What did the Village Voice do? Here’s the original article and my breakdown of the issues. What follows are two ways the Village Voice could get a good guess at how many people are being sold into sex without consent through their website. One is internal-only, and the other has results which could be shared broadly.
Gender-matching approach with credit-card data.
(For internal Village Voice use only, because of privacy issues)
Since Backpage, and therefore the Village Voice, has the emails and the credit card info of everyone who has ever posted an ad in its Adult section, they could write a quick program that compared the names of the women advertised with the names on the credit cards used to pay for the ad.
With a little more work, they could eliminate false-positives. E.G. because my name is long, I often appear in databases at Jessica Goodman or Jessica Dickinson rather than Jessica Dickinson Goodman. Now, the problem of stage names. This is a significant barrier to determining if the person being advertised is the same as the person with the credit card. But not a barrier to predicting trafficking situations.
Using the stereotype that many traffickers are male, they could create a database of typical male and female names using baby name sites. There will, of course, be false positives here as well. Then they could determine the percentage of posts on their website where a man posted that a woman was available for sex.
We now have two groups: one where a man posted an ad for a woman and one where a woman posted an ad for a woman. There are lots of places to go from here, to try and narrow down how many ads are for victims of sex trafficking.
- Search for coded terms used by traffickers to indicate that their victims are minors like “New in town,” “adorable,” sweet,” or “young.”
- For posters who have used the same credit card/email for years, compare the ages they give at different times for different women. Is “Candy” always 18?
- Do male posters report an average age higher or lower than the overall average age?
- Does the same credit card pay for the ads of the same 6 women?
- Do the ads’ location indicate that the poster is moving along an established trafficking “track” (LA to San Francisco to Portland to Seattle to Las Vegas to LA)?
Because the first study requires Village Voice to use private credit card information, it is something they could only report carefully. However, because they possess a complete database of the verified emails of every person who has every posted an ad on their site, they could conduct a quick survey to make a better guess at how many of their patrons are traffickers.
Of course, because the person on the other end of the email could be: 1) a trafficker, 2) a trafficking victim, or 3) a sex-worker, the survey would have to be carefully constructed. Here are some sample questions drawing from the trafficking assessments provided by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and assuming the Village Voice is emailing only the posters who are at high risk of being traffickers, based on the work above. Warning: I’m trying to write questions to get information from human traffickers without making them suspicious. Expect skeeviness.
Welcome the the Village Voice’s Poster Survey! It should take about 5 minutes, and is completely and totally anonymous. Only if you are interested in winning a month of free gas/$500 will you be required to give us your email.[*]
- Our viewers are always interested in the lives of the people in our ads. We would love some basic demographics:
- Where are their hometowns?
- Are their folks old enough to collect Social Security?
- How long have they lived in their current town?
- You’re a regular customer (thank you!). You seem to post about the services of several different people:
- Where did you meet?
- Do you provide transportation to appointments with customers? [traffickers control means of transport]
- Do you live together? [traffickers often “boyfriend” women before selling them]
- Now, down to the nitty gritty.
- If a customer calls the number on your ad, who answers: you or her? [traffickers control cell-phones]
- During appointments, how close by are you? [traffickers stay close to keep victims intimidated]
- Hotel, delivery, private home?
- We’re considering offering business advice and services to our best customers. Below are some questions to help us determine if you’re one of them.
- Where did you look for clients before using us? [helps determine legitimacy]
- What is your annual income?
- What’s your experience?
- Nearly done! Our last questions are about the beauties in the ads.
- How many languages do they speak? Which ones? [traffickers target women from some populations more than others]
- Height/weights? [this might help determine the age of the person in the ad–there are a limited number of women over the age of 18 who are 5′ and weigh 100 lbs.
- Outside interests?
Thank you for your participation! If you are interested in winning $500/a month of free, please enter your email here:
There are probably a dozen other, good data-collection designs the Village Voice could use to guess how many people are being sold for sex through their service. Pimps don’t file income-tax returns, but they want easy money as much as anyone else. With a good survey design, and using the resources already at their finger-tips, the Village Voice could confirm or contradict what we know about trafficking. Shed light, rather than generate heat through ill-researched shredding campaigns.
If they’re journalists, they’ll do just that.
*Why these three? I tried to think about everything I know about traffickers. In pimp-controlled prostitution, traffickers watch their victims solicit from johns all night; on a cold night, with the heat on, that could take a lot of gas. $500 is the amount each woman in a typical pimp’s “stable” should bring in each night.
UPDATE: If you look in the comments, and scroll past the crazy, you will see that a Christine Pullman has decided to vent her internal demons onto the intertubes. As should be clear from my comments policy, as long as commenters stick to lies, bad research, misinformation and refrain from threats of physical violence or ad hominem attacks, I let them be. Remember people:
“The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps–we must step up the stairs.”–Vance Havner