Editor's Note: In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof slammed Village Voice Media’s Backpage.com for refusing to shut down its adult services section, which has repeatedly been linked to the sex trafficking of young girls. Check out a sneak preview of Associate Editor Zab Palmberg’s forthcoming piece in the March issue of Sojourners Magazine about the faith community’s response to Backpage:
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The Internet makes it easier to sell your old bicycle — but, as a growing interfaith coalition of clergy is emphasizing, it shouldn’t make it easier to sell children for sex.
Two years ago, under pressure from anti-trafficking activists and 17 state attorneys general, Craigslist shut down its “adult services” section. Now, researchers say, the leading online purveyor of “adult” classified ads — which, as numerous criminal cases have shown, include ads pimps use to traffic children they have entrapped — is BackPage.com, owned by Village Voice Media.
Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, told Sojourners about the clergy activism catalyzed in fall 2011 by Groundswell, Auburn’s social action initiative. The coalition’s first move was a private letter to Village Voice Media, asking it to take down BackPage’s adult section or to meet to discuss the issue. After getting neither of these things, the coalition went public in October with a letter, in a full-page ad in The New York Times, signed by 36 clergy, including Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis.
Because the trafficking issue “transcends a lot of the usual polarizations,” Henderson says, the coalition is wide, including “Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, humanists, Buddhists.” One signatory of the public letter, Duke University Muslim chaplain Abdullah T. Antepli, told Sojourners that the “Quran repeatedly tells us the best way to glorify God is to serve your fellow human brother and sister. I can’t imagine any better way [to do that than to] advocate for people who are victims of the evil business called human trafficking.”
Henderson says the coalition has grown to nearly 500 clergy. An associated petition from Change.org has garnered more than 80,000 signatures. The coalition, according to Henderson, has also started “an education outreach to third parties, including advertisers.”
In December, Village Voice Media officials finally met with the group but did not agree to remove the ad section—even though, as stories of children trafficked via Backpage continue to emerge, the attorneys general from 48 U.S. states and three territories are also advocating for the ads to come down.
Advocates aren’t giving up—and they recognize that, as it said in the New York Times letter, “there is much more to be done to end the sex trafficking of minors beyond” just shutting down Backpage’s adult ads. As Henderson puts it, “As clergy, one of our roles is to create awareness of hidden issues. [Trafficking] happens right here in this country, and it destroys the lives of children.”
Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners Magazine.