The Weekly, its parent company face backlash over Online sex ads that exploit teens
Amid the controversy engulfing The Weekly and Village Voice regarding advertising that critics say aids in the sex trafficking of girls and women, a look at a local residential-recovery program for prostituted youngsters.
Seattle Times staff reporter
How to help
The Bridge Program for prostituted youth has raised about $1.6 million but needs approximately $300,000 to fully fund the pilot program through June 2013. Donations to the City of Seattle Prostituted Children's Rescue Fund can be mailed c/o the City of Seattle Human Services Department, P.O. Box 34215, Seattle WA, 98124-4215.
There's a black futon in the upstairs hallway of an old, beautifully restored house, the location of which is a guarded secret in Seattle.
The futon is for the night terrors. The house is for the girls in the city's year-old Bridge Program, one of only a handful of residential-recovery programs for prostituted youth in the United States.
Three of the six girls who live in the house were advertised as escorts in the adult section of backpage.com, the online classified-advertising site owned by Village Voice Media Holdings, parent company of Seattle Weekly and a dozen other newspapers across the country.
The Weekly and Village Voice have come under fire in Seattle and elsewhere because critics say some of the advertising aids in the trafficking of girls and women in cities across the country.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has ordered all city departments to halt advertising in the Seattle Weekly. On Friday, the Hollywood, Calif., chapter of the National Organization for Women sent a letter to McGinn supporting an advertising boycott of Village Voice Media.
That's part of a backlash directed at Village Voice, which is also fighting a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a Missouri girl who claims backpage.com is liable for facilitating her sexual exploitation.
McGinn made it clear in a meeting July 15 with representatives from Village Voice that he was targeting only backpage.com, and not another advertising site run by the city's other free weekly, The Stranger, or any other websites with adult listings. The city has found no evidence linking those sites to juveniles involved in the sex trade, he said.
The Stranger, which runs escort ads on naughtynw.com, requires in-person verification of escorts' IDs, and proof of age and identity of anyone pictured in an escort ad. McGinn asked Village Voice during his recent meeting to pull all of its escort ads until it implements a similar policy. Village Voice representatives said they would consider McGinn's request.
(The Seattle Times does not accept ads for escort services, massage parlors or strip clubs.)
Dennis Culloton, whose public-relations firm in Chicago represents Village Voice Media, said the media company is working hard to discourage illegal conduct. He said that in the past year or so, it has spent more than $2 million on technological improvements and staff to screen escort ads posted on the site.
Lt. Eric Sano, of the Seattle Police Department's Vice and High Risk Victims Unit, said the online ads on backpage.com have prompted more prostitution investigations than any of the other escort-advertising sites monitored by his unit's detectives.
"Clearly, backpage leads the pack," he said. Eighty percent of the girls and young women found by Sano's unit — juveniles and suspected juveniles who turned out to be adults — were advertised on the site.
Since January 2010, Sano's detectives have investigated 57 prostitution cases that originated with advertisements on backpage.com, 21 of them involving girls younger than 18. In that time, detectives also investigated several other sites that advertise "escorts," including nine cases off Craigslist, two from The Stranger's online ad site, one from tna.com and two from men4rentnow.com, but none of those investigations ended up involving juveniles, he said.
As a result of its prostitution investigations, Sano's unit last year found a total of 81 prostituted youths, up from 40 in 2009, 30 in 2008 and 20 in 2007.
In the past three years, one King County senior deputy prosecutor alone has filed charges in 18 cases involving pimps — and a couple of customers — who used backpage.com to advertise or find juveniles and young women for sex, said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Of those, five were convicted, seven pleaded guilty and six are awaiting trial, said Goodhew.
But officials say there are more local girls involved in prostitution than police statistics reflect. Over the past year, two case workers — one who works in King County's juvenile-detention center and the other who does community outreach with youth — have identified 185 females younger than 18 who admitted involvement in prostitution, said Leslie Briner.
Briner, associate director of YouthCare's residential programs for people younger than 18, including The Bridge Program, said of the 185 girls identified, 119 were enrolled in at least one YouthCare program. Of those 119 girls, half were exploited over the Internet and 22 of them said they were advertised on backpage.com.
She also noted that in addition to the three girls living at The Bridge house who were advertised on the site, six of the 18 girls who went through the program last year were pimped through ads on backpage.com.
