WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor today discussing the bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) as the Senate continued debate on the bill. SESTA passed the House overwhelmingly three weeks ago and was endorsed by the White House, which Portman discussed further during a floor speech on Thursday as well as a floor speech earlier last week.

Said Portman in his speech: “Justice cannot be seen but its absence can be felt. And that’s what’s happening now, an absence of justice. Those who have been trafficked online only see the websites that knowingly facilitated it prosper and escape legal consequences. That has to stop. To me that’s an injustice. So I look forward to further debate again this week. I look forward to the vote on Wednesday. If we can pass the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, we will make a difference. We will save lives. We will save women and girls and boys from going through this traumatic experience and enable them instead to achieve their God-given potential in life.”

Transcript of his speech can be found below and a video can be found here.

“We just had a vote here in this chamber on a very significant piece of legislation. It was the motion to proceed to it. It was passed with good Republican and Democrat majorities, both sides of the aisle supporting moving to this debate. And because we have cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, I feel confident that we’ll get to an end point, and we must.

“This issue of trafficking human beings is something that the Senate must stand up for, particularly because there is a federal law that now permits trafficking online that otherwise would be considered a criminal act. So I want to talk a little about that legislation tonight. We probably won’t have the final vote, I’m told, until Wednesday. Some of the information I’ll provide tonight will be setting the reasons, the basis, for doing this legislation, and then between now and Wednesday we’ll have the opportunity to hear more about the specifics of it, what’s happening online and how the United States Senate can step in and provide the legislation to remediate what is an obvious problem to anybody who looks at this issue.

“Human trafficking is such an egregious crime. We all, I hope, agree with that. It is also a very lucrative crime. $150 billion a year is the estimate. That’s probably second only to the drug trade in terms of the amount of money involved. And think about this: this is selling human beings.

“The U.S. Senate has taken steps in this body in a bipartisan way over the past six or seven years to focus on this issue, and I certainly commend my colleagues for that. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, and I as a Republican, started a Bipartisan Caucus to End Human Trafficking about six years ago, and we started with two of us. Now there are a couple dozen. There are many members who are engaged, involved, in this.

“Over those past six years, the Senate has passed legislation to increase the penalties on those who buy children for sex. We increased the federal penalty. We have helped to stop international trafficking by U.S. government contractors overseas with legislation that was signed into law. We’ve helped with regard to finding missing children by requiring, for the first time, that those missing children have a photograph attached to them. Unbelievably, until that legislation, most kids in my home state of Ohio and other states who went missing did not have the information provided to law enforcement and others, people who work in shelters, people who are in the juvenile justice system, to be able to find those children. Why is that so important? Because as you can imagine, kids who go missing are sometimes the most vulnerable to being trafficked.

“We’ve also passed legislation to improve the data on trafficking. There’s legislation that’s called the Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act, which we passed in this body to provide better information about this problem so we can come up with better solutions by understanding what’s going on. It’s in the shadows. It’s, as I said, very profitable but an illicit activity. It shows that legislation was critical.

“The primary sponsor was Senator Wyden. He will be on this floor probably over the next couple days about the concerns he has about the online legislation we have. But I want you to know that Senator Wyden has been out front on opposing trafficking through this Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act. By the way, I was the lead Republican on that legislation, so I worked with him, and I commend him for that.

“We’ve also passed legislation to change the paradigm in federal law from treating these children who are trafficked as are victims rather than as criminals. They key is to get these young people into treatment, into longer-term recovery, to deal with what it is, as you can imagine, a very traumatic situation of course related to drugs. So drug treatment and it is something that I think is perhaps the most important thing that we can do to understand that these are victims who, in order to get back on their feet, need to be taken from the criminal justice system and put into the kind of treatment that they need.

“Despite efforts here in the Senate and by others around the country to deal with this, unbelievably, today as we stand here in this country, we see an increase in one type of trafficking—and that’s in sex trafficking. And you might ask, ‘How could that be possible?’ We passed all this legislation to help. We’ve got increased consciousness about the issue. People are more aware of the problem and certainly there’s consensus that this is something we ought to crack down on and yet it is happening. And I will tell you what the experts say. They say it is happening for one simple reason and that is because more and more women and children are being sold online. The ruthless efficiency of the internet.

“So that’s where this legislation focuses, and it focuses there because that’s where we see the problem. Traffickers are using internet to sell women and children, and we have a responsibility to act. And if we don’t act, we’ll allow a federal law that was passed by this body 21 years ago, and I think inadvertently, that has created part of the problem by shielding these websites.

