April 13, 2012
On March 29th, Washington State governor Christine Gregoire signed into effect a law that will require advertisers of escort services to check IDs. The law, the first of its kind in the nation, aims to prevent child trafficking by prosecuting websites and print publications that fail to verify the age of people featured in sex-related ads.
Sex trafficking is a major concern in Washington’s recent state legislation; of the 100 bills that Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law on March 29, twelve concern sex trafficking. A Seattle City human services report estimated that annually there are 300-500 cases of minors exploited for sex in Seattle. The new bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, stated, “We must do everything possible to raise the bar for protection against these crimes, and the ability to prosecute offenders when they occur.”
Facing strong repercussions is backpage.com. Backpage has been the most popular mainstream site with escort ads since 2010, when Craigslist.org removed its escort section in response to political pressure. But backpage has also been connected with many instances of underage sexual exploitation: in the first half of 2010, Seattle Police Department recovered 22 children advertised on the site. It’s no surprise, then, that the new law’s most outspoken opponent is the site’s owner, Village Voice Media Holdings. Village Voice’s general counsel Elizabeth L. McDougall argues that the law “would effectively shut down an enormous portion of the Internet that currently permits third-party content,” including forums and chatrooms where illicit ads were reposted.
For adult escorts, online and printed ads can be safer than other forms of advertisement, allowing them to screen clients privately before meeting them. However, this is not the case for children featured in ads. Below the age of consent, they are frequently runaways or coerced into sex work. The minors you see advertised are invariably the victims of individuals who exploit them for profit.
But some critics question the new law’s effectiveness in responding to the grave problem of child trafficking. Identification can be falsified, and given how easy it can be to create a new site, advertisers could find another way to publicize.
It’s true that the law will not eliminate trafficking, but it is a step in the fight against child exploitation. Other states, including Connecticut, are considering similar legislation. Groups that seek to end child trafficking agree that states would do well to follow Washington’s lead.
In recent decades, Washington State has faced the issue of trafficking head-on. According to the New York Times, the 1990s saw a series of high-profile events related to trafficking, leading to the 2003 state law that first criminalized human trafficking. In Seattle, where more children are rescued from trafficking than in much of the country, State Attorney General Rob McKenna stated this year, “That’s in part because we’re doing a good job of looking for them and finding them. Some places, they aren’t even looking.”
Last summer, the city’s mayor, Mike McGinn clashed with alternative publication Seattle Weekly over the issue. Though the newspaper, also owned by Village Voice, takes some steps to monitor its escort ads and respond to law enforcement, McGinn criticized the blind eye the newspaper turns in reprinting suspicious backpage.com ads, which he asserted contribute to underage trafficking. When the newspaper refused his request to pull its controversial escort ads, McGinn canceled city funding of the publication in response. The financial loss to the newspaper was negligible in comparison to its revenue from backpage ads, but McGinn’s pressure was nevertheless an important symbolic gesture, one that has become concrete with the state’s innovative new law.
SB 6251 is a firm response to online threats, recognizing the importance that the Internet has in the danger or wellbeing of young people. Several other bills that Gregoire signed into law on the 29th will crack down on other key players in trafficking – namely, those profiting from and those paying for sexual services. One targets the pimps of minors; another prosecutes those who sell people with mental disabilities for sex; a third punishes individuals who ensnare minors in transportation hubs such as bus stops. The financial penalties associated with buying or selling sex for a minor have been raised more than tenfold, to a fee of $1,500 to $10,000, depending on prior convictions. Together, the laws affirm Washington State’s commitment to eliminate trafficking. Though this goal may not be met in the near future, similar legislation in other states or on a federal level could make great strides.
A. Grace Steig is a freshman in Yale College. She is the copy editor for Broad Recognition.