As victims of sex trafficking and family members who have lost loved ones to the industry looked on, President Donald Trump signed a bill to combat sex trafficking on Wednesday.
The law, which passed Congress with near unanimous bipartisan support, will let state law enforcement officials pursue websites that knowingly host sex trafficking content, and allow victims to sue such sites for damages.
It’s the latest action by Washington to crackdown on sex rings.
Last week, federal authorities seized the classified advertising website Backpage.com. A 93-count indictment charged several of its top officials with facilitating prostitution and revealing details about victims including minors as young as 14.
Backpage has been in the crosshairs of Congress for some time. Last year, the Senate issued a bipartisan investigative report saying that Backpage had altered ads on its site to remove evidence of human trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children claims Backpage was behind nearly three-quarters of all the public reports it received on child trafficking.
“This isn’t just about Backpage. There are hundreds of others in this space, this online marketplace,” Representative Ann Wagner, Republican of Missouri, who sponsored the bill in the House told the New York Times. “To see the impact without this legislation being signed into law yet, in terms of going after these cesspools of crime, is absolutely amazing.”
After Congress passed the bill, Craigslist, the online classifieds site, removed its “personals” section perhaps proving Rep. Wagner’s point.
Yvonne Ambrose was one of those on hand for the signing in the Oval Office. The Chicago woman lost her 16-year-old daughter, who was murdered by a man who used Backpage.com to buy her for underaged sex, according to Cleveland.com.
Through tears, she thanked President Trump for signing the bill. “It means so much to our family,” Ambrose said. “Hopefully there won’t be any more people who have to endure that pain.”
Still, the bipartisan crackdown on sex trafficking is being criticized in some quarters.
After Backpage was seized, the Women’s March group said on Twitter that the result was “an absolute crisis” for sex workers seeking safe communication with clients.
“Women’s March stands in solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement,” a spokeswoman for the organization explained on Tuesday. “We believe a world is possible in which no one is trafficked or enslaved, and in which sex workers are not criminalized and ostracized by the state and our movements.”
And Huffpost.com called the bill “controversial” citing critics who said it conflates voluntary sex work with victims trafficked into the industry and actually makes sex workers less safe.
Carol Robles-Román disagrees. The former chief executive and president of Legal Momentum says she has documented more than three dozen news reports of people who were murdered after being listed on Backpage.
Several prominent social conservative leaders also supported the legislation, including Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, an organization of conservative Christian women with half a million members nationwide.
“The President is standing up to Silicon Valley and with victims of abuse,” Ms. Nance said. “Evangelical women see this as ‘caring for the least of these’ and strongly supported this legislation to the point that we were able to thwart efforts by big money media to sink the bill.”