Can the online sex industry be regulated?

Tackling the flood of Backpage postings, online sex 'hobbyists' and the hidden world of male prostitutes.
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Seattle's underground sex boom

Tackling the flood of Backpage postings, online sex 'hobbyists' and the hidden world of male prostitutes.

This year, a study commissioned by the Department of Justice found Seattle has the fastest-growing sex industry in the United States, more than doubling in size since 2005. In this five-part series, Crosscut offers an unprecedented investigation into this local underground economy.


It was August 11th, and news of Robin Williams’ death was just making its way around the Internet. It was no different on Seattle’s Review Board, a mundanely named online forum where members post anonymous messages to each other. Wolverine3643 enjoyed “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Mork and Mindy”. Fellow user Spider Rico shared a long quote from “Good Will Hunting.”

All of this was par for the course, in terms of online chatter that day. The main difference: Spider Rico had just been bemoaning the fact that Annabelle and Mischa — two Asian prostitutes — had moved away from Bellevue. “Any person can feel isolated in Bellevue,” Rico admitted, “and change is often an improvement, or at least the better possibility for perfection.” This from the same user who, back in May, referred to chaining a woman to a radiator.

These statements aren’t abnormal on the Review Board, the name of which is derived from the site’s purpose: explicitly reviewing Puget Sound’s escorts, assigning numerical ratings and extremely specific descriptions to their sexual abilities, enthusiasm, noise levels and other attributes. The site allegedly had over 16,000 members and 1.2 million monthly hits in 2009 (the last year its management revealed numbers), and the moderator requires that posts on the board “give some session details.  Reviews lacking enough session detail may be deleted by the Moderator.”

The moderator in question, who goes by the name Tahoe Ted, did not answer an interview request for this article. Previously Tahoe Ted has described himself to Seattle Met reporter L.D. Kirshenbaum as a college-educated “law-and-order Republican,” whose site simply creates a safe, welcoming community around a notoriously cagey profession.

Such is the world of Seattle’s “hobbyists,” as they call themselves. The term stems from their self-perception — they’re just guys with a hobby, same as golfers or model plane aficionados. Their hobby just happens to be paying strangers for sex. They joke around with each other, share small observations from their lives (nagging wives, nice trips, Seahawks-related opinions, etc.), and detail their sexual escapades in extremely uncomfortable detail.

On the wall of his office, Sergeant Jaycin Diaz — of SPD’s High Risk Victims Unit — has taped a glossary of hobbyist code words. Referring to it, he cracks up at how explicit and detailed they are. It’s as if they’re not worried about the police at all.

“It’s nuts,” Diaz laughs, after I comment that I can’t believe one particular acronym exists. “There’s humor in it, because you look at this stuff, and you think, ‘Who thought of that?! Is it physically possible?’ You gotta find humor sometimes. You have to compartmentalize for this job.”

One might assume that the police round up these hobbyists all the time. They couldn’t be more flagrant and descriptive of their illegal activity. They’ve even been known to organize public get-togethers around Halloween and the holiday season, where they can mingle with prostitutes at nice restaurants and bars around Seattle.

But despite their lack of discretion, hobbyists mainly serve as a source of dark comedy for police, rather than an enforcement focus.

“It’s so weird, the way they organize these parties where everyone can socialize,” says Captain Eric Sano, who heads up the SPD’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. ”I can’t understand, if you’re a guy that’s a john and you’re married, why would you expose yourself like that? ‘Oh, hey, it’s Bill from the office! I didn’t know you did this! Wow, crazy! Holy crap, that’s my pediatrician over there! There’s my dentist!’”

There are a few reasons hobbyists are a low enforcement priority. There’s the effort involved in catching one, for one. Unlike the world of street prostitutions, the hobbyist’s system of references and phone screenings shield them (and escorts) from easy sting operations. There are apparently fewer raw deals: Tahoe Ted has stated that almost no one on the board gets ripped off.

But the primary explanation is that hobbyists aren’t usually interested in underage women, according to police and a recent federal study.

These are guys who embed Death Cab for Cutie YouTube videos in their reviews, refer to prostitutes as part of their online “community” and praise escorts for being “real, honest, and introspective” in addition to their skills in bed. Lest it be forgotten, they throw Christmas mixers.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at