Sex ads make strange bedfellows

Why has Attorney General Rob McKenna piled onto Mayor McGinn's crusade against Village Voice Media's online sex ads? And why is the Seattle Weekly's parent company hanging tough against them?

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn

Why has Attorney General Rob McKenna piled onto Mayor McGinn's crusade against Village Voice Media's online sex ads? And why is the Seattle Weekly's parent company hanging tough against them?

This has got to be one of the weirdest political ménage à trois since Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin settled the world’s fate at Yalta. On Wednesday, Washington’s leading Boy Scout, gay-marriage-bashing Republican attorney general Rob McKenna, lined up with a very different politician, Mayor Mike McGinn, and implicitly with The Stranger, the ideological equivalent of antimatter, in stout opposition to, of all things, a classified advertising website.

The object of McGinn’s, and now McKenna’s, outrage is, the popular classified ad site of Village Voice Media, which publishes The Stranger’s rival Seattle Weekly and other alternative weeklies. In July, McGinn shot a public broadside at VVM, denouncing Backpage’s “adult” ads as a prime medium for trafficking underage sex slaves. Last week, McKenna, the president of the unfortunately acronymed NAAG (National Association of Attorneys General), led 45 other states’ AGs in delivering an even louder barrage against VVM. Their five-page letter reads like a list of pretrial discovery requests, and McKenna and company brandish the threat of a legal crackdown by noting that they’re sending it “in lieu of a subpoena.” It echoes McGinn's complaint, with a difference. Read closely and you’ll see that they have broadened the crusade to target not just underage exploitation, but sex ads generally. They have escalated the demands on far beyond what McGinn demanded, in a way that could come back to bite various local media — including The Stranger.

McGinn based his complaint on reports from the Seattle Police that ads figured in a number of its investigations of underage prostitution. That number isn't huge — about 18 in 2010, out of 81 total documented cases — or, apparently, growing: just four in the first half of this year. But it still eclipses other sex-trade ad outlets such as The Stranger's and the formerly notorious Craigslist; no recent prostitution cases stemming from their ads proved to involve juveniles. And the sexual exploitation of kids is a serious, chronic concern in a city that has for decades been a mecca for runaways and predators, and where a local anthropologist, in a city-sponsored study three years ago, estimated that 300 to 500 minor girls were involved in prostitution in King County.

Still, suspicions of grandstanding inevitably arise when a floundering pol comes out swinging on such a heartstring-plucking hot-button issue. And sure enough, the Weekly duly denounced McGinn as a “desperate media hound,” straining to lift an approval rating that, at 23 percent, sat “lower than President Richard Nixon during the end days of Watergate” and bleating or leaking to friendly press at each turn in his protracted negotiations with VVM over Backpage’s practices. "We're not dealing with the mayor anymore," says an exasperated Mike Seely, the Weekly's editor. "We'll work with the Seattle Police Department."

McGinn pressed on, attempting to recruit mayors nationwide to campaign against, along the lines of his predecessor Greg Nickels' celebrated Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. So far he's gotten the mayors of seven other Washington cities, from Pullman to Tacoma, to sign a letter.

But the mayor has found plenty of media support, and not just from The Stranger. A KUOW-FM news host conflated the Weekly and Backpage to report that McGinn was battling juvenile prostitution advertising “in the Seattle Weekly.” (In fact, the paper itself posts the same ad standards that McGinn lauded as exemplary in The Stranger, plus an additional wallpaper notice that it “does not accept ads promoting or soliciting illegal conduct.”)

And, in a flash of unfortunate timing, the Seattle Times ran a lengthy front-page take-out, “Online Sex Ads Exploit Teens: Backlash directed at Seattle Weekly and Village Voice,” on the same Sunday its Pacific Northwest magazine featured a laudatory profile of Stranger publisher Tim Keck. The Times’ editorial board, which often scourges McGinn, ringingly endorsed his attack on VVM, and even his decision to withhold city advertising (hundreds of thousands of dollars, mainly for Seattle Center events) from the Weekly. Five weeks later, it likewise endorsed McKenna’s leap onto the bandwagon.

The Times editors were especially scornful of the Weekly’s and VVM’s “perverse reading of the First Amendment with a baseless charge that McGinn is trampling on their free-speech rights. Free speech standards for advertising are lower than the standards protecting other forms of speech, such as political discussion and comment.” In this case, however, it’s hard to separate advertising text from political and editorial subtext.

Village Voice Media bought the then-locally owned Weekly in 1997 and was itself bought in 2005 by the Phoenix-based New Times chain; the combined company now publishes weeklies in 13 major U.S. markets. New Times took the VVM name but retained its swaggering Sunbelt style and its famous refusal to endorse any election candidates. There’s a journalistic case to be made for eschewing endorsements — should media really declare their allegiance to particular pols? — but it irked Seattle’s political class: How dare those cowboys not show us the love?

Since then, the Weekly has been one of McGinn's more persistent critics, even bashing him where it hurts — over his insistence on bicycling while allegedly (his aides dispute this) being tailed by gas-guzzling bodyguards. That contrasts with the uncountable big wet kisses the mayor has gotten from The Stranger, which that same Times profile called “a de facto arm of the [2009] McGinn campaign.” Its drum-banging endorsements may have put him over in a whistle-tight race, and it remained his diehard ally in the fight against the waterfront tunnel.

