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In victory for Dart, time’s up for prostitution ads on Craigslist, other sites

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart / Sun-Times files

Mark this a big win for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. After years of waging war against websites he said facilitated prostitution and sex trafficking of minors, Dart has scored a victory from an unlikely source.

The U.S. Senate just passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign the controversial bill.

This culminates years of debate over the role of government in policing websites like Backpage.com, where thinly veiled prostitution ads often allowed for the sex trafficking of minors.

“This tremendous legislation will, for the first time, give human trafficking victims a recourse against those who profit from their exploitation,” Dart says.

After passage of the sex trafficking bill, Craigslist shut down its personal ads section and announced it “will no longer operate the portion of the website that allows individuals to seek encounters with strangers.”

On its website, the company said: “Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services.”

Reddit also changed its content policy, moving Thursday to exclude what it termed “paid services involving physical sexual contact.”

And Erotic Review, an Internet site based in Britain that’s devoted to sex-related topics, including prostitution, took down its U.S. pages.

Desiree Robinson in 2016
Desiree Robinson. | Provided photo
Provided photo

Last year, Chicago was at the center of this debate when 16-year-old Desiree Robinson was killed and left on the floor of a garage in Markham. Her body was found on Christmas Eve.

Antonio Rosales has been charged with murder in the teen’s killing, and Joseph Hazley, 33, with sex trafficking, accused of having advertised the teen as being available for “companionship” on Backpage.com and paid for the ads in bitcoin.

The teen’s mother, Yvonne Ambrose, gave emotional testimony at a Senate hearing last year. She told lawmakers her daughter was “preyed on and sold online by pimps who took advantage of her.”

Dart has been fighting Internet sites that trade in erotic ads for more than a decade. In 2015, he wrote letters to Visa and MasterCard urging credit-card companies not to allow their cards to be used to place ads on the website. Backpage.com’s operators responded by suing Dart.

Another notorious incident, in 2016, showed Dart was on the money with claims that the personal ads on Backpage.com were solicitations for prostitution. Alisha Walker, 23, a known prostitute, fatally stabbed Al Filan, 61, after a sexual encounter. Filan had contacted the young woman through an ad on Backpage.com.

That site shut down its “escort” section a year later, but authorities said the prostitution ads were just moved to the “dating”section.

That same year, Backpage.com settled lawsuits filed by three teenagers who said they were 13 to 15 years old when they were advertised for sex on the site.

At some point, there will be a serious debate in this country over whether prostitution is something the government needs to regulate rather than ban.

Until then, this law will help protect vulnerable young women from predators on the Internet.

Because this legislation will make Internet sites accountable for the sexual exploitation of women and children, it will be tougher for the owners of those sites to turn a blind eye when ads are linked to illegal sex acts.

Ironically, Trump, who is in the midst of salacious allegations of infidelity made by a porn star, will be the one to sign this important legislation.

“This is a historic step in a world where everything seems bad,” says Cara Smith, Dart’s top policy aide. “Already, we have seen huge changes in the landscape for victims of sexual exploitation.”

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