Missouri Congresswoman Ann Wagner has introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives which would make the distribution of online advertising
soliciting commercial sexual encounters a federal crime. Known as the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, the bill targets internet websites that are used as portals for the sexual trafficking of women and children.
"We're taking steps toward ending what I would call modern-day slavery," Representative Wagner said during a press conference at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. "The problem is real. And it's hiding in plain sight."
Wagner's proposal is aimed at websites like backpage.com, that post classified "adult" advertising that either blatantly markets sexual rendezvous, or offer "escort services" that are merely a front for prostitution. Backpage.com generates more than $37 million a year in revenue from their online marketplace.
Authorities believe that more than 80 percent of the company's profits come from the online sex trade.
"Over the last ten years, prostitution has migrated to an online marketplace," Congresswoman Wagner observes. "Online classified services, such as backpage.com, have become the vehicles for advertising the victims of the child sex trade to the world. The SAVE Act is designed to shut down these Internet marketplaces that host advertisements for the commercial exploitation of minors."
The SAVE Act would make it a federal offense to "distribute advertising that offers a commercial sex act" or to "knowingly benefit financially from or receive
anything of value from" such advertising offers. Current federal law provides legal immunity to websites offering third-party advertising under the so-called Communications Decency Act.
The proposed change in the law would empower U.S. Attorneys with the authority to shut down advertisements on websites promoting underage sexual contact. Federal prosecutors would be able to file charges seeking imprisonment for up to five years, and to petition federal courts to impose fines against offenders.
Representative Wagner says she was exposed firsthand to the "horrors of human trafficking" during her service as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. "Never in my
wildest dreams did I ever think human trafficking was so rampant in the United States of America. As a mother, I believe I have a moral obligation to stop the devastating consequences of sexual trafficking, where innocent children are dragged into the dark abyss of sexual slavery."
Wagner cited statistics that more than 300,000 youth in America are at risk of being victims of sexual trafficking each year. She said most young people are lured into the sex trade at 13 or 14 years of age. Justice Department data shows that St. Louis ranks among the top 20 cities in the nation for the predominance of sex trafficking activities.
U.S. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois has joined with Congresswoman Wagner to introduce companion legislation in the U.S. Senate. Senator Kirk says it is
time for the arm of the law to reach the owners of backpage.com, Jim Larkin and Michael Lacy
. "Everyone in America should be outraged that Michael Lacy and Jim Larkin can make millions by victimizing young women. It is time to bring Lacey and Larkin to justice."
"Forums like backpage have become playgrounds for pimps and traffickers, facilitating the destruction of countless lives in the process," says Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. "While we all know backpage's business model is immoral, it should be illegal as well."
Congresswoman Wagner isn't the first Missouri elected official to pursue a crackdown on depraved "classified ad" purveyors like backpage.com. Last summer Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster
spearheaded a national effort calling on Congress to amend the Communication Decency Act. Koster enlisted the signatures of 46 of his fellow attorneys general on a letter demanding criminal jurisdiction for state and local prosecutors to pursue the online sex trade.
"The original purpose of the Communications Decency Act was to protect children from accessing indecent material online," Koster wrote at the time. "Unfortunately, courts have interpreted the law to provide immunity from state
prosecution to online classified ad sites such as backpage.com that promote and profit from human trafficking."
"To keep up with changing technology, federal law needs to be modernized to provide local prosecutors the tools to strike back against those who promote sexual exploitation," the letter concluded.
Koster had previously teamed up with his fellow attorneys general to send joint letters to backpage.com and the similarly sleazy website craigslist, demanding that they remove online sex solicitation advertising.
Craigslist claims that they eliminated their "adult services" section, but they simply moved the sex solicitation ads to the "personals" pages. They remain as graphic and revolting as they ever were. Backpage.com ignored the appeal from the attorneys general.
The Missouri Family Policy Council has been deeply involved in efforts to strengthen state laws dealing with sexual trafficking and sexual exploitation. Our organization worked with the Missouri Catholic Conference to develop legislation adopted by the Missouri General Assembly which greatly bolstered the state's human trafficking statutes. Advocates for victims of the sex trade have called
Missouri's current law one of the toughest in the country.
We commend Congresswoman Wagner and Attorney General Koster for their concern for women and children who are victims of sexual bondage. Please be praying for the success of their efforts to prosecute those who profit from the destruction of women's lives and their dignity by facilitating sexual trafficking online.