One of the most hidden and hideous crimes in America is the sex trafficking of children. But this selling of minors quickly becomes less hidden when Internet sites for community advertising become giant magnets for the sex trade.
In 2009, the classified-ad giant Craigslist was forced under public pressure to end its sexually related advertising, in large part because of the difficulty of blocking ads that also lead to sexually exploiting children.
Now, a popular site run by Village Voice Media, which owns a chain of “alternative” news publications, is being targeted for not screening its “adult” advertising very well for criminals in the business of exploiting children for sex.
In August, the nation’s state attorneys general demanded that the Village Voice close its entire adult site. Then last week, an interfaith group of 36 clergy took out an ad in The New York Times making a moral case for the same action.
The Village Voice, which makes millions from its adult Web ads, claims it has lately devoted resources to blocking such ads, even working with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children – while at the same time claiming a free-speech right to keep its adult ads.
But the attorneys general cite dozens of arrests in various states for child-sex crimes related to the site. This popular advertising hub for sexual services, they say, posts pictures of adults, but then “minors are substituted at the ‘point of sale’ in a grossly illegal transaction.”
The site, in other words, facilitates a criminal activity. Both the clergy and the law enforcement group say screening is either unreliable or insincere, and that the only way to prevent such crimes via this site is to shut it down.
In Seattle, meanwhile, the mayor has withdrawn official city advertising from the local weekly that runs adult ads, making a similar charge.
Adult ads have long kept many urban alternative newspapers financially afloat. And as their print versions have declined, the publications find Internet adult ads to be similarly lucrative.
A legal test of the Village Voice’s arguments may be a long way off. But like Craigslist, the publication is on weak moral ground if it claims that no minor will be sexually exploited as a result of its ad site being misused.
Child sex trafficking is one of the world’s fastest-growing crimes, according to the United Nations. Even if the number of cases in the United States is low compared with the number of cases in countries such as Mexico or Cambodia, every effort must be made to end it – not just curb it.
“Traffickers who exploit runaways and other disadvantaged kids shouldn’t be provided with a tool that makes that process easier,” says Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt.
Sexual predation of minors requires a zero-tolerance policy by both media and government. Such actions are even more difficult in the digital age in which predators can use smart phones or other devices to avoid detection.
Even if the Village Voice relents, other Internet bulletin boards may become as popular in attracting ads for the sex trade. But as law enforcement pursues such sites, stronger efforts must be made to safeguard children from being forced into the sex business. Families and others must also better nurture and protect younger children to prevent such abuse.