“I’ve been raped and sold… and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t at fault for what happened to me” J.S. – one of the victims whose story is shared in the human trafficking documentary I am Jane Doe.
This title says so much about its content – the anonymous, unknown, unseen stories by the thousands that exist in the realm of sex trafficking in North America. I was asked to do a review of some movies that dealt with human trafficking in some manner but knew little about what vantage point this first one would take. I was warned in the description of the movie that it was an “intense documentary” but that was all the warning that I would get about what the next hour and a half would bring.
Intense is a very fitting description of I am Jane Doe.
Narrator (Jessica Chastain) immediately introduces us to the first two girls aged 15 and 13. One ran away from home, the other snuck out to go to a party and within a matter of days – hours, they were sold for sex. When the girls return to their homes, one after 7 months, the other after 4, it is revealed that they were sold as many as 20 times a day. The stories are grim, their impact palpable on the lives of the victims and their families.
So how does one go from runaway to sex slave so quickly? There are many contributing factors, but one of the common factors in these 2 stories, and the others that follow in the movie is the presence and participation in these illicit activities of the on-line classifieds website Backpage.com. It is on this website where pictures of these girls first appeared with directions on how to connect with them for sex.
When confronted with their role in this, backpage.com first claims to be actively involved in battling against trafficking. They talk about the relationship they have forged with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to help put a stop to sex trafficking. NCMEC has a different understanding of their relationship. They didn’t see any of the suggestions they made to Backpage.com being implemented. Backpage.com is also quick to wash their hands of any wrongdoing, saying that they are protected by the Communications Decency Act section 230 created in 1996 granting immunity from liability for websites publishing information from third parties.
That sets the stage for the legal battles that would follow as families of the victims filed suits against Backpage.com for their role in the trafficking of their daughters. They fight the battles in local courts and keep battling all the way to Washington D.C. alleging that Backpage.com coaches people how to keep their ads from being rejected by the mediators tasked with controlling the content of the website, and how to maintain anonymity by using prepaid credit cards when posting their ads.
With each filed case, Backpage.com continued to hide behind the CDA, claiming it is not responsible for the content on its pages. And the courts tend to agree as lawsuit after lawsuit is dismissed by judges who use CDA section 230 to support their decision. But as more and more cases of child sex trafficking came to light, more ammunition was gained to go after Backpage.com with even more lawsuits.
The movie does a good job of balancing the legalese that could prove weighty to issues that are being carried out in the courtrooms with the real life that these court room battles represent.
I am Jane Doe was released before all the lawsuits reached their final decision, but there is some hope that things may turn for the better.
The challenge of watching this movie, other than topic of human trafficking in North America is the fact that money seems to win out over humanity. Backpage.com claims to be taking steps to help put an end to human trafficking but then seems to be a facilitating and enabling party more than an obstacle to the process. All the while seeing its value grow with each use of the service, regardless of its legality.
In the end, the question that resonates is this. If Backpage.com were concerned with human trafficking and were given the evidence that it played a role in furthering the industry instead of controlling it, why not just take action to stop its use in this way? They could eliminate all the “dating” menus on their web-site and remain strictly for sale of products like Craigslist.
Ultimately, we learn there are efforts being made to protect the voice of the media and the Internet. I believe this movie suggests that the time has come to give voice to the victims of human trafficking and allow them to rise from anonymity and be heard.
Written By Chris Page, you can find him blogging about faith at www.christopherapage.com .