A popular website listing adult services, including escort advertisements, has been named in a lawsuit for allegedly enabling child sex trafficking. Two Jane Does, who live in Massachusetts, allege being trafficked for sex while they were minors. Pro bono attorneys have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the girls, against Backpage.com, for their part in advertising sex services.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The two young women plaintiffs are named as Jane Does. Jane Doe #1 has claimed she was a victim of sex trafficking when she was between 15 and 16-years-old. She says she was sold for sex more than 1,000 times during that time from 2012 to 2013, across Boston and Rhode Island. Jane Doe #2 makes similar claims, being trafficked at the age of 15 across Massachusetts from 2010 and 2012.
The girls were not trafficked together, but each claim they were part of a group of young girls, or "stable," who were repeatedly moved around by traffickers, sometimes staying in a city only a day or two. The traffickers would place ads on Backpage.com advertising sex services. After pressure forced Craigslist out of the adult services business in 2010, Backpage.com quickly became the most popular site for escort services in the U.S.
According to the complaint filed against Backpage.com LLC, their business model knowing promotes, supports, benefits from, and contributes to child sex trafficking. The complaint alleges violations of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 and the Massachusetts Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The suit alleges further claims that Backpage, and their parent company, Camarillo Holdings, misrepresented to law enforcement that they were committed to preventing its website's use in child sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking cases usually involve the prosecuting the traffickers themselves. This new kind of case brings the novel approach of holding the electronic hosts of the market accountable for damages to the young girls. The lawsuit alleges Backpage.com intentionally misrepresented their efforts to eliminate child sex trafficking, while never intending to follow through with promises, all the while increasing its role in the online sex advertising world. In doing so, they claim Backpage.com went out of its way to protect the sex traffickers, and cannot avail themselves of legal protection generally given to website companies.
According to general counsel for Backpage, Elizabeth McDougall, the company has not done anything wrong. Backpage claims they will deny and vigorously dispute the allegations alleged in the lawsuit. This is not the first, and may not be the last legal claim against Backpage.com for their role in advertising underage sex work. In Washington State, a lawsuit was filed against the company on behalf of three underage girls who were sex trafficked through the website's ads.
Police officers and prosecutors alike have been frustrated by Backpage.com. The attorneys general from 48 states have written a joint letter to the website, asking them to stop exploiting children. Boston police Sergeant Detective Donna Gavin, of the trafficking unit is familiar with the use of Backpage to advertise underage sex. "Backpage allows pimps and buyers -- who are often very violent -- easy accessibility and anonymity to buy these girls. Backpage really facilitates the sex trade," said Gavin.