Lawyers' Surreal World and the Fight Against Selling Children

By Elizabeth Palmberg 10-26-2011

When three dozen prominent interfaith clergy (including Jim Wallis) signed an ad in the New York Times saying that the best way to stop the sex trafficking of children on Backpage was to shut down that website's "adult" section, the company's response was awfully familiar to me. Rather than accepting this advice from the clergy--which was the same as the urging of the attorneys general of 48 U.S. states plus three territories--Backpage went on the defensive.

This reminded me, a lot, of the time I spent last summer talking with a lawyer for Craigslist, following up on Sojourners' anti-child-trafficking story Selling Our Children. The lawyer was generous with his time, which he spent trying to assert that Craigslist's adult services section was not to blame for the child-selling that occurred there, despite activists' claims.

Backpage has also brought out the high-priced lawyers, who last month sent all those attorneys general a letter touting its safeguards. Washington state's attorney general Rob McKenna was unimpressed by Backpage's assertions. As that letter was being written, police in the Seattle-Tacoma area were rescuing three 15-year-old girls--who were being sold on Backpage.

Reading the letter, I was impressed, but only by the surrealism with which Backpage asserted, with a straight face, that it was not doing anything illegal because its adult service advertisers are instructed to "not suggest an exchange of sex acts for money." What does Backpage think people pay it to advertise--to the tune of $2.1 million in the month of August alone--good conversation and shoulder rubs?

Craigslist's lawyer, when I talked to him last summer, also kept a professional straight face. He spent some time explaining why shutting down the site's adult services section was a bad idea and would never happen. Like the anti-trafficking activists his firm was mailing legal threats to, I found this less than compelling.

A few days later, Craigslist shut down its adult services section.

So, to those galvanized by recent outcry against Backpage, I say: Keep up the good work. As the New York Times ad says, this is only one step among many needed to fight commercial sexual exploitation of children--but every step is worth taking. And stay tuned to Sojourners for ongoing coverage of the movement against the despicable practice of human trafficking.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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