WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor highlighting his bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) law which is already making a significant difference in combatting online sex trafficking of women and children, resulting in the shutdown of several websites that knowingly facilitated sex trafficking. 

The enactment of Senator Portman’s bipartisan SESTA law was a big victory for trafficking victims and survivors who, for too long, have been denied the opportunity to get the justice they deserve. The measure was the culmination of a three-year effort – which included a victory at the Supreme Court – to hold accountable Backpage.com and other websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking of women and children.  The nearly two-year investigation by Portman’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) culminated in a shocking report which detailed how Backpage facilitated criminal sex trafficking and then covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits. 

A full transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

 

“Today I’d like to report back to my colleagues here in the Senate and to the American people about the results of legislation we passed here in the United States Senate and the House and was signed into law by the president. We don’t do that often enough. We tend to pass legislation and don’t do the oversight to figure out whether it’s working or not. 

“In this case this was legislation we passed on a bipartisan basis called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. We passed it back in April. This is legislation that allows the victims of sex trafficking to get the justice they deserve by being able to sue websites that traffic them online knowingly and to be able to have some accountability for these horrible crimes that are committed online, and then also to allow prosecutors at the state and local level to be able to prosecute these cases. We drafted the legislation because after looking at this for several years, we realized that there was a rise in trafficking going on, trafficking of girls underage, trafficking of women, sometimes boys underage, and that this was increasing primarily because of the internet, kind of the dark side of the internet. We’re hearing a lot about what’s going on on the internet these days in terms of meddling in our elections and so on. While there are the positives of the internet, there’s also a darker side. We realized that this was happening online increasingly and that it was a ruthlessly efficient way to basically sell people online. 

“We looked at it and found out that there was a federal law put in place—with good intentions, I believe—back a couple of decades ago to try to ensure freedom of the internet, which of course all of us support. But it provided an effective immunity to these websites even if they were selling people online knowingly. We wrote legislation to get at that, spent about a year trying to get that through the process and eventually got it to a vote and got it passed. The law which provided the immunity was part of the Communications Decency Act that was meant, again, to try to encourage freedom of the internet but was taken too far, particularly in how it was interpreted by the courts. 

“So what happened? After passing the law there was a pretty dramatic change. On Monday, I was in Cincinnati, Ohio, my hometown, at a place called the CHANGE Court. The CHANGE Court is a place where women who are incarcerated, who are trafficked and incarcerated for prostitution, are able to go through a two-year program to help them get clean and if they’re willing to go through this program, to let them walk away with a clean record, understanding that sex trafficking is not a crime, that in effect they are victims of trafficking. It’s very inspiring to go there because I talked to about a dozen women currently in the program, some women who had graduated from the program. The stories are unbelievable of women getting their lives back together, getting back to work, getting back to their families, in almost every case getting back to their children because in almost every case these are moms, and having the self-respect and dignity that comes with work and getting back with their families and getting their lives back on track. It’s really a much, much better alternative than the system of throwing people into jail who are in effect victims of this trafficking and not dealing with their issues, whether it’s the trauma or whether it’s the drug addiction, which in almost every case of these women there was a drug addiction issue. Almost all of them were opioid addicts or recovering addicts. One was addicted to alcohol. But this is just common. So anyway, in talking to these women, almost every one of them said the same thing, which is, yes, they had been trafficked online, and they were very interested in this legislation because they have been through it and they want to save future women and girls from having to go down this dark path. 

“So anyway, we passed the legislation and assessed the legislation meant to be able to help on this issue. And I was able to tell these women at the CHANGE Court what the results were and they’re pretty dramatic. On Monday of this week I also met with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC, that’s the leading anti-trafficking group in the country. They work day and night trying to stop online sex trafficking, to keep track of it they keep the statistics and data. They particularly focus on rescuing kids from being exploited. According to NCMEC, the results since SESTA has been signed into law have been swift and significant. NCMEC said, ‘Since the enactment of SESTA and the government’s seizure of Backpage.com’—a website that was doing most of the commercial sex trafficking prior to our legislation—‘there has been a major disruption in the online marketplace. The robust marketplace for sex trafficking, including the sale of children for rape and sexual abuse that took a decade to build, fragmented over the course of just a few days.’ They also said, ‘Many sites or portions of sites where NCMEC knew children previously had been sold for sex have voluntarily shut down.’ Their bottom line. And I quote, ‘This means it is much harder to purchase a child online.’ That’s great news. And that’s exactly what we intended this legislation to do, to be able to save these kids and these women and sometimes boys from being subject to this horrific crime. 

“I will tell you, there’s another analysis that was shared with me recently. You can find this online, but this analysis found that online ads selling women and children have been reduced since our legislation passed by between 60 and 80 percent, depending on the state. Dramatic change, again, having the effect of saving literally thousands of children. So I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to be vigilant about this issue because, you know, when you push something down in one place it often pops up somewhere else, doesn’t it? But we have done an effective job in dealing with a very real problem. Backpage.com, which we talked about, was the industry leader, they have now been shut down. Their CEO and the company has pled guilty to numerous money laundering and trafficking-related charges. And because prosecutors can now do their work and go after these online traffickers and because victims of this abhorrent crime can finally have their day in court, these websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking are being shut down and being held liable for their action. 

“This never would have been possible without the work of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The staff there, the investigators, spent two years working on this issue, investigating it. We had to come all the way to this floor, to the chamber in order to enforce our subpoenas to get the information which we were able to unveil that no one else had been able to find which showed clearly that they knew what they were doing, that they knew they were selling underage kids online. I’m very proud of those investigators. I chair that Subcommittee. It’s bipartisan. They do good work and they deserve to be applauded given the results that we’re now seeing. By the way, it’s not just Backpage, a lot of other classified websites have also shut down their ‘personal ads’ so-called or sex-related operations. 

“The issue of sex trafficking, again, we’ve made good progress on, but it is so related to the issue of opioid abuse. And specifically, as I said, this goes hand in hand often. Often traffickers find people who are addicted because they are vulnerable, because they crave the drug and the trafficker can provide it. But also many times we have found in my home state of Ohio, as I’ve met with survivors, that they find vulnerable people who are not addicted but then make them addicted so they become dependent on the trafficker.”

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