The virtual street corner: Sex trafficking onlinePosted: Updated:
PHOENIX -- Carolyn Jones used to work Van Buren Street. She entered into the dark world of prostitution as a teenager.
"It basically started as a way to survive," Jones said.
Her chapter of torture and trafficking lasted about 30 years, until tragedy struck her family. Her sister, who also worked as a prostitute, was murdered, along with several of her friends, in a spree of killings which involved prostitutes in 2003.
"I found myself at a bus stop crying out to God, 'Please, Lord, give me a chance to get out of here. Give me a chance to live again!'" she recalled.
Nearly 10 years later, Jones is speaking out as a survivor to raise awareness about a new generation of victims.
While numbers are extremely hard to track, it's estimated hundreds of girls are trafficked across the Valley.
However, the new street corner has gone virtual.
"You won't see a lot of girls working out here on the street, that's the way it used to be," Jones said. "It is so easy to go online and order a young girl, just like you're ordering pizza. That should not be!"
Arizona State University Associate Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz has done extensive research on Backpage.com. She found nearly 80 percent of ads posted on the "adult services" section of the site are believed to be for selling sex.
"It's so easy," said Roe-Sepowitz. She analyzed hundreds of ads, looking for key words and cues that could indicate victims, including young girls.
"She could be 15 years old," Roe-Sepowitz said while pointing out a potentially questionable ad. "Sweet, super cute ... all indicators of youth."
She said often times the girls are dressed to appear much older.
"Traffickers are really smart," she said. "When you're selling kids, you're going to be smart about it."
"The huge trend is in social media," said Sgt. Clay Sutherlin of Phoenix Police Department's Vice Squad. He said pimps have even turned to sites such as Twitter and Facebook to recruit their victims.
"You have people out there, the sex traffickers, who are probably sending out hundreds and hundreds of friend requests," said Sutherlin, who admits a good portion of his team's work is now online.
He said predators are looking for vulnerable, at-risk children and teens, who can be groomed and manipulated into a lifestyle of prostitution and pain.
"What have we become?" Jones asked. "When you look at a 13-year-old in the face and they tell you, show you their scars ... it breaks you down."
Jones now works as an advocate with Streetlight USA, a local group providing shelter and treatment to underage victims.
Her focus now is to stop the cycle of abuse.
"We won't tolerate prostituting of our children," Jones said. "This is not going to happen on my watch."
Facebook and Twitter both say they have zero tolerance for sex trafficking or exploitation.
"We take human trafficking very seriously and while this behavior is not common on Facebook, we have implemented robust protections to identify and counter this activity," said Facebook spokesman Fred Wolens. "We maintain a robust reporting infrastructure that leverages the over billion people who use our site to keep an eye out for offensive or potentially dangerous content."
Facebook has a contact form to report trafficking in its Help Center.
According to Twitter's policy, content promoting child sexual exploitation will be removed from the site without further notice and reported to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Twitter accounts believed to be promoting trafficking are to be reported to email@example.com, according to their policy.
For more information on local resources for sex trafficking, go to Streetlight USA or www.polarisproject.org
Statement from Liz McDougall, Backpage.com:
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is an abhorrence in our society. It is appalling as a street crime and it is appalling as an Internet crime. It is also an extremely complex problem, and it must be fought intelligently. Backpage.com is at the forefront of fighting it intelligently online with approximately 80 staff dedicated to operating a 24/7 triple-tier prevention system (including an automated filter and two levels of human review) and an unparalleled law enforcement support system.
There is no question that, domestically and globally, everyone needs to do more to combat the atrocity of child sexual exploitation. Backpage.com is committed to continuing to aggressively battle this social abomination with law enforcement, with willing anti-trafficking organizations, and with other online service providers. But there is so much more that needs to be discussed and addressed to prevent vulnerable populations from becoming victims of exploitation and to halt trafficking as a lucrative criminal enterprise.