Recently, a large amount of evidence was uncovered revealing that Backpage.com has been facilitating prostitution and child sex trafficking through the promotion of ads posted on its website. For years, Backpage has absorbed and dissolved accusations of these crimes by various non-profits and congressmen. They have dodged several lawsuits, many involving murders of young women who were victimized and trafficked through ads placed on their website. Similar to Craigslist, Backpage allows its users to post ads and sell various items, including sex ads.
Backpage hosts ads through its “Dating” section showing scantily clad women and underage teenagers in explicit images, offering, for example, to “Let a young babe show you the way” or “Little angel seeks daddy.” This has been a huge source of controversy. In years past, Backpage has cited the Communications Decency Act in its defense, which protects websites that display ads posted by a third-party, whether by another website or person.
Backpage hired an ad agency from the Philippines that specifically searches for advertisements concerning sex. This website looks for these ads on various websites and offers advertisers the opportunity to re-post on Backpage for free.
However, recent evidence suggests that Backpage has edited these advertisements to use less-suggestive or explicit words. Since Backpage has interfered with the advertisement process, the immunity previously provided by the Communications Decency Act could be null.
A mother whose daughter was trafficked on Backpage at the age of 15 was among some of the women who have lost lawsuits against Backpage for trafficking and prostitution charges. Her daughter was trafficked on Backpage for nearly 3 months. “I find it morally disgusting,” she said. “Not only are they exploiting young women that are clearly vulnerable, but they’re furthering their exploitation by putting them on another website. It just shows the lack of morality of this company, how little they care about the victims. Which child is going to be enough to make this end?”
In recent years the subject of human trafficking has gained more traction. Yet, many Americans have little understanding of where and how trafficking begins. The stereotype is that trafficking is mainly a problem in third-world countries, yet many do not consider how American people are involved in and even continue the cycle of trafficking.
Last summer, I spent some time working with a small ministry that cares for victims of sex trafficking in the heart of inner-city Akron, a city in Ohio of less than 200,000 people but with one of the highest drug overdose rates in the country and a hub for human trafficking. When I heard these statistics, I was shocked. I grew up near Akron and had no idea that human trafficking was happening anywhere close to where I grew up or was even an issue in America at all.
The ministry is stashed away in the same area where women are picked up off the streets, prostituted, and trafficked. This involves a deep, dark cycle between the victim and a pimp, who oftentimes forces drug-use and uses fear-tactics to falsely create an attachment in the relationship. The victim submits to the control of the pimp again and again, until it is all she knows and the only way she understands how to survive.
The women involved in this ministry harbored horror stories. Some women come to the ministry simply for free health and hygienic supplies. Some women would return simply for a gentle hug and smiling face.
Written on their faces is the pain of violence and shame of what they have had to suffer. One woman returned again and again to a Bible study we hosted, sometimes with black eyes which were often bloodshot and glazed over. Some women suffered broken ribs.
Not only does forced prostitution take an obvious toll on the body physically, but the emotional, mental, and spiritual effects are widespread. Victims of trafficking often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by harrowing experiences that often include violence, forced captivity, control, and fear. Mental symptoms of PTSD are manifestations of deep emotional wounds that are difficult to heal. How does a woman who has been victimized by sex trafficking learn how to view herself as a free and independent woman after such a traumatizing experience? It is not simply knowing she is free, but changing thought patterns which have been embedded in her mind, telling her that her worst fears are true: she is insignificant, she is invaluable, she is unforgivable, she is unchangeable, she is unlovable.
Many ministries which try to help solve issues with trafficking focus on the mental and emotional healing process, helping women recover from trauma and PTSD. However, a woman is not only defined by her physical or even emotional or mental health.
Jesus teaches us that the root of a person lies on a spiritual level. When asked how to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered, saying “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind…” (Luke 10:27). Jesus desires that we love Him with our whole person: with our heart’s desires, our soul’s reliance, our physical strength, and our mental capacity. All of these components are involved in the development of our relationship, commitment, and fellowship with Jesus. It is where our love for Him blossoms and strengthens. Commitment to Him is not simply spiritual, it is holistic: divine intervention within our humanness. God created us with a beautiful multiplicity and a unique capacity for love. The multiple facets of our human condition are unified in our worship and submission to His will.
The trafficking of children and adults is a direct attack on this holistic concept of personhood that is rooted in Jesus’ love. The victim’s personhood is undermined at every level—physically, mentally, emotionally, and, ultimately, spiritually. Therefore, the battle against human trafficking is ultimately a spiritual one. In Luke, right after Jesus commands us to love Him with our whole person, He commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Unfortunately, human trafficking is not only present in third world countries—it is right at our doorsteps here in America. Loving our neighbors means establishing, renewing, and refreshing their concept of personhood—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—in the love exhibited by Jesus’ teachings and, ultimately, His work on the cross. The controversy involved with Backpage is not simply a matter of the law, it is a matter of people’s personhoods being taken advantage of and being broken down and dehumanized into a purely sexualized image, exacerbated by a culture immersed in pornography.
Regardless of what Backpage did or did not do, they’re dabbling in a dark field through the dissemination of sex ads. These ads perpetuate the cycle of prostitution and trafficking. It is our responsibility as Christians to respond and to battle back against this scourge. The cycle of trafficking can be broken. These victims can be reached, healed, and reestablished as whole people through a holistic and complete concept of personhood through Jesus Christ.
Mary Beasley is an intern at Family Research Council.