Before the efforts of prosecutors Alexi Ashe Meyers and Rebecca Dince Zipkin, ordering sex was a lot like ordering pizza. Both Meyers and Zipkin are seasonal Island residents, and gave a talk about their work last Wednesday, August 8, at the Chilmark library.
When you think about sex trafficking, you may think of the Liam Neeson movie “Taken,” and some far-off international market that you have to cross borders to encounter. Meyers and Zipkin thought that, too, until they learned it’s happening in all our backyards.
“In reality, it happens everywhere,” Meyers said. “Online, in school, at the corner bodega. It’s happening to girls of all demographics, but the real targets are girls who are vulnerable.”
Meyers and Zipkin are attorneys in New York City, and they’ve spent the past five years representing and advocating for women caught in the sex-trafficking trade.
The internet and online dating apps have turned sex trafficking into a different industry. Prostitution isn’t limited to the street, or the “track,” it’s facilitated online, and there’s a law that protects Internet companies from being held responsible. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) provides Internet companies with blanket immunity.
“The law passed in 1996,” Zipkin said. “The internet was a different beast. Section 230 was written to protect companies because they couldn’t screen everything on their site. The government passed the law so they wouldn’t be facing tons of lawsuits.”
But as the Internet grew into the biggest and most profitable network, that law presented problems. Backpage.com is an online classified website, like Craigslist, only its largest driving economic force is its adult-services section. It is a platform for pimps to sell victims for sex. Last year, according to Meyers, Backpage made $150 million just from its adult-services ads. Girls have been murdered, children have been abused, and Section 230 protects Backpage from being held responsible.
“Every time victims and families would sue Backpage, judges would say Section 230 protects the site, and to go to legislators and get Congress to amend the law,” Zipkin said.
So that’s exactly what Zipkins and Meyers did. “Starting last year, we campaigned hard,” Meyers said. “We worked hard with victims and their mothers, we went to Washington, lobbied, and passed a bipartisan bill that narrowly amends the CDA. Now, companies that know they host trafficking can be held responsible. They don’t have the immunity they had before.”
Passing the bill was no easy feat. At first, many tech companies waged massive opposition to Zipkin and Meyers’ efforts.
“Google waged a huge effort against this,” Meyers said. “The media took the tech industry side. How do you fight Google?”
Filmmaker Mary Mazzio directed the film “I Am Jane Doe,” which documented the stories of American mothers battling sex trafficking on behalf of their daughters.
“Through the power of ‘Jane Doe’ and listening to survivors who have been through this, Congress understood the need for an amendment,” Meyers said.
“Mothers of murdered children testified, and two weeks later the first version of FOSTA-SESTA [the bipartisan bill] was introduced,” Zipkin said. “Members of the House of Representatives were on board, and law enforcement was really involved. We came to find that if you hold sites accountable and take away revenue stream, a lot of people will stop doing this.”
Since the bill was passed in April, there’s been an 80 percent decrease in online sex ads. Craigslist and and Reddit took down their adult-services sections, and Backpage.com has been seized.
“It was amazing to see,” Zipkin said. “Seeing senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle really working together like this — it was inspiring.”
Zipkins and Meyers now work for the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, a New York City–based service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and gender-based violence.
Like any bill, there’s backlash. Some women find the FOSTA-SESTA antifeminist. Some are voluntarily in the sex trade, and think the bill makes their work less safe.
“It breaks my heart when I hear this law is antifeminist,” Meyers said. “Prostitution is antifeminist. It’s one of the most abusive services in the world.”
“We at Sanctuary serve so many clients, and not one of them says this is the life I want,” Zipkin said. “We’re not saying there aren’t people who can’t do this safely, and enter and exit at will. We’re saying we don’t think laws should be enacted to protect those people. It’s to protect the most marginalized and discriminated against. No one thinks women should be arrested who are in prostitution. We’re arresting buyers, pimps, and the economic drivers of the industry.”