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Christmas Eve of 2016

Desiree Robinson was murdered and left on the floor of a garage in a southern suburb of Chicago. She was 16.

One month before her death

Desiree had run away from her grandparent’s home and met a man who sold her to a sex trafficker for $250. Her sex trafficker, Joseph Hazley, housed Desiree Robinson and a few other women in a house in Chicago’s South Side. She worked in the suburbs near Midway Airport and Orland Park, occasionally in downtown Chicago. Her pimp posted Desiree on the site Backpage.com, one of the largest online platforms for sex ads offering “companions” and “escorts.” Hazley listed Desiree under the name “Nicki,” claiming she was “new in town” and had no pimp. He drove her to meet with clients, sometimes up to six per day, and provided her with clothing for her meetups. In their downtime, Hazley often had sex with the 16-year-old himself.

Nine days before her death

Desiree messaged a friend that Hazley had trapped her. She wrote,

“I’m in a bad situation...He won’t let me leave.”

She even called a former prostitute who had left Hazley’s control, asking her how she finally left him.

During the last few weeks of December

While other high-school-aged kids relaxed on Christmas break, Desiree worked for Hazley. When she finished with a customer, she would stand on curbs in the record-breaking cold, waiting for Hazley to pick her up. On Christmas Eve, a man in a southern Chicago suburb named Antonio Rosales answered Desiree’s ad like many before him.

He would be her last customer.

In the dark, freezing hours of early morning, Hazley dropped Desiree off in front of a house where she worked as a dancer for a weekend garage party. Rosales paid for sex with teenaged Desiree. A few hours after she left the garage party, Rosales asked her to come back to the garage for another visit. Desiree entered the home for a second time as her pimp dozed in his car.

In the garage, the party had ended, and Antonio Rosales asked for more time with Desiree, this time for free. When Desiree refused, Rosales beat Desiree, raped her, strangled her, and slit her throat. Rosales then left, walked to Hazley’s car on the street, woke him by tapping on the glass, and said, “Your friend will be out in a minute.”

Antonio Rosales had left Desiree Robinson dead on the concrete floor of the garage. She was only 16.

Desiree’s mother, Yvonne Ambrose, filed a wrongful death suit for her daughter against Backpage, the listing site which had hosted sex ads advertising Desiree. Desiree’s family joined the ranks of many others whose children had been sold through Backpage.

“As much as this hurts myself and my family,” Ambrose said, “I believe this has probably been going on for years, and nobody talks about it. Until somebody speaks up on the reality of everything, I think this is going to be a problem. And I decided I have to be the one to speak.” (Washington Post)

In the US, the internet is the most potent force shaping marketplaces for trafficked people

A victim of human trafficking in the U.S. is more likely to be seen on your laptop than in a brothel. In 2018, internet-based commercial sex schemes represented 87.7% of commercial sex business models cited in criminal sex trafficking cases. Within these internet-based sex schemes, Backpage was one of the most prolific (The Human Trafficking Institute).

In 2017, The United States Senate conducted hearings based on their investigations into Backpage

In addition to Desiree Robinson’s story, the Senate heard testimony from Jessika. When Jessika was 15, she ran away from home and bought a bus ticket for the distant city of Seattle. With no one to contact, Jessika eventually fell in with a pimp who prostituted her through Backpage for 108 days.

Jessika testified that they made $1,500 a night through Backpage and that she had loved her pimp. He kept her safe, bought her clothes, and kept her fed. But then he became violent. The pimp beat her often. At one point, he nearly choked her to death in the back of a car. After 108 days, Jessika and her pimp were arrested. She was placed in the custody of her parents in her home state (Matsui, 2017).

The Senate investigations found that not only did Backpage allow a 15-year-old like Jessika, or a 16-year-old like Desiree, to be posted on the site multiple times, but it allowed the sale of many other minors as well. Backpage “accounted for 73% of the suspected child trafficking reports it receives from the public.” (Senate Report)

The Human Trafficking Institute found similarly high rates of child sex trafficking on Backpage. Of internet-based commercial sex schemes, Backpage was involved in 14 times the number of criminal sex trafficking cases than Craigslist, a site that offers similar services (Trafficking in Persons Report).

The sale of trafficked children on Backpage was primarily made possible due to the intentional scrubbing of underage search terms from posted ads. The moderators of the site had to scrub ads so frequently they had a routine process for stripping specific terms.