“So I’ll talk more about this later in the week as we get into the specifics of our legislation and why it would address the problem. But the bottom line is we’ve got a real problem. The anti-trafficking group Polaris recently released its 2017 report. The report illustrates the true nature of the crisis. This is the heat chart put up by Polaris. It shows the locations of cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline last year alone in 2017. As you can see, this explains why you see such a strong bipartisan support for our legislation—this is happening everywhere, every state in the union.

“And, unfortunately, it’s increasing, not decreasing, despite all of the efforts locally and even here at the federal level. The national hotline that Polaris runs—and I hope to be at that hotline, by the way, later this week, as they’re opening a new facility and expanding what they’re doing—but they experienced a 13 percent increase in reported cases nationwide just last year. We’re seeing actually an increase. In my home state, 371 cases reported to the hotlines across the country. Their hotlines handled a record 8,759 cases in 2017—up from 7,737 cases in 2016.

“These are only the cases that are reported. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, many more cases out there that are not reported to the hotline. In the 10 years that they have operated this hotline, human trafficking reports have increased 842 percent.

“I chair a group called the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A couple years ago, being interested in this issue, we started to talk to some of the experts around the country. I was meeting with people back home, particularly the victims of trafficking and survivors I kept hearing the same thing from everybody, whether the advocacy groups, whether law enforcement, whether it was the social service agencies helping to treat these women and girls, particularly dealing with this trauma we talked about earlier. That one thing we kept hearing was the word "Backpage."

“That’s just one website. But it seems there were a lot of the people being trafficked on that one website. I was hearing this back home where these women and girls were saying, ‘Rob, this has moved from the street corner to the smartphone, and Backpage was where I was trafficked.’ It turns out nearly 75 percent of all trafficking reports the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives from the public involved Backpage. 75 percent of the reports.

“Another anti-trafficking organization called Shared Hope International says service providers working with child sex trafficking victims have reported that more than 80 percent of their clients were bought and sold on Backpage. So we talked earlier about how lucrative this business is, but one website seems to have practically monopolized this. 

“With that knowledge, in 2015, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Ranking Member Claire McCaskill from Missouri and myself, conducted an investigation. We spent 18 months researching this. We looked at every angle of this issue, and specifically we looked into how Backpage operates.

“It wasn’t easy because Backpage was not willing to cooperate, as you can imagine. We did find the company was far more complicit in these crimes than we had previously thought. We subpoenaed Backpage for their company documents. They refused to comply, and when you refuse to comply with a subpoena around here, normally you can kind of tell people, ‘Well, if you don’t comply, we’ll bring the full weight of criminal law down on you.’ They still wouldn’t comply.

“We had to come to the floor of the Senate to enforce the subpoenas. It hasn’t been done in 21 years around here. Fortunately, when we made our case to our colleagues here, everyone in the Senate said ‘Yes, let’s be sure that they do comply by taking this to the criminal justice system.’ So we did. And we thought, we’ll win the case in the district court level. We did, and that’ll be it. No, they appealed that. We won a case in the circuit level. We thought that was it. No, they appealed this too. They did not want to supply these documents. They did not want to testify. Finally we took it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court agreed with us and told them that they had to comply with the threat of criminal sanctions if they did not.

“Having won that we then found ourselves in possession of more than one million pages of documents. They flooded us with documents. Our lawyers did a good job going through it. Through our investigation we found what some of us had kind of thought might be the case, which is that this company was actually complicit. In other words, they knew what they were doing. They were knowingly facilitating criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and children. They actually coached traffickers on how to edit the adult classified ads to post so-called clean ads for these illegal transactions. And then of course they covered up evidence of those crimes in order to increase their own profits.

“In 2006, as an example, Backpage executives instructed staff to edit the text of adult ads, not to take them down but to edit them, which is how they facilitated this. By 2010 Backpage executives had a formal process in place of both manual and automated deletion of phrases in ads. This is an e-mail from one of Backpage executives in 2010. It says, ‘I’m attaching a spreadsheet with the most current list of coded items to be stripped out. E-mail me your list by the end of the day. Thanks.’

“In other words, they were telling these people who were posting ads, ‘Oh, you can’t say this word or that word because then law enforcement will know we’re engaged in selling underage girls online. So they told them to edit these word out. It’s unbelievable. What kind of words were stripped out of the ads allowing sex trafficking posts to stay up without violating those proposed rules? These are the kinds of words they took out ‘teenage’, ‘little girl’, ‘school girl’, ‘cheerleader’ was one of them. For those of you who are literary types, ‘lolita’ -- a novel about an underage girl and an older man. ‘Fresh,’  ‘amber alert.’ This is the kind of people we’re dealing with here.

“Once these incriminating words were removed, the post could then go on the website, and that’s how Backpage coached the traffickers on how to get away with their crimes. Again, this filter didn’t stop the ads, even though they knew it was illegal activity, they only edited it to try to hide it. It didn’t change what was advertised, the fact that these were underage girls, they only edited the way that this was advertised. And of course this did nothing to stop the criminal activity. It facilitated it knowingly. 

