In Washington state, there has been some hysteria about underage prostitution as of late. Washington is probably the most politically feminist state in the US, and resembles Scandinavia in its zeal to regulate sexual conduct. Our two female senators are perennially involved in one feminist cause or another, whether it be VAWA, IMBRA, or sex trafficking legislation.
This year, governor Christine Gregoire signed a signed a law that would require backpage.com and other escort advertisers to verify people’s age when they post ads on its service, because there have been reports of underage prostitutes using the service to advertise their wares. This would obviously be difficult, given that all of the ads are submitted online. Backpage.com is an advertisement service for prostitutes, owned by New York’s Village Voice Media company. It took over the market in such ads after Craigslist dropped them in 2010.
Perhaps Backpage is worried that if they make a mistake and a minor slips through they will be held responsible. Of course, if there are underage prostitutes advertising on Backpage, they are lying about their age, because vice cops regularly check the ads for that kind of thing. Additionally, potential clients would suspect that anyone advertising as a minor is certainly a cop.
So the effect of the Washington law would be to shut down pretty much all prostitution ads in the state, because hookers are not going to show up in person to be carded before placing an ad. It would be too risky for the prostitutes, whether they are of legal age or not, because officially providing one’s identity is never a good idea when engaging in illegal activity.
Personally, I wouldn’t care either way about the hooker ads. I have to admit I’d get a little schadenfreude out of seeing local gutter mags like The Stranger scrambling to find lost revenue. However, it is bad precedent. If you can hold Backpage responsible for what third parties post, where does it stop? Could bloggers be fined and jailed if some anonymous person posts illegal content in comments?
Because of these issues, Backpage sued to block the law, and was granted an injunction yesterday by Ricardo Martinez, a federal judge. Martinez made the only sane choice given the broad scope of the law. It clearly removes the right of people and companies to host third party content by holding them liable for other people’s speech.
As for underage prostitution, although I don’t think it’s as common as some would have us believe, it may well be a growing problem. In fact, given how many girls are growing up without their fathers today, I’d be surprised if it weren’t. Although I can’t say for certain that I ever personally knew any prostitutes when I was in high school, there were a number of girls who carried pagers (this is way back in the early 90s, before cell phones were common), and I don’t think they were selling crack. These girls were the female equivalents of the gangstas who were slinging rocks on street corners, and I strongly suspect they were making some money on the side by selling themselves. In fact, just a few years after I got out of my high school, the principal was caught having a “relationship” with a female student, and it’s pretty clear she was getting paid for it, if not in cash in kind.
In certain neighborhoods, prostitution is a pretty casual, out-in-the-open kind of thing. Some girl is walking down the street, a guy in a lowrider slows down, talks to her for a minute, and she gets in the car. I’ve seen it happen plenty of times, including with apparently underage females. It isn’t slavery or “trafficking” — it’s just part of the culture in some places. And this culture is very strongly associated with single mother households and father absence.
If these lawmakers really want to do something about underage prostitution, I can think of a good place to start, and it doesn’t involve cracking down on websites. First, stop incentivizing single motherhood. Next, rather than actively chasing fathers away from their families, give them incentives to stick around and be involved in their children’s lives.
But maybe that would work too well, and take away the opportunity to grandstand over the latest moral panic.