“The terms that Backpage has automatically deleted from ads before publication include ‘lolita,’ ‘teenage,’ ‘rape,’ ‘young,’ ‘amber alert,’ ‘little girl,’ ‘teen,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘school girl.’"(Senate Report)

When a user-submitted an adult ad containing one of these “stripped” words, Backpage’s “Strip Term From Ad” filter would immediately delete the discrete word, and the remainder of the ad would be published. Removing forbidden terms and allowing the original ad to remain on the site was a practice performed so frequently that by Backpage’s internal report, 

“the company was editing ‘70 to 80% of ads’ in the adult section either manually or automatically.” (Senate Report)

There is some evidence, however, that Backpage did forward tips of child sex trafficking to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and to law enforcement agencies. Backpage sourced that this forwarding of information to the appropriate agencies made them one of the best platforms to capture pedophiles. This point seems to be undercut by the fact that Backpage made clear in internal emails that ads must be entirely conspicuous to be removed by moderators or forwarded to the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children (Senate Report).

“...in February 2010, a detective emailed Backpage to alert the company that a 17-year-old girl who tried to get Backpage to take down an advertisement of herself had been rebuffed: According to the detective, the girl ‘tried asking for [the ads] to be removed but was told they couldnt [sic] be until enough people reported her as potentially underage.’” (Senate Report)

Human trafficking can have physical, emotional, and psychological effects on anyone involved. It has the power to impact someone’s life forever. Here are some common ways human trafficking affects victims and perpetrators. As you read through this section, keep in mind that many traffickers also experience trauma because of what they see and do to others, and many traffickers have been victimized themselves at some point in their lives.

Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act

In April 2018, the US Government shut down Backpage.com. With the use of new legislation called the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, the site would no longer be able to host sexual ads. FOSTA would not only target Backpage, but many other sites hosting ads for prostitutes. In the Oval Office, as President Trump signed FOSTA into law, Desiree Robinson’s mother, Yvonne Ambrose, stood near him. She wiped tears from her eyes. Over his left shoulder, Jessika cried alongside her family (C-SPAN).

FOSTA punctured the nearly bulletproof Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Essentially, FOSTA now forces websites to determine what they allow their users to generate. Website administrators may now face a ten-year sentence for facilitating user-generated content offering sex and additional “enhanced penalties” of up to 25 years for facilitating the prostitution of five or more persons, or in cases of sex trafficking. (FOSTA)

Undoubtedly, it is valuable to identify and shut down marketplaces offering trafficked children.

Intervening in the direct sale of minors is crucial in the fight against child sex trafficking. A story like Desiree Robinson’s, or Jessika’s, highlights just how vital it is to remove normalized avenues for criminals to access sex with minors. Their stories also emphasize how instrumental the internet is for their traffickers to contact greater numbers of clients.

However, the venue of sale is only the final destination in a supply chain. In the United States, the supply chain feeding trafficked children to online marketplaces tends to be from kids with shared vulnerabilities.

Trafficked children in the U.S.

  • They tend to be kids that have run away from home.
  • These kids tend to be motivated to flee unstable family situations or abusive and neglectful home lives. “Even among those that were not trafficked by their own family, the survey results reveal that many victims of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) experienced some form of childhood abuse and neglect, reporting high rates of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.” (Thorn) Of runaway children in the US, “Over the past two years, the largest increases… have been related to abuse or neglect with increases of 54% for neglect, 48% for emotional or verbal abuse, 33% for physical abuse, and 11% for sexual abuse.” (NRS) Also, they may have run away from their foster care situation.
  • “Often they have been victims of other kinds of abuse in the past and so are known to someone in the child protective system. Children in foster care, for example, are at high risk of trafficking.” (Polaris Project)
  • In some cases, they may have been released from the justice system. “Given these adverse childhood experiences, two out of three participants had experiences with either foster care or juvenile detention.” (Thorn, 9). These children, when they’ve left their home, may be reliant on even more unstable housing options with members of their social network, shelters, or motels and be forced to survive by some means. Of these means, reliance on the sex industry has shown a 100% increase in the last decade (NRS).

For children trafficked under the age of 11, the majority are trafficked by family members. 

For children and preteens over 11, these children are most frequently connected to traffickers via the internet or individuals in the child’s social network. (Thorn, 9). 15 is the most commonly reported age of entering sex trafficking, and one in six were under 12, and most of these children already know and trust their trafficker (Polaris Project). These vulnerable children are preyed upon by those closest to them. While abduction can still occur, it is not the principal means by which children are trafficked in the U.S.

