Higher cost of buying sex without backpage

Sex Trafficking on Backpage Debate


Backpage.com is the second largest classified ad website after Craigslist.  Like Craigslist used to, Backpage has a section for adult ads and content.  Many “pimps” use the site to advertise women that they control through force, fraud, or coercion.  It’s very common for the women to be girls under the age of 18.  Such acts by the pimps are legally defined as “human trafficking,” which is the fancy name for “modern slavery.”
Backpage logo
The Sex Trafficking on Backpage Debate is about what should be done about it.  After receiving much negative press for its facilitation of human trafficking, Craigslist shut down its adult section.  Backpage has yet to do so, and it’s not necessarily simple to decide whether they should.

Possible Effects of a Victory for Either Side

I think we’re looking at two major potential effects on Human Trafficking if the adult section of Backpage gets taken down:

  1. Instances of Human Trafficking go down
  2. Instances of Human Trafficking stay the same
I think that the goodness of eliminating Backpage’s adult section comes down to which effect is more likely to happen.  Let’s look at the assumptions of how society responds that build into each effect.

Actual Instances of Trafficking Go Down

If actual instances of trafficking go down, it will probably happen as a result of
  1. An increase in the cost of supplying victims
  2. An increase in continuing other necessary activities to trafficking
Supply and demand elasticity example on sex trafficking on backpage debate1.  With the loss of a simple way to advertise victims, traffickers will need to turn to other sources to connect with “Johns” or “Janes.”  This may make it more costly to provide victims to people since advertising may become significantly more difficult.  With some basic economics, we can guess that an increase in the cost to a supplier means that traffickers will only be willing to supply the same amount of women and girls at higher prices, and depending on how elastic demand is, we should see a coordinating drop in the amount of women and girls actually demanded (see the graph to the right.)
This assumes that demand for women and girls is fairly elastic compared to increase in real cost to traffickers to provide women and girls.  This assumption is important, and unsure.
2.  If advocates succeed in closing down or getting Backpage to close down its adult classifieds, it may catalyze other actions that impose costs on traffickers.  A victory may invigorate the public in the fight against trafficking and increase awareness.  Authorities may feel more public pressure to crack down on trafficking.  Traffickers may get caught and prosecuted more frequently.
This assumes that the public gives a care about the issue, and that the anti-trafficking sphere can effectively rally behind such a victory.  This assumption is important, and unsure.
It also assumes that authorities will have effective ways of cracking down on traffickers.  This assumption is important, and I think reasonably safe.
The two combined effects may push traffickers out of the market and make the market less attractive to enter.  This would ultimately lead to less actual instances of human trafficking.

Actual Instances of Trafficking Stay the Same

If actual instances of trafficking stay the same, it will probably happen as a result of
  1. An inelastic demand for commercial sex
  2. A reduction in available tools to fight slavery
  3. A migration of the advertisements to other online sources
supply and demand inelasticity example on sex trafficking on backpage debate1.  We really don’t have a ton of data on the elasticity of demand for commercial sex, especially the illegal kind.  Perhaps some economists could study the demand in areas where prostitution is legal, and therefore more easily observable, but many other variables will limit the generalizability of the results (such as location, age of the woman demanded, culture, etc.)
If demand ends up being fairly inelastic, then an increase in price for commercial sex will not significantly reduce the quantity of commercial sex demanded (see the graph to the right.)  Thus, shutting down Backpage will not significantly effect this black market, and actual instances of trafficking will not go down.
2.  Officers currently use Backpage as a way to find traffickers and rescue trafficking victims.  This article from Star Tribune references an officer that talks a little about the frequency of which he uses it.  The big question we need to answer with this is how well we can fight trafficking with or without this resource.
Can we eliminate more traffickers by continuing to use their advertising system against them, or by eliminating their advertising system?  Will getting rid of this advertising source simply push the issue into darker corners where it’s harder to fight?  We need to ensure that law enforcement will be equipped to pursue wherever the traffickers go, and if they will not be able to keep up, should we get ride of Backpage’s adult ads?
 To answer these questions, we’re probably going to need to implement some serious analytics.  I do not know how law enforcement tracks potential traffickers (this article has an example of ASU and Pheonix Police working together to come up with some answers,) but I would bet that it could be improved and used more effectively should it become a greater priority.
3.  Obviously, if traffickers can’t advertise on Backpage, the alternatives they go to may just be other online sources.  Will we have the power to get all online websites on-board with tracking trafficking issues?  Perhaps Backpage hasn’t been incredibly cooperative (though there’s reason to believe they have done ok,) but what are the odds that other sites will be more cooperative?  What are the odds that other websites will have the data gathering and mining power to track the problem as effectively as a large firm like Backpage?

