NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police have charged 22 people in a wealthy Nashville, Tennessee, suburb after the men agreed to pay to have sex with underage girls whose online profiles had been created by law enforcement agents, authorities said.
The results of a four-day operation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is the latest major case involving Backpage.com, an online classified site that has been accused of promoting sex trafficking and where the men sought the ads.
The men arrested in the southern U.S. town of Brentwood were charged with prostitution-related charges in what police called a “human trafficking operation”.
They include a computer programmer, an automotive engineer, a construction worker and a chef, the agency said in a statement about the operation conducted last month.
In the online sting, undercover agents posed as 14- and 16-year-old girls in ads on Backpage.com.
Several dozen would-be customers answered the ads, police said at a news conference posted in a Facebook video. Twenty two showed up at a hotel in hopes of meeting the girls for sex, where they were apprehended.
In the United States, sex trafficking is defined as commercial sex induced by force, fraud or coercion, or involving a minor under the age of 18.
The sting operation was an attempt at curbing sex-trafficking demand, authorities said, an aspect of modern-day slavery advocates say is neglected by police who often focus on arresting trafficked victims coerced into prostitution.
“This is, without a doubt, a demand-driven crime,” said Jason Locke, deputy director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
“Quite simply, we need men to expect more from themselves,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Backpage.com, a classified advertising website where the ads were posted, has faced scrutiny from the U.S. Senate over allegations that it facilitates sex trafficking, especially of children, in its ads.
In trafficking lawsuits filed against it, the company has repeatedly triumphed by arguing it is hosting content, not creating it, and is protected from liability by a federal law that protects free speech, the Communications Decency Act.
But a bill seeking to amend the law to make it easier to sue operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking has made headway in the U.S. Senate this week.
The federal Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act was approved in committee, opening the way for a possible vote by the full Senate.
Anti-slavery group Polaris says it has received reports of more than 22,000 sex-trafficking cases in the United States over the last decade.
Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org