It is also critical to note that trafficked children in the US are disproportionately kids of color. Of the 316 survivors interviewed by Thorn, 45% were Black, 27% White, 21% Hispanic, and 8% of another race. Almost three-quarters of all these kids were kids of color.

So, how does the closure of Backpage affect child sex trafficking in the United States?

When a site like Backpage is taken down, it should be hailed as a partial success, rather than a uniform success. For one, sites like Backpage will be replaced, shuttered, and replaced again, whether underground or in the public eye. Earlier this year, federal officers shut down one of Backpage’s largest replacements, a site called Cityxguide. 

“‘As soon as [the] DOJ shut down one despicable site, another popped up to take its place,’ said U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox in a statement. ‘Like the owners of Backpage, this defendant made millions facilitating the online exploitation of women and children.’” (CBS News)

It seems that marketplaces will continue to crop up, moving, and growing as the shade of larger sites is removed, so in some ways, the closure of Backpage is putting out one fire, while others continue to spark.

Also, the conversation surrounding the closure of Backpage and similar sites has focused on future ramifications for consenting adults to access or contribute to sex marketplaces online. These perspectives reduce the conversations about fighting sex trafficking to focus on the allowance or removal of sex marketplaces in the US, and in so doing, ignore more of the systemic issues which contribute to child sex trafficking.

As much as the internet is a powerful tool in selling children, these kids are also sold in concert with a variety of other outlets.

The closure of a marketplace must enlighten us to the fact that there are vulnerable populations of people that need better measures of prevention so that they do not end up in these marketplaces in the first place. 

As much that is done to investigate and bust physical and digital venues for the illegal sale of children, an equivalent amount of care should be taken to prevent the years of abuse and desperation these children may face. Focusing on closing down every marketplace where kids could be sold doesn’t necessarily provide a solution for the vulnerabilities and circumstances that exist upstream.

The Truth about Sex Trafficking

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Sources

Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017. Pub. L. No. 115-164, 132 Stat. 1253 (2018) Government Printing Office

Currier, Alyssa, et al. “2018 Federal Human Trafficking Report.” Federal Human Trafficking Report, The Human Trafficking Institute, 2018. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.” CDA 230: The Most Important Law Protecting Internet Speech, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2020. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Hymes, Claire. “Feds take down sites that replaced prostitution and child sex trafficking portal Backpage.com.” CBS News, CBS News, 19 June 2020. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Jackman, Tom, and Jonathan O’Connell. “16-year-old was found beaten, stabbed to death after being advertised as prostitute on Backpage.” The Washington Post, The Washington Post, 11 July 2017. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Koeske, Zak. “Teen found slain in Markham garage tried to escape alleged pimp facing charges, complaint states.” Daily Southtown, Chicago Tribune, 21 June 2017. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Matsui, T. (Director). (2017). 108 Days [Video file]. United States: MediaStorm. Retrieved October 21, 2020. Accessed 21 October 2020.

National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth & Families. “The Overlap of Human Trafficking and Runaway and Homeless Youth.” National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth & Families, The Family and Youth Services Bureau, 16 June 2020. Accessed 21 October 2020.

National Runaway Safeline. “National Trends on Youth in Crisis in the United States: An analysis of trends in crisis connections to the National Runaway Safeline over the past decade (2007-2017).” National Runaway Safeline, 2018. Accessed 21 October 2020.

“Online Sex Trafficking Bill Signing.” C-SPAN, 11 April 2018. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “BACKPAGE.COM’S KNOWING FACILITATION OF ONLINE SEX TRAFFICKING.” Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, United States Senate, 10 January 2017. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Polaris. “Separating Fact From Fiction: Recent Cases of Recovered Missing Children and What They Show About Child Sex Trafficking.” Blog, Polaris, 24 September 2020. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Romano, Aja. “A new law intended to curb sex trafficking threatens the future of the internet as we know it.” Vox, Vox Media, 2 July 2018. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Sun Times Media Wire. “Feds charge man for prostituting 16-year-old girl before her murder.” 7 Eyewitness News, ABC 7 Chicago, 21 June 2017. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Thorn. “https://www.thorn.org/child-trafficking-statistics/.” Thorn, Thorn, 2020, https://www.thorn.org/child-trafficking-statistics/. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Thorn. “Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking.” Thorn, January 2018. Accessed 21 October 2020.

Witt, Emily. “After the Closure of Backpage, Increasingly Vulnerable Sex Workers Are Demanding Their Rights.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker Magazine, 8 June 2018. Accessed 21 October 2020.