Advertisers are pulling ads from Village Voice Media in an attempt to pressure the chain to shut down a website that has been accused of facilitating child sex trafficking.
In response to a Change.org campaign, 27 companies, including H&M, AT&T and Ikea, had pulled their advertisements by Thursday afternoon. Justin Wassel, a minister from Ohio, started the campaign following reports that young girls were being peddled alongside bikes and refrigerators on Backpage.com, Village Voice's online classified ad section.
Backpage brings in about $22 million a year in prostitution ads in its "adult entertainment section," according to AIM Group, a media research and consulting company. Backpage hosts 70 percent of online prostitution ads in the United States.
While many of the ads are placed by adult women of their own volition, many ads are placed for underage girls by pimps, The New York Times reported. Pimps approach vulnerable young girls, many of whom are runaways or have been perviously abused, earn their trust and then force them to turn tricks.
"I urge you to consider ... those who have been forced into a life of modern-day sexual slavery," Wassel wrote in his petition. "You, from right where you are, have the opportunity to make a vital impact on their lives, their futures. You will be able to say that you and your company have good moral conscience for the well-being of all, and you will have stood up for those who can't stand up for themselves."
On Wednesday, a group of five U.S. senators released a statement calling on Village Voice to do away with the adult services section of Backpage.com, which allows users to sell everything from "body rubs" to "escorts." Since August, 51 attorneys general have condemned Backpage for facilitating child sex trafficking, Business Insider reported. Goldman Sachs, which owned a 16 percent share of Village Voice Media, severed ties last month due to controversy over the issue.
“The so-called ‘adult entertainment’ section is nothing more than a front for pimps and child sex traffickers," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a news release. "This is absolutely sickening and should be stopped with all the tools available to us."
Village Voice Media has 123 moderators reviewing the content of Backpage to try to identify ads for underage prostitution, Forbes reported. The company has also publicly supported federal legislation that would fund beds and assistance for the victims of child sex trafficking.
The company has adamantly argued, however, that both the problem of child sex trafficking in the United States and Backpage's involvement in the trade have been exaggerated.
"We're being told that there's a widespread, growing and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: 'trafficking,'" wrote Tony Ortega, editor-in-chief of The Village Voice, in an editorial last year. "The actual data behind this 'epidemic' is wanting in the extreme. It involves guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agendas about sex work."