Sex trafficking has been in the news recently, with in-depth investigations and editorials decrying this form of modern-day slavery. But at the same time, classified ads placed by traffickers appear in many publications, reports the Fall issue of Ms. (article not available online). And the services they’re advertising—ostensibly “Asian fun,” “Latin pleasures,” or “relaxing body work”—are often illegal.
As part of its campaign against sex trafficking, the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW-NYC) is asking the city’s publications to sign an anti-trafficking pledge stating that they won’t accept ads from sources that seem likely to be trading in illegal sex. The organization’s suggested screening tactics include asking potential advertisers for a valid massage license—because many traffickers disguise their ads as massage services—and checking ad copy for references to a woman’s ethnicity, which is often a sign of trafficking.
Such efforts seem relatively unburdensome—but is it a newspaper or magazine’s responsibility to screen its ads for illegal activities, however abhorrent they may be?
Fifteen of the city’s publications, including New York magazine and the New York Press, seem to think so. Tom Allon, the president and CEO of Manhattan Media, which publishes the New York Press, told Ms. that “providing advertising space for prostitution undercuts our mission as newspaper publishers and as reporters and journalists.”
On the other hand, the Village Voice, which NOW-NYC estimates makes about $80,000 per month from its “adult” ads, hasn’t signed the pledge. And before New York magazine signed in November, a spokesperson told Ms. that when it came to adult ads, “[I]t’s a First Amendment issue. We can’t make decisions about our advertisers’ rights based on hunches.”
I see both sides of the argument, but ultimately, it seems unlikely that a crackdown on sex ads will make a significant dent in trafficking. These ads already flourish online at sites like Craigslist, and would probably have an even greater online presence if pushed out of magazines and newspapers.
NOW-NYC is promoting a worthwhile cause, but if laws and law enforcement were more effective in preventing and eliminating sex trafficking, this wouldn’t be an issue to begin with. There is, however, good news on that front—in June, the state of New York passed a comprehensive anti-trafficking law.