Culloton, the Village Voice spokesman, said backpage.com employees work closely with law enforcement and as a result banned nudity along with more than 21,000 terms used to describe sex acts from use in escort ads.
In the past year, the company has hired more than 120 people who screen ads and pass along approximately 250 tips a month to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when they suspect a juvenile is being advertised on the site, Culloton said.
During that time, backpage.com screeners — who respond to about 50 subpoenas from law enforcement every month — have banned almost 100,000 users and blocked thousands of computer IP addresses because of suspected wrongdoing, he said.
"Behind every suspect ad, there is an adult who is furthering this potential crime," he said. "... Individuals who want to break the law and think they can do so on backpage.com run a great risk of being arrested and prosecuted. There's been tremendous investment in security and safety (infrastructure) to protect our children and protect our communities."
Sano, the vice lieutenant, acknowledged that backpage.com quickly responds to warrants and subpoenas — usually for credit-card information that helps police identify pimps — but he said the company isn't absolved of its role in contributing to sexual exploitation just because it complies with court orders.
"They're making a lot of money off these ads," said Sano.
In November 2008, Craigslist — the online advertising giant that was long used to advertise escort services — reached an agreement with 40 state attorneys general to purge ads linked to prostitution from its site and better enforce its own rules against illegal activity, according to The New York Times.
In September, Craigslist abruptly shut down its adult-services section, less than two weeks after 17 state attorneys general sent a letter to the company, demanding that it discontinue sex-related ads, according to The Times.
Mark Whittaker, a senior consultant with the AIM Group, a Florida-based consulting firm that focuses on classified advertising, said personal ads represent a lucrative income for websites and newspapers. He estimated Craigslist made nearly $45 million in yearly revenue from escort ads in 39 cities before pulling the plug on them.
The AIM Group estimates that backpage.com generates about $2 million a month in online revenue from escort and massage ads in 23 cities, including Seattle, Whittaker said.
Culloton, the Village Voice spokesman, declined to say how much money the company makes from its escort and massage ads.
"They are a privately held company and we do not need to disclose our financials," he said.
The cost of placing ads varies, depending on geographic location, but generally ranges from $1 to $5 per online ad in Washington state.
Despite the growing scrutiny of backpage.com, Culloton said the site — which like Craigslist also advertises apartment rentals, job openings and items for sale — isn't considering shutting down its escort advertising section. While users of the site are required to click a link confirming they are at least 18 years old, backpage.com does not require proof that someone depicted in an ad is an adult, he said.
The site's posting rules came under fire in a federal lawsuit filed in September in Missouri on behalf of a girl who was 14 when her pimp — now in prison — advertised her on backpage.com.
In one court filing, the girl's attorney, Robert Pedroli Jr., wrote that Village Voice Media is "aware of prior cases of minors being sexually trafficked on its website and based upon the posted ads and photography, no reasonable person could review the postings in the adult categories and deny prostitution was the object of almost each and every ad."
Attorneys representing Village Voice Media fired back, arguing that the website is immune from civil liability under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which exempts Internet service providers from being sued for content posted by "third parties," such as the girl's pimp, court records say.
In November, Village Voice attorneys filed a motion seeking to have the case dismissed on summary judgment, a legal device designed to provide a prompt ruling on a case's merits without resorting to a lengthy trial. After eight months, a judge has yet to rule on the motion.
SKIMPY OUTFITS, HEELS
In one recent ad posted on backpage.com's Seattle site, a woman who calls herself "Star," posts: "If you like to have a good time, I can help put the smile on your face. I am good at what I do." The ad, which includes a from-behind photo of "Star" bending over with her skirt hiked to her hips, lists her location as "By Space Needle," a known area of prostitution, according to police.
Skimpy outfits, sky-high stilettos and provocative poses abound on the site, along with ads that promise men "complete satisfaction" and realization of their "wildest fantasies." Many of the "escorts" pictured in the ads either hide their faces or blur them out.
While some ads suggest "donations" or "roses," others list hourly rates, which typically range from $80 to $300. Some ads warn men not to discuss services over the phone or to call from blocked numbers. Others instruct them to include their names and hotel-room numbers in any voice-mail messages.
A Village Voice story, which ran in the Weekly and 12 other papers last month, mocked celebrity couple Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore for their recent advocacy for prostituted youth and challenged the validity of a national estimate that puts the number of American juvenile girls involved in prostitution between 100,000 and 300,000 a year.
