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Village Voice Media defends its backpage.com ad policy

Religious groups and others fear ads may facilitate child sex trafficking, but Village Voice papers have run articles saying the concerns are overstated.

November 28, 2011|James Rainey

It's not hard to find news accounts of additional allegations of underage prostitutes whose services are sold on other websites. Craigslist is among those cited in the stories — the listings apparently appearing under headings other than the "adult services" category shuttered 14 months ago. Craigslist declined to comment.

A Village Voice executive, who asked not to be named for revealing confidential information, said that backpage.com, where online escort ads and the like go for about $10 each, produces at least one-seventh of the company's revenue.

It has spared little editorial muscle in trying to debunk the suggestion of a crisis in child sex trafficking. It has run two lengthy stories, publishing them in all 13 of its publications, which most often choose to cover topics locally.

The stories suggested that nonprofit operators gain financial support by inflating the magnitude of the child sex trade. One pointed out, correctly, that activist actor Ashton Kutcher had erred last spring when he said there were "between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today."

A study had found, instead, that 100,000 to 300,000 children are "at risk" of falling into prostitution because they are runaways or part of other vulnerable groups. The Village Voice article taunted Kutcher for getting the fact wrong and for inflating "the supposed appetite for underage prostitutes."

The second cover story cited social science researchers to debunk the idea that the principal threat comes from predators, who force teens into the sex trade. One of those quoted was Ric Curtis, chair of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who found after hundreds of interviews that the majority of youths selling sex made the transactions themselves, without a pimp or other intermediary.

Curtis criticizes "moral entrepreneurs" who he believes mischaracterize underage prostitution, in some cases to prop up nonprofit organizations and praised Village Voice for publicizing the political machinations and charged rhetoric surrounding the issue.

But Curtis and another researcher quoted by Village Voice publications — Mary Ann Finn, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University — said they thought the stories had added their own confusion to the issue. The two academics said the problem was how the alternative papers harped on arrest statistics — just 827 for child prostitution nationally over the most recent decade. "It significantly undercounts the problem when you just talk about the arrests," Finn said, something she thought Village Voice did not make clear. Finn added that, as owner of backpage.com, Village Voice has "a vested interest in minimizing the problem."

Suskin, Village Voice's lawyer, said the company should not be punished because of a handful of bad actors. "Criminals send drugs through Federal Express," he said, "but we don't eliminate Fed-Ex just because a few criminals do that."

james.rainey@latimes.com

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