At a press conference late this afternoon, Mayor Mike McGinn told reporters details of his meeting today with Village Voice Media board member Don Moon, Seattle Weekly publisher Ken Stocker, and Backpage.com sales and marketing CEO Carl Ferrer. McGinn, along with city council member Tim Burgess, assistant SPD chief Jim Pugel, and SPD representatives, held the meeting to ask VVM and Backpage.com to take down all their escort advertising until they have a system in place to ensure that the web site no longer advertises prostituted juveniles.
The companies, needless to say, declined.
"They were not prepared to agree to that request immediately, but they indicated that they took that request seriously and that they would respond to us within one to two weeks," McGinn said. "We've made our position clear to them: We do expect them to take action to stop underage sex trafficking, and if they don't do it, we will continue to do what we have been doing which is to put a spotlight on this problem."
Currently, McGinn said, Backpage.com does not take proactive steps to ensure the escorts who advertise on their site are 18 or older; instead, they respond after the fact to allegations of child sex trafficking and do "some level of monitoring of the ads that are up on the site," McGinn said. "We want to be clear that the key issue for us is that they need to take affirmative to ensure that the individuals advertised on their site are not underage."
McGinn expressed absolute confidence that Backpage.com is "the only site with which we have this problem [of juvenile sex trafficking] in King County." Other sites such as The Stranger's Naughty Northwest site require models to provide a photo ID showing they're over 18 in person before they can advertise on the site. "This is a practice other sites have used with success," McGinn said. "They can do a lot better, as other sites have."
(However---a little feminist editorializing here---to say "we require someone to come to our office with ID before we'll run an ad, therefore all our escorts are 18 or older" seems a bit like saying "you have to provide ID to buy booze, therefore no one under 21 drinks." Requiring someone to show up with an ID hardly seems like a failsafe against child prostitution, an unscrupulous industry that hardly shows scruples about misrepresenting its victims.)
I asked Tim Burgess, who was at the press conference, whether the city's efforts to stop child exploitation go far enough. Given that the average age of entry into prostitution is, according to the US Justice Department, between 12 and 14, it stands to reason that 18-year-old prostitutes were juvenile victims too. Why the arbitrary cutoff at 18? Don't those teenage prostitutes, and former child victims, deserve to be protected as well?
"Any person who's being exploited against their will, whether it's a child or an adult, we would be very concerned about," Burgess said. "We don't make a distinction based on age. But clearly, minors 17 years of age or younger who are being exploited in our city---that's where the city government, the mayor and council and the police department, is totally unified and resolute in our focus on those individuals."
Assistant chief Pugel added: "Every city has limited resources, so [Police] Chief [John] Diaz has decided to put a priority on, number one, rescuing sexually exploited children. The second [priority] is to get the pimps ... those who are literally exploiting them. Then, if we have time, we will go after the adult prostitutes, but more specifically the johns who are exploiting adult prostitutes."
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