Exposed: NZ women selling themselves on notorious sex trafficking site

By Olivia Carville

Some young women in New Zealand are selling themselves on a website notorious for sex trafficking across North America. Photo:
Some young women in New Zealand are selling themselves on a website notorious for sex trafficking across North America. Photo:

'Submissive Samantha', 'Doll-faced Jenny' and 'Pretty Maori girl Danny' are young women in New Zealand selling themselves on a website notorious for sex trafficking across North America.

Every day in New Zealand hundreds of new escort advertisements are posted on the classifed ad website, the Herald has found.

Some of the women are only teenagers: for example an 18-year-old is offering unprotected sex in a respectable downtown hotel in Wellington.

The advertisements include explicit photos of the women and a short biography explaining their physical features, what kind of sexual services they are willing to provide and how much they will charge.

The website Backpage - which sells everything from appliances to real estate - has come under fire in the United States recently. Four US senators have called for the immediate shutdown of the site because they claimed "its victims - often children - are repeatedly purchased and raped by customers".

Reports detail how traffickers target vulnerable young women, pose as their boyfriends and then coerce them into entering the sex trade. These traffickers post ads on Backpage and move the women from city to city and hotel to motel, selling them for sex.

Mounting public pressure against sex trafficking in North America has seen major credit card companies cut ties with Backpage's adult section because of the repeated links to criminal trafficking rings.

In Washington State, three young teens advertised for sex on Backpage filed a lawsuit against the website claiming it played a role in allowing them to be "bought and sold" as prostitutes. Two of the girls were in seventh grade and one claims she was raped multiple times by men who responded to her online ads, according to court documents.

Backpage, which is owned by a Dutch holding company, tried to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing it wasn't liable because it only operates as a host to content posted by others, but last year a Supreme Court Judge ruled in favour of the victims, giving them the right to sue. The trial is ongoing.

When the Herald contacted a representative from Backpage for comment, we were told the company could not make any public statement "due to pending legal matters in the US."

In Toronto, Canada's hub of human trafficking, police trawl Backpage on a daily basis to look for trafficked victims and say monitoring the site is a major part of their efforts to prevent this crime.

Of the 359 trafficking cases Toronto police investigated between 2013 and 2015, every single victim was advertised on Backpage, the Toronto Star reported last year.

In comparison, most New Zealand-based authorities the Herald contacted for this story had not even heard of the site and were unaware young women were selling themselves through it.

When the Herald put questions about sex trafficking and Backpage to police, we were referred to INZ who then referred us back to the police.

When asked if police were monitoring Backpage, the Herald was told that information was "withheld".

At least 60 escort ads have been uploaded on Backpage already today with women offering sex across Auckland, from hotels in the city centre to Parnell, Mt Eden and South Auckland.

Over the past week, the Herald contacted a few of the women advertising sex on Backpage and spoke to one who said she could not talk because someone else was in the room with her. Before hanging up, she said the phone was being used by seven other women who were also selling themselves on the site.

Human trafficking - the movement, deception or coercion of people for the purposes of exploitation - is deemed one of the fastest-growing activities of the trans-national criminal underworld.

Last week marked the first successful conviction against human trafficking in New Zealand history.

Fiji national Faroz Ali, 46, was found guilty for a string of human trafficking charges at Auckland's High Court for luring 15 Fijian workers to New Zealand and exploiting them upon arrival.

Illustration / Andrew Louis
Illustration / Andrew Louis

The verdict was a success for the Government, which has made significant moves to crack down on migrant exploitation in the past two years.

But, the conviction of Ali was also a reminder of the lack of official action over human trafficking in New Zealand and the reluctance authorities have had to even acknowledge its existence stretching back at least three decades.

New Zealand was identified as a hot spot for human trafficking in a 2004 report from the US State Department's Office. The report highlighted how New Zealand faced "a large problem of children being internally trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation".

Pacific Island and Maori youth are particularly at risk of sex trafficking through street prostitution, the report said.

Auckland University researcher Natalie Thorburn is writing a doctoral thesis on domestic sex trafficking in New Zealand because she said "there has been absolutely nothing done on this area so far."

Sex trafficking - or forced prostitution - was "absolutely and conclusively" happening here.

"And most people who work in domestic and sexual violence will probably agree with that," she added.

A total lack of cohesion between the Government and its agencies about how to handle or investigate these cases meant no one was willing to admit sex trafficking was occurring in New Zealand, Thorburn said.

The dominant perception of New Zealand being a clean, green and incorruptible oasis doesn't fit the reality anymore, she said.

"We definitely have sexual exploitation, but nobody is ready to label it as trafficking," she said.

"I think there is a real lack of understanding about what that definition is in New Zealand. If people were to understand it, then they would believe it."

- NZ Herald

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