“The incentive—why would Backpage go out all this? Profits. This is a very profitable enterprise. So what is the cost of these crimes? The cost is the human dignity, trauma. The cost is far more than money. It’s suffering and sometimes human life. I’ve heard stories of this. I know my colleagues in the Senate have heard stories about it. That’s why there’s so much support for it. These stories are heartbreaking.

“Imagine for a moment that your daughter is missing. She has been gone for several weeks. She’s 14 years old, and someone says, ‘You ought to look on this website called Backpage.’ And so you do. You look on Backpage. You’re a mom. And you find your daughter. This is the story of Kubiiki Pride.

“She told her story bravely before our Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. She told us the details. We were able to use that as part of our investigation to be able to come up with a response, a legislative response. But she said she actually told Backpage, she called them and said, ‘I found my daughter. She’s been missing for weeks. She’s on your website. Thank you for taking down the ad and helping me to connect with my daughter.’ As you can imagine, these were sexually explicit photographs of a 14-year-old girl. She didn’t know if she was alive or dead, so she was excited to find her, but appalled. What did Backpage say? ‘We can’t take down the ad because you didn’t pay for it, did you?’ ‘Of course I didn’t pay for it,’ she said. ‘It’s my daughter.’ That’s the level of evil we’re talking about here.

This is another story and another brave individual who is has come forward. This is Nacole, the mom, and J.S. Nacole also bravely testified in front of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. J.S. was a 15-year-old when she ran away. She loved her family. She wrote them actually a five-page letter saying how much she loved them but chose to leave the safety of her family and home and she ended up in a homeless shelter for teens. A 22-year-old woman posing as a teen there, by the way, approached her and said, ‘I can help you make some money.’ She introduced her to a pimp who then sold her on Backpage. For more than three months she was sold online multiple times a day. Finally, an undercover police officer posing as a customer rescued her. Thankfully he did because for so many other girls, the story goes on and sometimes end in a very tragic way.

This is Yvonne Ambrose. Yvonne actually testified before the Commerce Committee and did a beautiful job as a mom talking about her heartbreak and her tragic encounter with Backpage. Yvonne got a call on Christmas Eve 2016 that every parent dreads. And it was about her daughter, Desiree. The call said that her 16-year-old daughter had been murdered after being exploited and sold for sex on Backpage.com. So one of the Backpage customers apparently was the one who murdered her beautiful daughter. Yvonne is honoring Desiree’s memory, Kubiiki and Nacole are fighting for justice by working with us to try to hold these websites accountable.

“These are only three examples tonight, but there are so many others, so many that I have heard, back home, again heartbreaking stories. One girl said she started to be trafficked at age 9 by her father. Others have told me of not having parents at home and being in foster homes and then leaving the foster homes either when they’re emancipated at age 18 or earlier and the horrible situation they found themselves in. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with survivors in the cities around Ohio, in Dayton at Oasis House, in Columbus at Alvis, in Akron, Toledo, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. 

“The majority of these young women, the majority tell me the same thing: Backpage. Usually drugs are involved as well to create the dependency. Unbelievably, for years, these websites have gotten away with this because when the parents like Yvonne or Kubiiki or Nacole file a lawsuit for damages to try to stop what’s going on, they’re told ‘we’re immune.’

“When the prosecutors in these local communities step up and say, ‘How could this illegal activity be going on? This is illegal to do on the street corner, certainly it’s illegal to do online.’ The judges say ‘they’re immune.’

So again, we’ll get into this later as to why that happens, how it happens, and what we are doing about it in this legislation. I look forward to that discussion. I look forward to the debate here on the Senate floor as to how we came up with a very targeted, very specific approach to this that doesn’t interfere with the freedom of the internet at all, but it does stop activity that never was imagined, that when Congress passed a law 21 years ago, was never imagined, that it would permit this kind of criminal activity online.

“Tonight I want to thank those families who had the courage to step forward, tell their stories publicly, channel their grief into something constructive, which is to come up with a legislative solution that helps to address this problem so that the next 14-year-old daughter, 16-year-old daughter does not find herself in these same horrible situations with all the trauma and all of the heartbreak that occurs.

“Justice cannot be seen but its absence can be felt. And that’s what’s happening now, an absence of justice. Those who have been trafficked online only see the websites that knowingly facilitated it prosper and escape legal consequences. That has to stop. To me that’s an injustice.

“So I look forward to further debate again this week. I look forward to the vote on Wednesday. If we can pass the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, we will make a difference. We will save lives. We will save women and girls and boys from going through this traumatic experience and enable them instead to achieve their God-given potential in life.”