The fight to shut down Backpage com, America’s biggest online brothel

When Natalie ran away from home, she left behind a letter for her parents, telling them not to worry. The 15-year-old, Seattle-area native would be gone only a short while, she wrote six years ago, “long enough for me to find myself”. Her brother had just left for college, her father, Tom, says, and “Natalie was looking for attention”.

She found it, but not in the way she’d hoped. Before she left, Natalie was a prototypical American kid; she liked playing soccer and watching Harry Potter movies. She had never been away from home for more than a day. But while she was gone, she met a pimp who forced her to have sex with him. It was her first time.

After nine days, Natalie escaped to the authorities, who called up her parents and reunited them hours later in a police department parking lot. Her mother didn’t recognise her. The girl’s long brown hair was now short and dyed red. But it wasn’t just her appearance that seemed off. “Everything about her changed,” says her mother, Nacole, who asked for a pseudonym to be used for her daughter and for the family’s last name not to be printed to protect their privacy. The once gregarious teen became afraid to go out in public. “She was a mess,” her father says. “Her self-esteem was shattered.”