At the beginning of July, actor Ashton Kutcher brought heaps of publicity to his new anti-trafficking charity by updating his over seven million Twitter followers with the news that he convinced American Airlines to remove their ads from Village Voice Media publications. “Hey @AmericanAir are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?”, he Tweeted.
According to Kutcher’s follow-up Tweets, a representative from American Airlines contacted him after seeing his complaints on Twitter and told him: “Heads up: Ads should be down w/in the hour. Blank ads are being served for now.”
But if the mission of Kutcher’s newly founded charity The DNA Foundation is ending what he calls “child sex slavery,” why is he targeting a media company and an airline? Kutcher and the anti-trafficking advocates of his generation are following a political script with its roots in the Prohibition era — one shown to be nearly as effective at ending abuse in the sex trade as the temperance movement was at ending the abuse of alcohol. Nonetheless, it is gaining credibility in Congress, and has already resulted in the closure of the online advertising service that was most accessible to law enforcement and sex workers alike.
Attempts to target and isolate companies that do business with people involved in commercial sex are all but directly derived from campaigns from the turn of the last century. In the lead-up to Prohibition, reformers capitalized on moral panics about what was then called “the white slave trade” – fears that thousands of young women from rural America were being kidnapped into cities to be forced into prostitution – as a means to shutdown red light districts and other businesses that prostitutes relied on for safe space to meet clients.
In 1905, New York’s Anti-Saloon League formed a citizen sting organization called the Committee of Fourteen to target hotels and bars that permitted prostitution on their premises. Once a business had been visited by the Committee’s undercover operatives, they’d threaten to have the business’s liquor license pulled if they didn’t comply with the Committee’s guidelines, which included refusing to admit “unescorted women” and interracial parties. Mara L. Keire, historian and author, wrote in her book on the sex trade that by 1919 “many bars had stopped admitting women. The bars that did allow women put conditions on their presence.”
Like the anti-trafficking campaigners of today, the Committee of Fourteen insisted their crackdowns were not meant to target prostitutes themselves, but directed solely at third parties who benefited from the sex trade. Unlike today’s campaigners, however, the Committee were forthright in their opposition to prostitution as a whole. By contrast, Kutcher wrote in the wake of his Twitter campaign that his goal was to protect girls, and that “it has never been my aim to tell an adult woman what she can or can’t do with her body, or where she can sell it.” However, there is little evidence that removing sex ads ends child sex trafficking — and there is ample historic evidence that reform campaigns taken up under the guise of “protecting children” target all people in the sex trade with increased policing, harassment and violence.
For instance, as a result of the New York-based campaigns of the early twentieth century, prostitutes were not forced out of sex work –- they were just forced to work in less visible locations. Where once women had the option of working in neighborhood bars and hotels, choosing their own customers and developing relationships with business owners and other prostitutes that served to protect them from abuse, historian Elizabeth Alice Clement’s study of the sex trade showed that, in the wake of such campaigns, women were forced to either work on the streets or in private apartments managed by madams or pimps. Those who worked the streets, as today, were more vulnerable to police harassment and extortion disguised as fines, and were more likely to be incarcerated in one of New York’s new women’s prisons. The net effect of such campaigns and crackdowns was to simply shift prostitution from part of the fabric of mainstream city life to its most impoverished and isolated neighborhoods.
And for all that Kutcher’s effort is very “new media,” his campaign is hardly the first of its type even in this century. Over the last three years, a group of non-governmental organizations, Attorneys General and lawmakers have sought to demonize websites that accept advertisements for commercial sex services with responsibility for “child exploitation,” “domestic minor sex trafficking” and “sex slavery.” Executive Director and CEO of anti-trafficking NGO The Polaris Project Bradley Myles wrote recently about witnessing those efforts in 2007, “Sitting in conferences or at task force meetings, it became a frequent occurrence for a presenter from law enforcement or the victims services field to talk about how victims of human trafficking were increasingly being advertised in the Erotic Services section of the website.”
Andrea Powell, of the anti-trafficking group The FAIR Fund, often explicitly characterizes websites as having a vested commercial interest in (and desire to continue) exploiting the unwilling. In 2010, on the eve of a Congressional hearing on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, Powell told CNN that “Craigslist is like the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking right now in this country.”
Though craigslist removed the Adult Services section from its site a few days before the September 15, 2010 House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security hearing, anti-trafficking advocates still testified to Congress that the website was a major player in increasing “domestic minor sex trafficking.”
Elizabeth McDougall, counsel to craigslist on online safety, security, and abuse issues, countered the allegations by noting the website’s collaboration with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, through their adoption of a Joint Statement in 2008 on best practices for reporting suspected abuse on the site. She contrasted what she called an “idealistic approach, that if you eradicate prostitution and and adult services in any venue, you will eradicate victims” with how “craigslist has adopted a practical approach,” that is “getting input from interested parties, including NGO’s, advocacy groups, law enforcement, politicians, and victims.”
But after hearing craigslist’s testimony, Rep. Robert Scott (D- VA) floated the idea to Francey Hakes, the Department of Justice’s National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, that the government could make websites that accept any advertisements for sex liable for the acts committed by or against the people placing them. “If there are no laws on the books now, are there any potential laws we could put on the books that would pass Constitutional muster that would be helpful in tracking down people who make these postings?” he asked — without differentiating between people identified as trafficked, or people who placed their own advertisements. The Justice Department demurred, saying that it believed it had the “proper tools” to prosecute trafficking as it is.
Later in the hearing, when asked by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D – TX), “No amount of money will make you re-instate that site?” craigslist representative William Powell stated that it would not. Nearly one year after its closure, there is no data to support that shutting down craigslist Adult Services has reduced the number of young people victimized by “domestic minor sex trafficking” –- and new laws that would further criminalize activity on these websites remain under consideration at the state and federal level.
With his new charity, Kutcher took up these earlier campaigners’ efforts and, most explicitly, their framing of the issue: by targeting those that run the ads, regardless of who is being advertised, they can stop those that traffic in children. “I am all for an open uncensored web. I support the democratization of media. I don’t want to censor the Village Voice; I just want them to stop selling trafficking victims (people) next to couches and bicycles,” Kutcher wrote. But the Village Voice, like craiglist before it, is not itself selling anyone. Likewise, it is not clear that removing advertisements for commercial sex from the internet has any effect on reducing the number of people — of any age, and any circumstance –- who are involved in the sex trade.
As of this publication, Kutcher’s calls for other advertisers to “take action” do not appear to have had the desired results. TheWrap.com reports that a spokesperson from American Airlines characterized Kutcher’s Twitter claim as “rumor and speculation,” and that in regards to American Airlines having pulled their ads, “I am not aware of any such action.”
When asked for confirmation, a Village Voice advertising manager told Raw Story that to their knowledge, no advertisers –- including American Airlines –- have left VVM due to Kutcher’s advocacy.
[Image via JD Lasica, Creative Commons licensed]