'Village Voice' in row over sex trafficking claim

Paper criticised for carrying ads for alleged underage prostitutes

For decades, it was part of the reason you wanted to live in New York City. But now the Village Voice, the once iconoclastic weekly that through the years has published everyone from Ezra Pound to Henry Miller, is in the dock for making millions of dollars from a website that allegedly supports the illegal trafficking of minors for sex.

"I have always loved the Village Voice," John Buffalo Mailer, the son of Norman Mailer, a co-founder of the paper in 1955, told protesters outside its offices in the East Village last week. "I have always loved what it represents. It was intended to be the people's paper and so to see them now ... it's heartbreaking."

Members of the group, who were accompanied by members of the New York City council and of the clergy, delivered a petition to the paper signed by nearly a quarter of a million people across the US demanding that Backpage.com be shut down. They piled children's shoes outside as a shrine to the girls and boys they say have been trafficked with the site's help. Nothing of them remained yesterday.

As well as having a fine tradition of subversive muckraking, the Voice has long been a place for its friskier readers to graze sex ads on its back pages. Since the paper was bought in 2005 by a Phoenix-based publisher now called Village Voice Media, much of that business has migrated to Backpage.com. The campaign against Backpage began last year when a group of attorneys general from states across the country sent a joint letter to the Village Voice saying they had documented cases of minors being traded through the site. "The evidence demonstrates that Backpage is being used by pimps for sex trafficking," said a city councillor, Melissa Mark-Viverito. "In 22 states, children have been forced into prostitution and trafficked on Backpage. I am proud to stand with faith leaders to send a message that Village Voice Media must shut down its adult advertising."

The campaign is the latest blow to the Voice, which, since the takeover by the Phoenix group, has been plagued by editorial turmoil, losing four editors in quick succession. Available free for the past 15 years, it has a circulation of about 180,000.

The sex ads on Backpage are estimated to bring in roughly $20m a year. Some detractors argue that shutting the site would only drive the trafficking business to still murkier corners of the internet. Village Voice Media has installed a filter system to help detect illegal selling of minors and co-operate with law enforcement to track sex criminals down.

Liz McDougall, a lawyer for the company, said: "The realities and complexity of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are such that to announce that a single website – Backpage.com or any other – is the primary source of the scourge and therefore holds the cure to this horrendous problem is not only unsupported but irresponsible." She is unlikely, however, to convince, Katherine Henderson, president of the Auburn seminary, a Presbyterian training school, who was among the organisers of last week's protest. "The Village Voice has claimed that this issue is 'complicated' but, frankly, it is not complicated. Forcing anyone to sell his or her body for sex is illegal. But when the body being sold is that of a minor, we add horrifying to illegal," she said.

Nor were the attorneys general sympathetic. "While Backpage.com professes to have undertaken efforts to limit advertisements for prostitution on its website, particularly those soliciting sex with children, such efforts have proven ineffective," they said.

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