Hypothetical Situation

Sometimes we can learn a little more from stories as well.  Let’s take a hypothetical situation.
Kimberly is a 16 year old girl currently being sold on Backpage for commercial sex.  She doesn’t like that she can be so easily exploited through a website that profits from the criminals causing her so much harm.
Legislation passes that outlaws Backpage’s adult content section, meaning Kimberly will no longer be sold on Backpage.  How does her pimp respond?  If you guessed that he decided to let Kimberly free, you’re probably not very familiar with the issue.
Whether or not a pimp would be very frustrated is questionable, as well as whether or not the pimp would take it out on the girls, but either way, the pimp still has the girls.
Kimberly continues to get sold for commercial sex, but now in different ways.  Her pimp sometimes has her walk the streets soliciting.  Sometimes her pimp finds other shady websites to use.  They frequent truck stops, and one way or another, the pimp finds ways to continue the abuse.
Did shutting down Backpage get Kimberly out of trafficking?  No.  Did it increase her likelihood of getting out?  Probably not, unless the local police force is really good at taking care of street prostitution or truck stop trafficking.
Girls that used to be trafficked on Backpage but have since been freed from slavery will probably love to see a website that facilitated so much pain for them go down, but for girls still in trafficking situations, I’m not sure that we  can guarantee that shutting down the adult ads on Backpage would be a victory for them.

Peripheral Effects

Shutting down the adult ads on Backpage may have some indirect effects on trafficking as well, and will inevitably play a role in non-trafficking related debates and discussions.  Just a few points I want to mention include:
  1. A hope of creating a larger, aggregate attack on slavery
  2. A symbolic action of wider spread fights against slavery
  3. An ongoing discussion on freedom of speech, especially as it relates to the internet
1.  Hopefully, cutting down the adult ads on Backpage makes up a small piece of a larger push to end slavery.  If we’re serious about shutting that hub down, we need to ask some serious questions:
  • What other things should coordinate with this move?
  • Can we simultaneously attack the alternative advertising outlets for traffickers?
  • How will traffickers respond if we manage to “push them into a corner?”
  • Can we handle a critical mass of these criminals “backed into a corner?”
The point is that this issue can hopefully catalyze other actions, and we should make serious efforts to coordinate those other actions with this one.
Batman logo
Batman intentionally used this as a symbol.
Can we get results as spectacular as fiction?
2.  There’s an important difference between symbolic action, and “real” action.  Even if shutting down the adult ads on Backpage doesn’t cause a reduction in real instances of human trafficking, it may symbolize the greater fight against trafficking, and the sentiment that society holds against these actions.  With this, we need to ask ourselves a few things:
  • How much do we value symbolic action vs. real action?
  • How well can we translate symbolic action into real action?
  • Should we devote many resources to symbolic action?
A victory for the advocates of shutting down the adult ads of Backpage could have far reaching effects through what it symbolizes.  But unless we translate the symbolism to reality, I do not know how much a person living in a trafficking situation would value it.
3.  There’s quite the vigorous debate concerning anything that has to do with free speech, and it’s particularly intense around the internet.  The internet has been fairly intentionally set aside to be extra free to promote the mixing of ideas, innovation, and social mobility.  This would probably be just a small drop in the bucket of the debate, but we have questions that we need to answer here as well:
  • What precedents do we set by forcing a webpage to shut down through legislation?
  • Will the net benefits of more restricted internet communication exceed the net benefits of maintaining a more free internet communication?
There’s certainly more that could be said for this debate, but I am choosing to not focus on them here.

