates."

Letitia Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in Christian social ethics at Emory University, is a founding editor of Practical Matters (www.practicalmattersjournal.com).

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