12:59 pm Feb. 29, 2012
This afternoon, the City Council will hear a resolution urging Village Voice Media, parent company of The Village Voice, to scrap the adult section of its online classified website, Backpage.com, over sex-trafficking concerns.
The resolution is sponsored by a pair of Democratic lawmakers: Brad Lander, who represents some of the tonier enclaves of Brooklyn, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and a sliver of the Bronx.
"I’m outraged that Village Voice Media is willing to make money off the exploitation of trafficking victims through Backpage.com’s adult services advertising,” said Lander in a statement.
Mark-Viverito echoed his remarks: “Village Voice Media must ensure that children and teenagers are not being abused in the commercial sex industry with help from their website. This resolution sends the message that we will not stand silent while this company profits from exploitation. It is time for Village Voice Media to follow Craiglists’s lead and stop accepting adult advertising.”
Backpage is both a boon and a headache for Village Voice Media, which acquired its flagship publication in 2005 under a previous corporate title, New Times Media. While the site serves as a revenue driver for a publisher trying to keep a national chain of cash-strapped alt-weeklies afloat, it's also cast a cloud of controversy over the company, which has been facing mounting pressure to stop running the seedy online classifieds. Activists say the site provides a forum by which minors can be sold into prostitution.
The charge against Backpage has been led by a multifaith social action group called Groundswell, which started a petition on the website Change.org. It intensified after Craigslist shut down its adult services section in 2010 in the face of public opposition and a letter from 17 state attorneys general. (Attorneys General from 48 states have written a similar joint letter to Village Voice Media about Backpage.) Media coverage of Backpage has also intensified in the past year.
On the celebrity front, Ashton Kutcher has called for Village Voice Media media advertisers to stop doing business with the company. His activism prompted a cover story called "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight" that ran in all Village Voice Media papers back in June.
More recently, Norman Mailer's son, John Buffalo Mailer, has spoken out. And in January, Film Forum, the indie Manhattan movie house, pulled all of its advertising from the Voice following the publication of a blistering op-ed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, who exposed the travails of a 13-year-old girl who'd been marketed by a pimp through the site.
In public statements, Village Voice Media's attorney has argued that shutting down the adult services ads, which Village Voice Media says it monitors closely, would constitute censorship.
"We do not disagree with the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) about trafficking underage children for sex," he wrote as part of a lengthy statement to Kristoff. "Of course, Village Voice Media stands against such repugnant criminal behavior. But we are not going to sit quietly while officeholders exploit crimes against kids for political purposes."
A press release issued by the council members this afternoon notes that numerous state law enforcement agencies, including New York's, have arrested pimps who used Backpage.com for trafficking teenage girls in recent months.
"The Brooklyn District Attorney has prosecuted 32 sex trafficking cases in the past year and a half, the vast majority of which involved girls who were marketed through Backpage.com," according to the release.
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