March 17, 2012; Source: New York Times

One of the more powerful feature articles we’ve seen recently is Nick Kristof’s story about a 24-year-old college senior named Alissa. When she was 16 and 17, she was a young prostitute in New York City. She escaped that life, testified against her pimps, and helped six of them enter the big house for sentences of up to 25 years.

According to Kristof, Alissa’s anger is directed against the classified advertising websites on which pimps routinely offer their girls for sex. “You can’t buy a child at Wal-Mart, can you?” she asked rhetorically. “No, but you can go to Backpage and buy me on Backpage.”

Five websites carry prostitution advertising in the U.S., with Backpage accounting for 70 percent of the business, earning more than $22 million for prostitution ads. According to Kristof, Backpage is “not a fly-by-night operation…[but] is owned by Village Voice Media,” the owner of the Village Voice newspaper. Despite letters from the attorneys general of 48 states plus a petition at with 94,000 signatures asking the Village Voice to drop Backpage’s prostitution advertising, the Village Voice has not only rejected the pleas, but mocked its critics. 

Kristof asks, “If street pimps go to jail for profiteering on under-age girls, should their media partners like Village Voice Media really get a pass?” Why is there so little pressure on the Village Voice? Kristof notes that 100 advertisers have dropped Rush Limbaugh’s radio show because he called a Georgetown University student some sexually demeaning epithets because of her advocacy of the availability of contraception coverage in national health insurance. What keeps advertisers supporting the Village Voice, whose classified ad sheet permits advertising for underage prostitution, a practice that is illegal and clearly harms young girls, certainly more so than Limbaugh’s tired bloviating? Craigslist was pressured to stop accepting prostitution ads. The Village Voice can’t?

Alissa’s is a remarkable story. Not only does she hope to go to law school, but she works part-time at Fair Girls, an anti-trafficking organization. This tiny organization (formerly the Fair Fund), with an annual budget of less than $200,000, provides emergency response services and individualized care for trafficked girls between 11 and 21 years of age, provides community training workshops, and sponsors the JewelGirls economic empowerment and art therapy program. Amazingly, Fair Girls has offices in Washington, D.C., Belgrade, and Moscow and works with vulnerable and exploited girls in Bosnia, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, and Uganda as well as the United States.

The Village Voice is supporting a classified ad rag that carries 70 percent of the U.S. online prostitution business. Is this necessary—facilitating underage prostitution in the name of free speech? Really?—Rick Cohen