We Need Data

I think you have probably gathered by now that much of the debate exists because we lack sufficient and reputable data.  We need to find answers to a few major issues:
  1. How effectively have we used Backpage’s adult ads for good?
  2. Could we use Backpage’s adult ads more effectively to do good?
  3. What other ways do pimps advertise to “clients?”
  4. Ultimately, would actual instances of slavery be reduced as a result of eliminating Backpage’s adult ads?
1.  We need to gather some data on what we have done with Backpage’s adult ads site:
  • Do we know the key words and phrases that can give traffickers away?
  • Do we know other patterns (in terms of pictures, locations, claims) that can give traffickers away?
  • How many arrests have come through the use of Backpage’s adult ads?
  • How many victims have been freed through use of Backpage’s adult ads?
If we have been highly effective historically, there’s reason to believe that we can continue to effectively use Backpage’s adult ads to fight slavery.
2.  We need to seriously evaluate what we can do to fight slavery better:
  • What analytic processes could we use to come up with a more robust system?
  • Could stronger relationships with Backpage increase our efficacy?
  • What if we posted the anti-trafficking hotline on the ads site?
If we could improve our use of Backpage more effectively than we could shut it down, then let’s shift our focus.
3.  How well do we understand how pimps advertise to clients?  We need to find out certain things about their advertising habits:
  • How high are the switching costs to go to another form of advertising?
  • How effective are other methods for them than Backpage’s adult ads?
  • How many pimps actually use Backpage?
This is certainly difficult data to obtain, but important in the aggregate fight against modern slavery.
4.  The crux of the issue is whether or not slavery will actually be reduced if we shut down Backpage’s adult ads.  We need to ask the very simple question:
  • Will actual instances of slavery be reduced as a result of eliminating Backpage’s adult ads?
If not, let’s stop bothering with it.  If so, then we have another question:
  • Will we reduce the instances of slavery to a greater degree by shutting down Backpage’s adult ads, or by using Backpage more effectively?
I say, let’s fight for whatever frees the most people in this unfortunate situation.

Regardless of What Happens, We Know What to Do

We can act to fight slavery independent of what happens in the Backpage debate.  Just do what’s best in either situation.
As long as Backpage’s adult ads are up, we need to
  • Foster better relations between Backpage, law enforcement, and anti-human trafficking organizations
  • Run better analytics on Backpage’s adult ads
If Backpage’s adult ads get taken down, we need to
  • Rally around the symbolism
    • Don’t lose steam
    • Keep fostering a sense of urgency
  • Come up with parallel solutions and bring them to the forefront of the issue
  • Address gaps in providing care for victims

Final Thoughts

All of this says nothing about the question of the morality behind selling sex at all.  That’s an issue I very deliberately did not address in this blog.  This blog is about whether or not closing down Backpage’s adult ads is good for victims of human trafficking.
Since this is such an emotional issue, it’s easy for many people to get caught up in bandwagons and popular ideas.  Many groups and people are doing a great job at focusing on rational, results driven attacks on human trafficking, and I commend them.  Here’s to a continued focus on effective solutions and freedom.
If you read the first link, you will have seen that Washington was considering a law that would effect Backpage by requiring it to ID the people that offer “adult” services on its website.  Just as an update, that law has died.  Here is an article that talks about it in more detail.
And here are all the articles I referenced, and one or two more:
Overview of the problem from Star Tribune
If you want more information on human trafficking in general, I recommend these websites:
National Human Trafficking Hotline Number
Polaris Project runs the national hotline.  If you see
a suspected case of human trafficking, or have questions,
call it.
Put it in your phone.
Please let me know where you think I have gaps or falicies in my thinking.  A large part of my focus with this blog is continually learning the truth about issues, and I learn well through respectful debate or counterpoints.

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