“People are going to die” if sex workers can’t advertise online

- we’ve heard it all before princesses

Lily Yang on child sex trafficking

A couple of years ago there was a fear the sky was falling. Life as we knew it, at least life for a group of selfish women was concerned, was over. The reason? A sleazy website called “Backpage”, which was complicit in the trafficking of children for sex, was being shut down by the FBI and, running scared, a few others like “Craig’s List”, followed suit. Around the world, sex workers screamed in headlines that they would no longer be able to advertise their, mostly, illegal trade and would be forced onto the streets again and that “‘People Are Going to Die” as a result.’

It’s important that I included “mostly” above, because in some countries, and my own more enlightened Australia is not among them, sex work is illegal and that Backpage was the Internet’s leading forum for illegal prostitution advertisements.

There is no doubt that adult sex workers, legal or otherwise, who choose to sell their bodies in racy, cheap classified ads will be affected by the shutdown of these websites. That’s too bad. But there is an over-riding issue that is, in my opinion, far more important.

Here’s a statistic to start: UNICEF tells us that 30 children die every day from being trafficked into the sex industry, they die from neglect, drug overdoses, disease, HIV, violence and torture. If that’s not enough for you, consider this, every two minutes a child is being groomed for rape and the average life expectancy for kids trafficked this way is 7 years, unless they are rescued. Am I to understand the rights of women to sell their bodies voluntarily on sites like Backpage, transcends the protection of a five-year-old girl raped by a paedophile via advertisements on these same sites? Just “collateral damage” you say? Give me a break ladies.

Sex workers’ rights activists need to recognise how many children were being abused because Backpage and its sleazy counterparts existed and just how easy it is to buy a child for sex on these sites. One law enforcement officer even said it was less complicated than ordering a pizza online. If you let sex workers promote themselves legitimately only because we fear for the rights of sex workers, you are opening the door for children to be raped by the millions in the process. It’s not just one or two kids, it’s millions. We are allowing monsters to create sex hubs on these sites — and there must be a response for the children. It’s just a question of what do we, as a society, value more? The right of a sex worker to sell her body or protecting a prepubescent child from being raped for money. We must choose between the two. This is not a “Sophie’s Choice” decision, ladies.

Will traffickers and child predators just turn to other platforms?

The short answer is yes. It’s an industry that exceeds the profits of drugs and illegal arms sales combined so such people don’t lack resources and the will. But, if our goal is to eradicate child sex trafficking, then we need to focus on that goal, even if it takes a long time.

Any websites that facilitate trafficking, need to be investigated, and there are still plenty of them like Locanto, even Gumtree, not to mention social media apps. These need to make fundamental changes to protect children from exploitation. This change might force traffickers and paedophiles to move to other platforms or to the “dark web”, as I’ve heard, but that’s not a reason to do nothing. Technology, for example, is making great leaps forward in tracing the perpetrators of trafficking to their source through the artificial intelligence apps like “Traffic Jam”.

I have heard the argument that it was a mistake to take down sites like Backpage because at least the authorities had a place to trace and prosecute traffickers and their paedophile cohorts. This argument is, in my opinion, a straw man. Backpage and others were knowingly facilitating the trafficking of children and even complicit. Are we then saying it’s ok to allow the traffickers to continue operating for years so we could use their system to find more victims? Of course not, because the perpetrators would simply find new children to exploit and the cycle would never end. We need to arrest the perpetrators as we find them and work towards ending trafficking. If they turn to other sources, we will follow them to their lairs.

Why this matters

The priority must be to protect children from being trafficked, rescue those who are being exploited, and rehabilitate those who live with the pain of being survivors. In those countries that still regard sex work as an anathema to civilised society, the challenge is there to start putting priorities in place rather than pandering to some rose-coloured social model of morality caught in a timewarp.

By keeping the buying and selling of sex workers’ services within legal guidelines in a well- regulated industry like in my country, and particularly in Victoria, it leaves authorities free to take down the unchecked promotion of illegal sex and the obscenity of child sex-trafficking, while working towards eliminating the child-sex hubs and ending child trafficking. There is a long way to go and I would be the first to admit politicians here do not have the will, nor the authorities the resources, to police a rampant “massage-parlour” industry which is by any observation a conduit to sex trafficking.

It is a multi-faceted problem and perhaps it’s about time the sex industry itself started working a lot harder to improve its image by fighting precisely the foremost cause of its poor perception.

Lily Yang is an author and popular social commentator. She writes extensively on child sex-trafficking and donates money to charities protecting children.

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