In a very unusual move, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution last week calling on the Village Voice to rid itself of its "adult" web feature that, critics argue, serves as a vehicle for prostitution and human trafficking including child prostitution.
The resolution was sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who argued on his website that "The site's 'adult entertainment' section generates more than 80 percent of prostitution advertising revenue on the web. Village Voice Media, which makes an estimated $26 million per year from these ads, claims it polices the ads on its site, but the statistics say otherwise. According to the National Association of Attorneys General, 23 states have cumulatively filed more than 50 charges against suspects trafficking minors on Backpage.com."
The measure passed by a voice vote, meaning that ayes and nays were not recorded.
Pressure has been building on the Village Voice for some time. In September 2011, attorneys general from 48 states and three territories signed a letter outlining the modus operandi of the website and demanding corrective action.
"We have tracked more than 50 instances, in 22 states over three years, of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com," the attorneys general wrote, "These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist. These cases often involve runaways ensnared by adults seeking to make money by sexually exploiting them. In some cases, minors are pictured in advertisements."
New York Times columnist Nichols Kristof wrote a scathing column March 17, 2012, profiling a child prostitution victim of the Village Voice.
"After Alissa (her street name) testified against her pimps," Kristof wrote, "six of them went to prison for up to 25 years. Yet these days, she reserves her greatest anger not at pimps but at companies that enable them. She is particularly scathing about Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that is used to sell auto parts, furniture, boats — and girls. Alissa says pimps routinely peddled her on Backpage.
“You can’t buy a child at Wal-Mart, can you?” she asked Kristof. “No, but you can go to Backpage and buy me on Backpage.”
In April 2012, several senators, again led by Sen. Kirk, sent a letter to advertisers requesting that they use their economic leverage to pressure the Village Voice. According to Sen. Kirk's website, several major corporations agreed to do so.
Forty major advertisers received the letter, but according to Kirk's website only eight of those responded and agreed to ban future advertising with the Village Voice: Toyota, AT&T, Live Nation, Crown Imports, MillerCoors, Children's Wish Foundation, Mayo Clinic and T-Mobile.
Among major corporations that received the letter but apparently have not responded are Barnes & Noble, the American Automobile Association, Anheuser-Busch, Hyatt Hotels, Foot Locker and Marriott International.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.