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Originally published Tuesday, July 12, 2011 at 4:19 PM

Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Big pimpin' at Village Voice Media

Village Voice Media's focus on the accuracy of a study about the number of sex-trafficking victims is a distraction from the fact that the company's personal and escort-services ads have created a profit center built on prostitution and sexual exploitation.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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Village Voice Media's preoccupation of late with the precise number of victims of sex trafficking has less to do with accuracy and more to do with trying to distance itself from the seamy underworld of underage prostitution.

Now that's a fool's errand.

The media conglomerate makes plenty of dough in its adult section,, selling escort services and personal ads. But let's get real. Men are not flocking to the section to find escorts for dinner or the opera. They're looking to pay for sex.

Village Voice — which owns Seattle Weekly — has created a healthy profit center built on recession-proof markets: prostitution and sexual exploitation.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn showed leadership by pulling the city's advertising from Seattle Weekly. The mayor accused Village Voice of "playing games with the numbers and underreporting" underaged prostitution and sex trafficking, trades plied through adult ads, on the Seattle Weekly site.

Estimates of sex-trafficking victims comes from "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico" study released in 2001, which calculated the numbers of minors engaging in or at risk of prostitution at between 100,000 to 300,000. Village Voice executives scoff at the numbers, pointing out they include runaways, many of whom return home before they can be forced into the sex trade.

I disagree. The best thing the study's authors, two University of Pennsylvania professors, did was cast this problem in terms of those forced by pimps to sell their bodies and those who without intervention are headed that way.

This sudden fascination with quantitative methodology is too convenient. Someone wants to distract the public by counting victims, so no one notices them counting the cash from exploitative ads. Reminds me of a Vegas card trick: Watch this hand, not that hand.

Estimates of sex-trafficking victims are not precise. They are hard to obtain in an arena where underage prostitutes are frequently transported across county and state lines and typically are counted only when they appear in the court system.

Too many go unnoticed because police are not arresting every underage prostitute. Nor should the problem be confined to minors forcibly taken into the industry. In addition to runaways lured into the trade, others are turned out by a parent or guardian with no problem selling their child for sex.

The authority in estimates of underage prostitution lies in their ability to convey the realness and the horror of this problem. Some idea of the scope helps guide critical intervention.

If Village Voice can't make people question whether there is a sex-trafficking problem, its other plan appears to be a play for sympathy based on First Amendment protections: Come down hard on them about its ads and you're meddling in its constitutional right to speech.

That's laughable. The photos of women posing with their rear ends stuck in the air don't appear to be speech but prostitution, which is illegal. The ads all but spell it out for you.

States, including Washington, are doing more to battle sex trafficking, including increasing penalties for human trafficking. Massachusetts decided that those guilty of trafficking children will face life in prison. But one glance at, where the women and girls advertised have phone numbers from around the country, shows the trafficking trade is healthy.

The power of celebrity is raising the level of attention as well. Actor Ashton Kutcher enraged Village Voice when he asked whether companies that do business with it know they are advertising on sites used as platforms for sex trafficking.

Kutcher's question, sent out on his Twitter feed of more than 7 million followers, reverberated around the globe. Village Voice's response: "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight," screamed their headline atop a story about the actor.

How about this headline for the suits at Village Voice: "Real Men Don't Hide Behind Numbers While Children Cry For Help." Stop dithering over numbers and start protecting children from prostitution.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is


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