‘I am Jane Doe’ reveals real stories behind sex trafficking in the U.S.

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Attorneys and advocates Rebecca Zipkin and Alexi Meyers have a conversation about sex trafficking. —Stacey Rupolo

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Center screens “I Am Jane Doe” on Monday, July 31, at 7:30 pm. Directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by actress Jessica Chastain, the documentary chronicles an ambitious campaign led by mothers of young girls in Boston, Seattle, and St. Louis. The film depicts these mothers describing their daughters, caught up in underage sex trafficking via the internet. The mothers were able to confirm their daughters were active in the sex trade by tracing them back via descriptions and photos on backpage.com. Backpage is much like Craigslist, only it lists explicit advertisements for sexual encounters under the guise of headings like “Dating” and “Massage.” Attorneys and Islanders Rebecca Dince Zipkin and Alexi Ashe Meyers will moderate a panel discussion following the film.

The two women worked in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, but now advocate for gender violence survivors at the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, based in New York City. They were on-Island this week, and sat down with The Times to talk about sex trafficking in the U.S.

“The biggest misconception is that you have to cross borders for the smuggling of humans,” Ms. Meyers said. “I don’t think people really picture the human trafficking that Rebecca and I found at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. It doesn’t look like it does in the movies. The average age is 12.”

Ms. Meyers said the young girls are lured into the trade with false promises from men masquerading as boyfriends — men advertising on backpage, or connecting with young girls on social media. “He’s going to make them a model, says he’s their boyfriend, and then ends up using the Internet to sell them,” she explained.

“It’s not typical that these girls are locked in the basement in chains and can’t leave,” Ms. Zipkin added. But there’s “a lot of coercion and manipulating.”

The girls meet the traffickers on sites like Instagram, Facebook or a chat site, but they can also meet them on the street, in a mall, at a bodega, and even through friends or family members. Girls who seem vulnerable or those with little family structure are more likely to fall prey to online predators, the attorneys said.

“They ‘friend’ a lot of young girls and see who accepts them, and then use another platform to start talking to them,” Ms. Meyers explained. “I’ve heard of traffickers going to the mall and saying ‘You’re so pretty,’ and the one that says ‘No, I’m not,’ that’s the vulnerable one.”

The mothers of the girls found on backpage.com go on to seek justice for their children through the court system, attempting to hold the website accountable. A slew of lawyers and top politicians like Republican Sen. John McCain and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, work to force backpage.com chief executive Carl Ferrer and the two men who founded the company in 2004, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, to take down the ads that could lead to sex trafficking. The owners of the website have won court cases again and again, citing section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that says in part, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The film features advocates, attorneys, and lawmakers, including civil and criminal case attorney Aaron Katz, a partner at Ropes & Gray law firm in Boston, who will be part of the panel discussion along with Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Ms. Zipkin and Ms. Meyers are happy that “I Am Jane Doe” is screening on the Vineyard this summer. “The Vineyard is a special place for Lexi and me,” Ms. Zipkin said. “There are a lot of interesting people here in the summer, and it [the film] deals with a subject a lot of people don’t know much about.”

Backpage.com does include listings for the Cape and Islands, where ads read, “Before and After work stress relief” and “New In Town [followed by a group of emoticons] Let Me Please You.” One ad under the “Dating” heading mentions Vineyard house calls.

The girls in “I Am Jane Doe” look unremarkably ordinary, with clips from home movies showing them playing outdoors when they’re small, and smiling broadly at the camera for their parents as their photographs were taken just a few years earlier. Now their mothers are angry and passionate and devoted to the cause.

“What better way to give voice to a daughter than through her mother’s voice,” Ms. Meyers said.

Tickets for “I Am Jane Doe” are $15 general admission, $12 for members, $7 for children ages 14 or younger, and are available at the Film Center and online at mvfilmsociety.com.