by Cory LeBlanc
The gut-wrenching documentary, I Am Jane Doe, (watch the trailer) by acclaimed producer Mary Mazzio, follows the courtroom journey of three young women and their families as they seek justice against Backpage.com. The website is by far the worst purveyor of sex-for-sale ads in the United States. These ‘Jane Does’ and their legal teams believe Backpage.com’s CEO and its principal stakeholders are complicit in facilitating the sex-trafficking of children.
These Jane Does are victims of several powerful villains: the men buying them, the pimps, the judges, the multimillion dollar corporations, their expert legal teams, and an antiquated federal communications act. The film brings us face to face with the suffering of these girls – the youngest just 13 — as they are lured and trapped into the brutal sex trade. We see them traumatized and still dazed after being rescued and coming home. Then we watch them and their families try to fight back in the courts.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was set up to shield website owners of responsibility for content posted by third parties, even if that content fosters illegal activity. This loophole has allowed Backpage to get away with hosting advertisements on its site that sell underage girls for sex. Backpage’s legal officials maintain their innocence, saying they’ve tried to keep such ads off the site but in any case, they aren’t responsible for the content of the ads.
The Jane Does answer that it’s easier to buy a girl for sex on Backpage than it is to buy a used car.
The girls and their families brought the case to federal courts in Boston, the Supreme Court in Washington State, state court in Cook County, Illinois, and a Senate Committee hearing in Washington D.C. Still, there’s been no justice for Jane Does. Section 230 is thwarting these challenges, and protecting Backpage executives Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey, and James Larkin. They have been able to use it as defense against the obvious selling of children for sex on their site.
Despite the repeated legal defeats, the documentary winds to a close on a hopeful note. Images of playful children dance across the screen in suburban neighborhoods. Bubbling laughter floods through the theater speakers. The fearless Jane Does speak to the camera about hope, their resolve, and lessons learned. And they vow not only to keep fighting in the courts, but also to take the fight to Congress, which can change the law that has protected Backpage.
As a university student working as a co-op at Demand Abolition, I watched a recent screening of the film at its Boston premiere. I was struck by the normalcy of it all: Girls not too much younger than me, in a city where I live, and with parents who remind me of my own. Until now, I thought danger was lurking only in dark corners that I just had to avoid. But the documentary makes it brutally clear that this is happening on our computers, around our neighborhoods, and in our homes. Sex trafficking doesn’t discriminate. It will take you no matter how average your life is, or how good your kids are, or well you do in school. It’s happening here, it’s happening now, and something must be done to stop it.