Local View: Craigslist enables sex trafficking of minors

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Ten years ago we shopped and socialized in bustling commercial districts, but today we are more likely to turn to the Internet to fulfill our desires. Many of the physical visits to local shops and services have given way to virtual visits to businesses with the innovation to adapt to the World Wide Web.

Just as legitimate businesses have migrated online, so have criminal ventures, and a virtual visit to a number of classified services websites can seamlessly facilitate the purchase of sex with a minor.

Ten years ago these prostituted youth would be dressed up to look “old enough” and forced to solicit business on a busy street corner to fulfill the nightly quota for their controlling pimp. Today they stand on the virtual street corner of Craigslist, out of sight from those not looking for them but easily accessible for the shopper in the mall of human misery.

Craigslist is the giant in the nascent online classifieds industry. We use it to sell that slightly used couch or find a cheap replacement washing machine. We use it to buy and sell bicycles and to find apartments for rent in cities across the country. Ever the opportunists, child predators have spotted the potential of Craigslist’s “adult services” page and the website has become a bustling marketplace for the buying and selling of our kids for sex. A new slave block has been created on Craigslist and many other online classified Web pages. Today’s most marketable slave is an American child under 18 years of age, recruited and ensnared through manipulation and violence by a predator who sells her for sex in the towns and cities across her own country.

Craigslist has been under attack for facilitating the trafficking of women and children for sex by not prohibiting the thinly disguised ads that put them out for sale. Craigslist has become America’s most successful pimp, bringing in an estimated $36 million in profit from the posting of adult services ads last year.

Craigslist claims to have screened hundreds of thousands of ads submitted for posting to the adult services Web page, but has only reported 109 of the rejected ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for investigation into the potential of an exploited child in the ad.

Meeting demand

There would be little income from used couches or washing machines if there were no buyers seeking these items, so it is stunning to consider the magnitude of demand for sex with children in light of that $36 million profit. Who is demanding this “service” with our children?

Indeed, demand is enormous for commercial sex and allows these online classified businesses to garner huge profits while facilitating the public appetite, one that continues in the disturbing trend towards the purposeful hunt for younger and younger victims. Most girls who survive the experience of being forced into prostitution report having been sold through Craigslist to 10 or more men every day, sometimes being forced to post the ads for their own victimization. Many girls don’t survive to tell. A conservative calculation reveals that a child victim of prostitution is raped more than 1,000 times by as many different men over the course of one year.

Expert research shows that online advertisements for commercial sex have exploded. Law enforcement knows too well that a girl victimized through prostitution in the Portland/Vancouver area has most likely been advertised on Craigslist. Indeed, those ads purporting a date with a “young,” “barely legal” or “fresh” girl are code words for an underage girl, not a willing adult.

It has been more than 10 years since I left Congress, and during that time the Internet has grown largely unchecked. While regulators, legislators and courts wrangle over the ability to control content and outline responsibilities for online classified businesses, we must put a stop to this 21st century slave market which permits Craigslist to profit from the demand for commercial sex with our children. It’s time to end the demand.

Linda Smith of Vancouver, former U.S. Congresswoman (1994-1998) is founder of Shared Hope International, which is a leader in the worldwide effort to prevent and eradicate sex trafficking and slavery. Smith also served in the Washington Legislature from 1983 to 1994.