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Sunday, May 28, 2023

OPINION: Legislation Aiming to Stop Sex Trafficking Would Hurt Investigations

The U.S. Senate is actively preparing for a vote on the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). The legislation proposes to amend the Communications Act of 1934 in a way that will hold third-party websites liable for publishing information that is construed as “facilitating” sex trafficking.

With bipartisan support, including 41 Republican and 25 Democratic co-sponsors at the time of this writing, Senate staffers tell me that SESTA has a good chance of becoming law.

Advocates and the media portray the legislation as an important step toward preventing sex trafficking, but there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support this notion. In fact, qualitative data and criminological theory suggest that SESTA will result in the displacement and dispersion of commercial sex advertisements, which would inhibit law enforcement efforts to rescue victims and arrest sex traffickers.

Right now, law enforcement uses open-access classified advertisement websites, such as Backpage.com, as a tool. They set up stings and fake advertisements to rescue victims and arrest sex traffickers, pimps, commercial sex consumers, and sex-offender registry violators. I know this because ERASE Child Trafficking trains some agencies on how to do it effectively, with a victim-centric approach, and my book – Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium – is used as one of the course manuals.

This approach has been effective in combating the issue.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 73 percent of the 10,000 child-trafficking reports it receives annually involve Backpage. While many legislators and anti-trafficking advocates have misinterpreted this statistic through an ecological fallacy to mean that Backpage.com is “facilitating” child sex trafficking, I know that this is resultant from the fact that Backpage.com is open access, cooperative, and used more often as tool by law enforcement and service providers to catalyze rescues and arrests.

The reality is that there are hundreds of websites used by sex traffickers, pimps, and consenting sex workers to sell commercial sex services. It isn’t limited to Backpage.com. Facebook, for example, has been implicated in a number of cases, as a platform used by sex traffickers to recruit and sell child victims of sex trafficking; Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram, and OKCupid as well.

As such, it is clear that one specific website is not “facilitating” sex trafficking, but rather the Internet as a whole.

While law enforcement is aware of some websites that are open access, others are more difficult to surveil because they are access-restricted and only available through peer-to-peer referral, such as AlwaysOnTheHunt.com.

If SESTA is passed, commercial sex advertisements will move off of U.S.-based open-access websites like Backpage.com and will displace to other websites, likely based overseas, such as USAAdultClassifieds.Info. The advertisements will also disperse, so that instead of one centralized website police will need to surveil dozens or hundreds of websites, which have the potential to constantly migrate.

As a human-trafficking expert witness who has served on civil and criminal cases across the country from California to New York, I have had the opportunity to speak privately with law enforcement and prosecutors on the prospect of SESTA being voted into law. I am very vocal about the fact that I do not support the legislation, considering that it will hurt anti-trafficking interventions.

In private, most agree with me.

Law enforcement officers tell me that going after sex trafficking with Backpage.com as a tool is like “shooting fish in a barrel.” Prosecutors confess that “Backpage is great” and is always cooperative with enabling their cases, immediately responding to subpoenas for information. However, I am told that not all websites are as accommodating. Privately, anti-trafficking legal professionals admit that SESTA is a poorly crafted policy that will hurt their efforts, but when I ask them for a quote they politely decline because they fear adverse consequences for coming out against such a superficially popular piece of legislation.

There is an old aphorism that says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Although the Senate co-sponsors of SESTA may mean well in supporting the legislation, it will not reduce the number of sex trafficking victims, facilitate rescues, or increase arrests. Senators who have come to this evidence-based realization, and who truly care about effectively combating sex trafficking, are vocally against the legislation. For example, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) explains, “Having written several laws to combat the scourge of sex trafficking, I take a backseat to no one on the urgency of fighting this horrendous crime. However, I continue to be deeply troubled that this bill’s approach will make it harder to catch dangerous criminals.”

As someone who is also truly committed to combating the sex trafficking scourge in our country, I only hope that more of our elected officials follow Sen. Wyden’s lead and decide to actually address this crime and vote against the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act accordingly.

Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco
Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and is the author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium." Dr. Mehlman-Orozco’s writing can be found in The Washington Post, Forbes, The Crime Report, The Houston Chronicle, and The Baltimore Sun, among other media.

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