Natalie was just 15 years old when she ran away from home. “I wanted to get my parents’ attention,” she says.
It was a decision that changed her life forever, one she regrets more than she can say. But she was a child. “I was a scatterbrained 15-year-old,” she says as she looks back now from the age of 21.
Natalie landed in a youth shelter in Seattle, and soon met an older, street-wise “friend.” That friend introduced Natalie to the man who would rape her for the first time.
“After it happened he threw a towel at me and some carpet cleaner and told me to clean up the carpet because there was blood,” Natalie told ABC News. She had been a virgin.
Soon after, Natalie met the man who would sell her for sex online, 32-year-old Baruti Hopson. At first, he was kind to her and gave her a place to stay, but that soon ended and his real motivations became clear. Using the popular Craigslist-type classifieds site Backpage.com, Hopson began selling Natalie, still 15, for sex.
Before Natalie was rescued by police in a Backpage-based sting 108 days later, she says she was forced to have sex for money well over 150 times.
Natalie eventually testified against Hopson, who received a prison sentence of 26 years for his crimes.
Now, Natalie and her family, along with at least 2 other formerly trafficked underage girls and their families, are suing Backpage.com for allowing the ads that advertised these teens for sex to run on their site.
It is a DAUNTING task, because Backpage is protected in the United States by a law called the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Basically, the law says that sites like Backpage (and Craigslist, for example) can’t be held responsible for an ad that is posted to their site, whether it be a motorcycle for sale that turns out to be a lemon, or an ad for a “date” that is actually intended to sell a 15-year-old girl for sex.
Natalie’s mother said she could not BELIEVE what she was hearing when she found out what had happened to her daughter.
“I live in an American town, how can my kid be sold on the internet?” she said.
Sadly, there are many other American mothers who are asking the same question in disbelief.
The answer is, simply: Money. Online porn has created a huge demand for sex with underage girls. Opportunistic pimps with dollar signs in their eyes will stop at nothing to meet this extremely lucrative demand. Sites like Backpage make it super easy to traffic a young girl while making it appear that the “date” is with a girl that is over 18.
A recent Nightline news story clearly shows how easy it is to traffic young girls through Backpage. In the story, you can watch as a detective posts an ad on Backpage for an escort. The ad stated that she was 18, but included the line “ask me about my younger friend.” Within minutes of posting, the phone number listed in the ad was getting dozens of calls and texts. One caller, told that the escort was actually 16 and the younger friend 15, eagerly set up a date. Soon he was at the hotel room where the “escort” and her “younger friend” waited, and was promptly arrested.
Supply and demand. It’s that simple.
Backpage.com claims that it is part of the solution to online trafficking, not part of the problem, but since it took them over 8 hours to take down the ad used in the sting (by which time the ad had generated hundreds of calls and texts), and since they ONLY did so because the ad was REPORTED, I find myself unconvinced. How many ads like this are never reported or caught? I would venture to say most of them.
Backpage is such a huge source of this problem in the United States that the site is currently being investigated by the U.S. Senate, who recently voted to hold its CEO, Carl Ferrer in contempt of Congress for failing to appear at a hearing about online sex trafficking held by the Senate Subcommittee for Permanent Investigations.
“It was a unanimous vote,” Sen. Rob Portman told ABC News. “First time in 21 years this has happened. It’s a big deal.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill added, “Backpage is the major player in this space. Therefore they have to be investigated. That’s as complicated as the subject is.”
Clearly, the DCA of 1996 that protects sites like Backpage needs to be changed or amended. These sites MUST be held responsible for allowing this to happen, and put an actual EFFECTIVE plan in place to stop it (they claim they have one, clearly it is not at all effective.)
Though I am glad that our Senate is investigating this, I pray they will LEGISLATE it, and quickly. Our girls shouldn’t have to be punished for making a foolish teenage mistake like running away by becoming prey for the vicious, greedy vendors of the sex trafficking trade—and step one is to STOP allowing sites like Backpage to make it easy for them.
Natalie and her parents have come forward in the hopes that no one else will experience what they did. So parents, talk to your kids about this reality. Tell them that in this day and age, running from their problems can often lead to being ruthlessly victimized. Talk about some safe alternatives to responding to feelings or events that make them want to run away, so that they don’t end up in a provocative photo on a site used for sex trafficking.