"There are not 100,000 to 300,000 children in America turning to prostitution every year. The statistic was hatched without regard to science. It is a bogeyman," the story says.
The article's authors analyzed a decade's worth of juvenile-prostitution arrest records in the country's 37 largest cities and found "slightly more than 800 underage arrests a year," according to the story, which put Seattle's annual average at 19.
But Village Voice's use of arrests records is "in many ways even more unreliable" than the national estimate since few U.S. police departments have dedicated squads looking for juveniles, said Julian Sher, a Montreal-based investigative reporter who spent two years researching and writing his book, "Somebody's Daughter: The Hidden Story of America's Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them."
When juveniles involved in the sex trade are arrested, it's usually for theft, not prostitution, he said. Lots of girls lie about their age and carry fake IDs — and once they are classified as adults in the criminal-justice system, "that's who they become," Sher said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates "that 100,000 children are wrapped up" in the sex trade at any time, said John Shehan, executive director of the center's Exploited Children Division in Alexandria, Va. "But we're never going to have a true, accurate statistic for this. We have dozens of confirmed cases, but they in no way paint an entire picture of what's happening."
"EPIDEMIC IS OVER"
At least one nationally recognized advocate agrees with the Village Voice story.
Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night in Van Nuys, Calif., claims she was the original source of the estimated 300,000 kids involved in prostitution a year — but that was 10 years ago.
Lee, a sociologist who began working with street prostitutes in Hollywood in the 1970s, said she came up with the number because at the time, 1 million American children were running away from home each year — and roughly one-third of them could be expected to become entangled in the sex trade.
"They are on the right side," Lee said of Village Voice. "Here's the deal: Child prostitution in America was at epidemic proportions between 1979 and 2009," Lee said. "The epidemic is over, though that doesn't mean there are not kids prostituting."
She attributes the decline to tougher laws and stiffer prison terms for pimps who prostitute juveniles.
Caleb Hannan, Seattle Weekly's managing editor, said the point of the recent story was to debunk the "bad science" behind national estimates about the number of American girls younger than 18 involved in the sex trade and to point out that no one really knows how many juveniles are being prostituted.
"I think what was said in the story is still true: Bad numbers lead to bad policy and the damage is real, whether anyone, politicians or otherwise, want to acknowledge that," Hannan said of the piece, which was not produced or edited by Weekly staffers. Sher notes in his book that Congress ordered the Department of Justice to conduct a national study on prostituted youth in 2005, a study that still does not exist.
Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, the nonprofit that runs Seattle's Bridge Program, and Briner, the associate director of YouthCare's residential programs for juveniles, recently gave Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess a tour of the Bridge house while the girls were away.
The program, which began as a two-year pilot, has been extended to three years. Funded largely through private donations, the Bridge Program needs approximately $300,000 to fully fund the program through June 2013.
In the dining room, Giovengo stopped to admire neatly crayoned pages that had been torn from a children's coloring book and taped to the wall.
"This is why we're here, so they can reclaim what was stolen," she said, smiling at the pictures of chicks and bunnies. "To be able to touch this part of these children is the miracle."
The girls in the program receive intensive therapy, alcohol and drug counseling and a rigorous course of academics. Staff don't punish the girls but instead reward and celebrate even small achievements.
"These children are living with a level of anxiety you can't even fathom," Giovengo said.
Which is the reason for the futon in the upstairs hallway, positioned with a clear view of the landing: "Some of our young people have extreme night terrors ... They were traumatized in bedrooms and beds, either through sex abuse as a young child or through the victimization that happened to them when they were prostituted," Giovengo said.
Offering them a nontraditional sleeping area, she said, "makes them feel safe — they don't feel claustrophobic and trapped and it alleviates some of the fear that stems from being traumatized in those intimate settings."
Burgess, who took the political lead in advocating for creation of the residential recovery program, said his office has focused on the local statistics, not the national estimates scrutinized in the Village Voice article. A 2008 report commissioned by the city said 300 to 500 girls are being prostituted in King County at any given time.
"Village Voice and backpage.com are messengers with a massive conflict of interest," Burgess said. "They economically benefit from the exploitation of juveniles so when they say there's not a problem or suggest the problem is distorted, they have zero credibility in my mind.
"This is a big problem in our region and frankly, even if there was just one (girl), it would be a problem."
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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