With a red shawl coiled around her neck and fierce, flashing eyes, Linda Smith, founder and president of the nonprofit advocacy group Shared Hope International, strode out of a Sacramento courtroom on August 23 to address reporters after a judge threw out pimping charges against Backpage.com.
In an 18-page ruling, Judge Lawrence Brown found that the online listing giant’s ex-owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin and current CEO Carl Ferrer were shielded from prosecution on pimping allegations by Section 230 of the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which grants immunity to interactive website owners for content posted by users.
Though Brown let stand 25 charges alleging money laundering and bank fraud, Smith, whose conservative Christian organization is dedicated to the eradication of sex trafficking worldwide, characterized the ruling as a setback, one that adds urgency to an effort by some members of Congress to rewrite Section 230.
“It is a blow,” she said. “But it reinforces why we have to amend the CDA.”
Smith noted that she had voted for the CDA as a two-term Republican U.S. representative from Washington state (1995 to 1999), but said she and her fellow lawmakers intended to protect websites from “frivolous” lawsuits, not to build a “big wall” that “bad actors” could hide behind.
A former darling of the Conservative Coalition who was known for her acid tongue and her opposition to LGBT rights, environmentalism, and the federal funding of abortion even in the cases of rape and incest, Smith insists that Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin are “pimps” who should be held accountable for ads posted by people who have used Backpage to legally advertise adult services such as body rubs, stripteases, and escort services.
According to Smith and the California Attorney General’s Office, which has been pursuing Backpage for three and a half years now, such advertisements are thinly veiled pitches for prostitution that sometimes involve minors and women who’ve been coerced into the sex trade.
Yet both federal and state courts have consistently held that Section 230’s grant of immunity, which protects the owners of interactive websites from libelous or criminal content posted by users, applies to Backpage.
As a result, Smith’s Shared Hope International and groups like it support an effort by a bipartisan coalition in Congress to carve out an exception to Section 230 for the enforcement of federal and state civil and criminal laws regarding sex trafficking: the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA), sponsored by Republican U.S. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and co-sponsored by 27 fellow senators.
According to a fact sheet issued by Portman’s office, the law would “[e]liminate federal liability protections for websites that assist, support, or facilitate a violation of federal sex trafficking laws.”
Smith said that amending the CDA is her organization’s “top priority.” She dismissed the concerns of many in the tech industry that the new legislation, if passed, could have a chilling effect on the industry, with web entrepreneurs suddenly liable under a patchwork quilt of 50 state laws that could hold them criminally and civilly responsible for third-party content.
Though she conceded that “all of the tech industry is fighting it,” Smith insisted that the proposed legislation applies a “pretty tough standard” that would not cause a “flood” of litigation or criminal prosecutions.
But Smith’s own rhetoric and the puritanical stances of her organization, which she founded in 1998 after a visit to a brothel in India, should sound an alarm bell for those worried about Congress’ gutting Section 230’s protections for internet providers.
Smith believes that “prostitution is victimization” and says she has found few women willing to admit that they freely sell their bodies for sex.
Shared Hope International’s website makes no secret of its overtly religious nature. A page dedicated to the group’s “mission and values” describes it as an organization of “Christian abolitionists,” the “Christian stewards” of a budget that its 2016 tax filings pegged at $3.4 million in revenue, part of which covers Smith’s six-figure salary.
The website also contains a “Statement of Faith” that calls the Bible the “infallible, authoritative word of God” and states that Shared Hope International accepts the divinity of Jesus, believes in the Holy Trinity, and accepts that sinners are going to Hell.
“We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost,” the statement reads. “They that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.”
Given such fundamentalist beliefs, it’s not surprising that Smith and her group tend to conflate prostitution between consenting adults with “sex trafficking,” the latter of which by definition involves minors or women coerced into the sex trade.
Asked whether she acknowledges a distinction between the two, Smith demurs.
“Commercial sex is violent,” she said. “I have dealt so much with the victims, and I know that if a guy wants to get some sex, hang out at a bar, stay till two o’clock and you can have somebody to hang around with you.”
Smith would not go as far as calling for the abolition of all prostitution, and she claimed that her focus is on child sex trafficking. But she went on to say that she believes that “prostitution is victimization,” and that she has found few women willing to admit that they freely sell their bodies for sex.
During a 2015 TEDx Talk she gave in Portland, Oregon, on the horrors of sex trafficking, she dismissed the idea of voluntary sex work, telling the audience, “No girl wakes up in the morning and says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute.'”
In the same talk, Smith called out Portland for having “more sex venues per capita than any other city in the U.S.,” without mentioning that these “sex venues,” mostly strip clubs, are not only legal but protected under the First Amendment.
While speaking with reporters in Sacramento, she veered into a rambling condemnation of pornography as “addictive” and “predatory,” claiming that studies have linked porn to medical issues such as erectile dysfunction.
“Looking at a naked body is different from [looking at] one that is being raped by six men and sodomized and all of those things,” she said. “Like consensual sex with two people deciding that it’s a good thing — that’s okay. But when it’s buying someone else, doing things on their body, that’s not such a good thing. No one consensual would want that to happen.”
Smith’s rigid stances came as no surprise to Kristen DiAngelo, a Sacramento sex worker who is the founder and executive director of that city’s chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), which advocates for the rights of sex workers. DiAngelo is familiar with the arguments of abolitionists like Smith, for whom sex work is never voluntary.
“How many people dream of cleaning toilets at McDonald’s?” says DiAngelo. “[Prostitution is] a job. It’s a labor profession. And it’s something that consenting adults are agreeing to.”
“That’s their whole belief,” DiAngelo said in an interview for this article. “Because that wouldn’t be a choice for them, it’s the same for everybody else. What they’re doing in that thought process is they’re actually taking away agency from people: telling a full-grown adult, ‘You’re not capable of understanding what you’re doing, so I am going to dictate what your moral code should be.'”
DiAngelo says she finds the arguments put forth by Smith and her ilk to be demeaning, not to mention myopic and closed-minded.
“How many people dream of cleaning toilets at McDonald’s?” she asked in riposte to Smith’s assertion that no one wants to be a sex worker. “Really? It’s a job. It’s a labor profession. And it’s something that consenting adults are agreeing to.”
DiAngelo runs a shelter in Sacramento where she helps women who want to transition out of prostitution. She says that since Backpage closed its adult section this past January — on the eve of a U.S. Senate hearing that targeted the website’s business practices — she has seen an uptick in street prostitution, as women who had been able to screen their clients and work independently are forced into dangerous, potentially deadly situations and back into the grasp of pimps.
As for Smith’s contention that the current and former owners of Backpage are “pimps,” DiAngelo finds that insulting to women such as herself who have actually been trafficked and know the violence of traffickers.
DiAngelo says that whenever she hears this comparison from someone, she reads to them from training material she has developed for social workers to help them identify sex traffickers and their victims. It describes the brutality, rape, torture, imprisonment, threats, psychological abuse and even death that those victims suffer at the hands of pimps.
“I don’t see Lacey and them doing that,” said DiAngelo. “When they say that a newspaper person is a pimp, do you know how that minimizes us that have been trafficked? Like what we went through wasn’t real. They’re defining it so wrong, I can’t even tell you.”