Backpage and the Texas Tribune’s Tinfoil Hat
February 17, 2017 (Fault Lines) – Every now and then, a take comes along that’s so scorchingly wrong, so unbelievably erratic in its approach to reality, that it feels a bit like sacrilege to think of it as bad journalism. These stories transcend journalism and live on in an afterworld of shame, a Niflheim for rushed hacks without the time and inclination to check with knowledgeable sources before hitting “Send.”
On February 13, the Texas Tribune published such an article on the lingering effects of the Backpage shutdown. It has to be seen to be believed.
As public awareness of sex trafficking has grown, so has the political pressure facing Backpage. A series of lawsuits, anti-trafficking campaigns and a congressional inquiry into the website culminated in the January closure of its adult section, but similar ads continue to appear elsewhere on the site.
This is what you might call the sanitized version of Backpage’s legal history. Actually, Backpage, the world’s second-biggest classified-ads site, was forced to shut down its adult section because of a concerted, unlawful effort by local, state and federal officials to put pressure on the company. Courts consistently held that the government’s actions violated the Constitution and were blocked by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. What’s more, closing the adult section hurt the voluntary sex workers who made up the vast majority of its user base, and even prosecutors agree the move backfired and put real victims of sex trafficking at risk.
The Tribune’s article is a case study in the use of framing and omission to achieve an effect. You’ll look in vain, for example, for a mention of the fact that Backpage won all its court cases. (It only caved because of the ongoing cost of litigation.) And special recognition has to go to the next few sentences, if only because they set the tone for the idiocy to come.
You don’t have to dredge the backwaters of the Internet to find underage girls sold for sex online.
The pimps who exploit them use more than a dozen major websites to advertise commercial sex. The most notorious is Backpage.com.
As call girl and sex-workers‘ rights activist Maggie McNeill has been pointing out for years, what data there are suggest underage prostitutes are a tiny subset of sex workers. What’s more, only a small percentage are forced into the business.
A 2011 John Jay study found that 95% of underage sex workers in a sample of 249 reported choosing to work in prostitution because it was the best way to earn money. Only 10% reported having pimps, generally considered a prerequisite for being “sex trafficked.“ And of those pimps, at least half are likely to work for the prostitutes rather than vice versa. So describing Backpage as a “notorious“ place to pick up an underage hooker is a little like calling Waco a great place to get killed in a biker shootout: while it’s been known to happen, it’s still not that likely in the bigger scheme of things.
The website’s visitors can scroll through thousands of listings in their area, tailoring searches to their personal tastes.
Note the clever way in which the authors, Neena Satja, Morgan Smith, Edgar Walters and Ryan Murphy, imply these “thousands of listings“ are of underage sex workers.
Sometimes, the language in the ads is overt, spelling out exactly who and what is for sale.
Would anyone use slimily euphemistic language like this (“who and what is for sale”) to describe an ad for any other service? As for the actual claim, sure, as long as the service in question doesn‘t violate prostitution laws. (Dominatrix calls are a good example.) Otherwise, you’re as likely to find an ad explicitly offering sex for money on Backpage as you are a sale on fresh Colombian cocaine.
Often, it is coded, with certain phrases and symbols indicating, for instance, that the girl being advertised is underage.
Now we get to the meat of the article. What fresh hell is this? What “phrases and symbols?” Is there any factual basis whatever for this assertion, or is the Texas Tribune receiving instruction from a higher plane?
Take a tour of the commercial sex trade’s most recent marketplace, hidden in plain view. The phrases we’ve highlighted below, culled from a Texas Tribune review of adult listings in the state over a three-month period, share common clues authorities use to identify underage victims.
As the past three months of Trump coverage have taught us, there’s nothing so reliable and synonymous with good reporting as citing to unspecified “authorities.” But it is true that law enforcement and groups claiming to fight sex trafficking have lists of “tells,” online and in real life, that they believe identify people being sold for sex against their will.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what outs one as a victim on any one day, because the tells are always changing. However, at any time, these “checklists” include plenty of things so bland as to apply to nearly everyone (wearing long sleeves, visiting the doctor, not talking a lot to strangers,) innocuous behavior (using the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your hotel room door, drinking from the minibar, paying for things in cash,) things of which entire age groups are guilty (having tattoos, looking young, traveling with your dad) and outright absurdities (being clean as well as being dirty will out you as a sex-trafficking victim; so will having too few personal possessions and having too many.)
If this reminds you of something, it should. These “phrases and symbols,” and their extraordinary flexibility, are a lot like the criteria law enforcement uses to detain and expropriate people on suspicion of trafficking drugs. At least those “indicia,” as they’re known, are finally beginning to meet with judicial skepticism.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the Texas Tribune thinks is a dead giveaway for sex trafficking.
👑👑 Perfect Playmate 💋
A crown emoji suggests the girl in the advertisement has a pimp and is not working independently.
It absolutely does not. This is a paranoid fabrication, on a par with claiming playing a heavy metal record backwards gets you Satanic messages. (And do two crown emoji mean two pimps? That sounds kind of inconvenient.)
100hhr New in town ! Puerto Rican California Princess 👑
Advertisers often use code to indicate the price of sex, but many ads on Backpage don’t even bother hiding what they’re doing. This one indicates a price of $100 for half an hour.
Yes, the Tribune has cracked the code. Alternatively, have they considered the possibility that each crown emoji represents, shall we say, a $200 mandatory extra payment?
💋💎 2 Girl Special 👑👑
The “two-girl” phrase could be an indication that at least one of the girls is underage, and the other is responsible for making sure she goes through with the sex act.
This too is utterly deranged; what it actually means is you can pay extra for a threesome. It’s surprising that this possibility never occurred to the Tribune, given that four journalists worked together to produce this clusterf*ck of an article.
😇 😘 NEW To ATX 😎
“New in town,” “sweet,” “fresh” and “spinner” suggest the girl is young and potentially underage.
I’ll just let Maggie McNeill handle this one:
“Spinner” means a small, slender woman and has nothing to do with age. “New in town” means just what it says, because a lot of guys like variety, and the prospect of seeing a girl they haven’t seen before will increase the chances of their calling.
🔥💋 Upscale incall available now 💦
An incall means the girl invites the client to meet her at a specific location. “Upscale” suggests she is working out of a nice hotel.
Ooh, so close! “Upscale” means she isn’t working out of a dump, something that, perhaps understandably, tends not to get customers in the mood. Whether any given instance means a “nice hotel” is pure speculation, just like the rest of the article.
There’s no other way to say it. This is the single worst article on Backpage and sex trafficking out this year, and perhaps the worst we’ll ever see – unsourced, manipulatively framed and deeply wrong, with a 0-5 record on interpreting sex worker slang. Giving in to your fantasies is no substitute for responsible journalism. If the Texas Tribune had consulted a sex worker, even one who’d been on the job a week, it could’ve avoided this catastrophe. And there’s no excuse for whitewashing the lawlessness of what happened to the site.
Looking back decades later, after the panic was a distant memory, it’s hard to imagine how Americans could’ve been gulled into believing in things like Satanic kindergarten murder cults. That is, until you remember reporting like this exists. We can and must do better.