What do Mayor Mike McGinn, Seattle Police Department Chief John Diaz, and Ashton Kutcher all have in common?
They’re all pushing Village Voice Media—parent company of the Seattle Weekly—to make changes to its classified ad site, Backpage.com, which they say contributes to problems with juvenile prostitution.
“We have a serious problem in Seattle with underage sex trafficking,” Mayor McGinn wrote in a letter sent to VVM CEO Jim Larkin. “The Seattle Police Department has identified the use of the adult services section of Backpage as a contributor to the problem. Specifically, they are an “accelerant” of underage prostitution.
“In 2011 alone, SPD detectives uncovered four documented cases of child prostitution openly advertised on Backpage.com,” McGinn’s letter says. “It’s time to reexamine your polices. We must do better.”
In a memorandum which accompanied McGinn’s letter to VVM’s Larkin, SPD Chief Diaz wrote that he talso “believes that Backpage.com and its parent company Village Voice media is not doing enough to combat child prostitution.”
It appears Mayor McGinn was drawn into the fight against juvenile prostitution by none other than Dude Where’s My Car and Punk’d star Ashton Kutcher.
Kutcher has recently been involved in bizarre PSA campaign against sex trafficking—guided by former Gates Foundation staffer Trevor Neilson—and took to Twitter this week, slamming VVM for profiting off “the sale of human beings.”
It appears Kutcher and Neilson also enlisted McGinn into their campaign via Twitter.
In an email this afternoon, Seattle Weekly Editor Mike Seely responded Mayor McGinn’s letter to his bosses at VVM:
We’re pleased that Mayor McGinn is concerned about sex trafficking and underage prostitution, and he’ll be happy to know that Village Voice Media, which owns Seattle Weekly, has been working to combat it longer than Ashton Kutcher has.
The majority of Backpage.com’s employees are charged with making sure inappropriate or illegal adult or personal content either doesn’t make it onto the site or is reported to the proper authorities or advocacy organizations, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Kutcher’s notion that we’re pimping out underage girls is as insane as the statistics he’s using to support his “Real Men iron grilled cheese sandwiches” campaign. If he wanted to do something more productive, he’d throw his weight behind legislation such as SB 596, which funds social services for runaways and teenage prostitutes, rather than pushing for censorship.
The cause he’s chosen is worthy. However, the way in which he’s going about raising awareness is careless and counterproductive.
I’ve asked McGinn’s office whether they’ve contacted Seattle’s other weekly, The Stranger about their escort ads. The Stranger campaigned heavily for McGinn during his run for mayor in 2009.
McGinn’s spokesman, Aaron Pickus, says his office will “likely be looking at other businesses like Backpage.com where youth sex exploitation is an issue.”
I also sent an email to Stranger publisher Tim Keck—my boss at The Stranger between 2007 and 2009—to see how (or if) the paper requires age verification for its ads. I’ll let you know what he says.
UPDATE: Keck emailed back with the language from The Stranger’s ad order form:
IMPORTANT For ad approval, you much [sic] come to our office at 1535 11th Avenue, 3rd Floor, Seattle, WA 98112 with valid picture ID stating you are 18 years old or older. You must also sign an Adult Model Release Form that states you were 18 at the time the photo was taken. There must be a corresponding ID and Adult Model Release Form for every model in each photograph. If you have any questions, please call 206-323-7101 or email email@example.com.
Update @ 4:07 p.m.: Mayor McGinn’s office just put out a press release on this, including links to his letter and Chief Diaz’s memorandum:
SEATTLE – Mayor Mike McGinn today called on Village Voice Media to meet with him and the Seattle Police Department to discuss strengthening their policies against underage sex trafficking in their print and online advertisements.
“This is a serious and disturbing issue. We’ve received a growing number of reports that Backpage.com is being used to exploit children,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. “It’s just wrong. We’re asking them and other sites to meet with us to find ways to protect children from exploitation and help keep our communities safe.”
The Seattle Police Department has identified the use of the adult services section of Backpage.com as a contributor to the problem of child exploitation. Specifically, they are an “accelerant” of underage sex trafficking. The problem exists in both the print and online version of the Backpage.com service.
“In 2011 alone, Seattle Police Department detectives uncovered four documented cases of child prostitution openly advertised on the Backpage.com website,” said Lt. Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Department’s Vice/High Risk Victims Unit. “Village Voice Media can take proactive steps to address this problem, and we’d like to sit down with them to help clean up their ads.”
Underage sex trafficking is a growing problem in Seattle and around the country. A 2008 report from the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department estimated 300-500 children under the age of 18 are being exploited for commercial sex in Seattle and King County. Children as young as twelve have been exploited and runaways are particularly vulnerable. The report noted that the internet has been increasingly used for sexual exploitation.
Over the past several years the City of Seattle has worked to raise public awareness and dedicated significant resources to the issue. In 2010, working with partners, Seattle Police rescued 81 children from commercial sexual exploitation. The City’s Human Services Department also manages the Bridge Program, which helps provide recovery treatment to children rescued from commercial sexual exploitation. It provides six beds in a home-like setting and comprehensive wraparound services for an estimated 20 young people, between the ages of 14 and 17, per year.
“Chief John Diaz and I are committed to public safety in partnership with the police and the community,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. “So I am asking Village Voice to work with us to reduce the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.”
View the mayor’s letter to Village Voice Media: http://mayormcginn.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/70
Chief John Diaz’ memorandum regarding Backpages.com: http://mayormcginn.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/20