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Mayors Should Unite to Fight Underage Sex Trafficking

By Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn
August 1, 2011


A few weeks ago, I met with a woman who shared with me the harrowing story of her teenage daughter’s experience as a victim of underage sex trafficking. Shortly after running away from home, her daughter was victimized by a pimp who advertised her on backpage.com, an online ad service owned by Village Voice Media. After several months of being exploited, the police were able to rescue her and reunite her with her family.

Her story is not unique. The facts are clear: America’s cities have a serious problem with underage sex trafficking. A Seattle Human Services Department report published in 2008 estimated there are 300 to 500 children being exploited in King County alone for commercial sex each year. In the last 12 months, service providers identified 185 cases of underage sex trafficking in the Seattle area. We know from talking to other mayors that Seattle is not alone in facing this problem.

This affects children of color, low-income, transgender, abused and other vulnerable kids more than others. But any child can be exploited, and we have found that even straight-A students have fallen into exploitation. The age of victims is getting younger, and service providers are seeing more kids age 13-14. Children as young as twelve have been exploited.

After the 2008 report was published, Seattle took steps to address the problem. We stopped treating underage sex trafficking as a “victimless crime” and instead targeted our efforts at arresting pimps and rescuing the juvenile victims of this trade. The Seattle Police Department vice squad became the Vice/High Risk Victims Unit and was directed to focus on rescuing victims. The change brought results. In 2008, 30 victims of underage sex trafficking were recovered by Seattle Police. In 2009, the number rose to 40. In 2010, 81 victims were recovered.

Underage sex trafficking is moving online. More pimps are using internet ads to promote young girls. Using internet ads makes it harder to locate girls – pimps set up “outcalls” instead of a central physical location.

Backpage.com is a well-known accelerant of underage sex trafficking. Since the beginning of 2010, 22 kids advertised on Backpage.com were recovered by the Seattle Police Department. No juveniles were discovered on any other sites in Seattle in that time.

To place an ad on Backpage.com, all you have to do is enter credit card information and check a box that says “I am over age 18.” That’s it. They need to start changing their practices – and they need to start now.

We’re asking mayors from across America to join us in fighting underage sex trafficking. At the June meeting in Baltimore, The United States Conference of Mayors passed a resolution calling on Congress to support the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2011, as well as provide targeted funding for shelters for victims, assistance counseling and legal services, more law enforcement officers, and outreach and prevention efforts to deter offenders.

Those are important policy tools that we need. Until Congress acts, I believe we can take immediate steps to address this problem. I am asking mayors across America to join me in urging Village Voice Media and backpage.com to require age verification with a photo ID for every ad placed. Other sites require age verification, and as a result, we have not found evidence their sites are being used for underage sex trafficking. Backpage.com can set this up quickly.

At the Los Angeles Leadership Meeting in July, I met with mayors from Salt Lake City, Oakland, St. Louis, Madison, Louisville, Burnsville, and Pembroke Pines to discuss these steps. And I thank Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for his support and leadership in this effort. We know that underage sex trafficking is online, and we know what can be done to stop it. Working together, we can clean up these ads, and prevent more children from being victimized.