But no one except the odd media lawyer or academic seems troubled by the spectacle of our thin-skinned mayor withholding advertising from a paper that roasts him, to the potential benefit of a rival that extols him. Of course, Weekly editor Mike Seely did his bit to smudge the line between news and advertising, when he stepped forward as company spokesman to defend Backpage’s ad policies (and put his foot squarely into the Weekly's institutional mouth — a tradition ever since the long-ago days when I was one of the foot-putters there). "It may seem awkward to some people, but it didn’t feel awkward to us," says Seely. "Somebody had to speak for the paper. And McGinn’s entire interest in the subject began with a cover story in our paper" disputing inflated national claims as to the incidence of juvenile prostitution.

For all the mayor-versus-media mud wrestling, however, the dispute came down to just one point. McGinn didn’t question Backpage’s right to sell sex ads; such ads are as much a part of the local cultural landscape as bike paths and medical marijuana, and bluenose intolerance would be so un-Seattle. He merely demanded it take various measures — training operators, monitoring the site, cooperating with police, and verifying the identity and age of models shown — to avoid advertising underage prostitutes.

VVM vice president Carl Ferrer announced that Backpage would institute all these measures and more, but balked at one key point: Making any “escorts” shown in the ads show photo ID, in person. To do that, he insisted, would be futile, impossible, and unfair. Futile: Kids have no trouble getting fake IDs, especially with forgeries flooding in from China. Unfair: Competitor Craigslist doesn’t have to check IDs for its “Casual Encounters” or “Women Seeking Men” listings. And impossible: Making online advertisers come down to a brick-and-mortar counter would be “contrary to the reality of the American Internet experience . . . The labor cost would put most user-generated content sites out of business.” In short, it would kill Backpage’s lucrative sex-ad trade, which the Advanced Interactive Media Group consultancy estimated earned $1.95 million nationwide in June, toward a projected $22.7 million for the year.

Local ad placement would seem to bear that out. On September 2 The Stranger’s (a.k.a. Lustlab), which sells memberships and doesn’t require in-person verification, had 143 listings under “Women Seeking Men,” one of 12 categories of avowedly noncommercial encounters it offers. Its, which advertises paid (“donations”) sex and does require in-person verification, had a grand total of five ads in all categories. Backpage had more than that in Moses Lake alone — and 22 pages of ads statewide listed under Seattle. No wonder VVM is so adamant about not carding in person.

Instead, its marketing chief Ferrer promised to install new online identity-verification technologies that would work better. No way, replied McGinn; card ’em or else. And there the impasse has stood for nearly two months.

Now McKenna and the other attorneys general have waded in. There’s a whiff of political opportunism to the timing. McKenna did not join 21 other attorneys general in a similar demand spearheaded by Connecticut’s Democratic AG (and now senator), Richard Blumenthal, one year ago; his aide Dan Sytman says that's because McKenna was working a different track, trying to make Craiglist and other websites police their "erotic services" ads, and only later came to the conclusion such ads should be scrapped entirely. McKenna also did not credit McGinn’s efforts in his own announcement last week. McGinn promptly issued an announcement saluting McKenna and the other AGs for providing “further evidence of the broad and deep public desire for Village Voice Media to protect our children and change its practices” — and reminding everyone that he got there first.

The AGs' Wednesday letter doesn’t just call Backpage out for letting at least a share of underage ads get through. (In three years, they report, 50 known cases have been brought nationwide against traffickers advertising minors on the site, while VVM has said it catches “more than 400” postings a month “that may involve minors.”) The AGs condemn “the reality of Backpage’s business model: Making money from a service illegal in every state, but for a few counties in Nevada.” With “nearly naked persons in provocative positions” in nearly every ad and “escorts, and other similar ‘services’” required to post hourly rates, “it does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution.”

This statement breaks what has long been a genteel silence — in effect a local tolerance policy — toward "escort" ads, both online and in print. These ads appear not just in the Weekly and Stranger but in as mainstream a medium as the Dex Yellow Pages, which has a page-and-a-half of ads offering such enticements as “a beautiful woman at your door” and “a variety of Asian women for any occasion.” As long as it didn’t exploit kids, police and prosecutors deemed such marketing a low priority, concentrating instead on more visible streetwalkers and pimps. Euphemistic “adult services” got a pass. Now that thinking seems to be changing.

“We started with our focus on minors,” says Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, who has worked for three years to boost both enforcement and shelter services for kids ensnared in prostitution. “But as anyone who gets involved in this realized, that exploitation continues [into adulthood]. I think that’s an artificial distinction, frankly." Sergeant Jaycin Diaz of the Seattle Police vice squad's high-risk victims unit, echoes that view: “Promoting prostitution [a state felony, though it’s often difficult to prosecute] goes hand in hand with child trafficking.”

McKenna put it more starkly to KUOW last Wednesday: “Prostitution is trafficking.” In his own announcement of the AGs’ initiative, he declared “the only way for to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site is to take down adult services advertisements altogether and take aggressive steps to be sure such ads don’t surface elsewhere on the site.”

The model for such a demand is the pressure the AGs brought on Craiglist when it was the leading site for prostitution ads. In 2008 they forced Craigslist to require phone numbers and credit cards for its “erotic services” ads. The next year it dropped “erotic services” for the less brazen label “adult services.” And last September, under continuing pressure, it dropped "adult services" altogether.

That was a boon for Backpage, whose sales subsequently quintupled, according to Advanced Interactive Marketing. If McKenna and company likewise force Backpage out of the business, competitors such as stand ready and waiting to pick it up. Already, AIM reports, these up-and-comers are stealing market share from Backpage. And when one of them gets big enough, the attorneys general, or perhaps Gov. McKenna, Mayor McGinn, or his successor can launch a new campaign against it.

So it goes in such crusades: The authorities squeeze the balloon, forcing the sex or drug or gambling vendors to find other outlets, and hoping some of them, and some victims and customers, shake out along the way. And, of course, taking their own cut in the currency of political advantage.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.