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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.

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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.

Image: Flickr user eDu Santamaria Castro

And, in the face of what police call “the flood” of online prostitution, limited police resources are mostly applied elsewhere.

Backpage Backlash

Back in 2011, the issue of online child prostitution entered the local limelight, thanks in part to actor Ashton Kutcher. In a national ad campaign, he accused Village Voice Media of enabling the sexual exploitation of adolescents, through their ownership of the Craigslist-like Backpage.com.

This charge encompassed Village Voice-owned Seattle Weekly, which ran a cover story dismissing Kutcher and his claims, and defending Backpage. Then-Mayor Mike McGinn and Attorney General Rob McKenna took the other tack, bashing Backpage with great zeal.

The Weekly was sold to new owners in 2013, but a Seattle-centric Backpage still exists. Though it isn’t the cause celebre it once was, some advocates, including State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, remain committed to fighting it.

In the law enforcement sphere though many see shutting Backpage down as a bad strategy — especially if the goal is finding and “recovering” underage girls in the business.

Diaz describes the number of sex posts online every day as “absolutely endless.” There are not enough resources to monitor them all, let alone bust everyone involved. Both he and Sano describe it as “a flood.”

At right: A sample of posts on Seattle's Backpage listings.

Because of this, Diaz says both he and FBI agents rely on tips from Backpage monitors. These monitors look at the ads being posted, and keep an eye out for women who seem potentially underage in their posted pictures. They flag suspicious posts to agents, who then look into them further.

As lead researcher of a recent landmark study on America’s commercial sex industry, Meredith Dank interviewed over a hundred law enforcement agents nationwide, including in Seattle. “Nearly all of them weren’t in favor of shutting down Backpage,” Dank says.

“It’ll just pop up elsewhere, and make it go further underground. These are sites they can monitor for exploitation. Take that away and you’re making their jobs even more difficult, and not stopping anyone from being exploited.”

Kohl-Welles admits her recommendations run counter to many of those in law enforcement. This does not deter her. Back in April, The Seattle Times editorial board jumped into the fray as well, arguing that Backpage should cease selling adult services altogether.

“Law enforcement argues against me on this sometimes, and says Backpage can be helpful,” says Kohl-Welles. “They say they’re able to rescue kids by conducting stings through Backpage. But what about all the kids they can’t rescue? And they’re very small numbers, in terms of the kids that are getting rescued. I don’t think it’s worth keeping Backpage up for that purpose.”

Defining the Victims

However the debate progresses, it reveals something about how law enforcement is facing “the flood.”

In the case of Backpage, police are in the awkward position of defending a company that is clearly profiting from the sale of sex. The fact that law enforcement could use the help, and that Backpage may be preferable to alternatives, doesn’t change that fact. It’s a quintessential “better the devil you know” argument.

The reason for these choices is the same reason there are thousands of online sex ads police don’t bother with. Whether they’re on Backpage, Review Board, Eros or any number of other services, there are simply too many to keep up.

“The Internet’s been around for 20 years, but it only started broadly being used for this about seven years ago,” says Diaz.

“There’s a new site that pops up every day. There are so many more places to sell.”

In some ways the Internet has improved the safety of the sex industry. Sites like The Review Board let prostitutes comment on their experience with johns, setting up a more cautious business environment than they’d typically find on the streets. And Diaz says that women are increasingly acting as independent operators, without a pimp or coercion involved. Some escorts make extremely good wages, putting themselves through school or financing a condo, and would never see themselves as victims.

It has also given rise to some disturbing trends. Serial killers in both Illinois and Detroit have used Backpage to target victims. And, as underage women are tricked into the business by gangs and other exploiters, just as they have been for years, they’re now being kept off the streets — and out of sight of police — more effectively than ever.

Law enforcement monitor websites and follow up on flags from external monitors, looking for situations in which an underage girl could be involved. They keep tabs on the phone numbers and email addresses that have been connected to young women, crosschecking them against what’s online every day. But there are only so many red flags they can catch, and even fewer that they can easily act on.

In tackling the exploding online sex industry, there is therefore a laser-like focus on helping underage women by getting them out of the business and into programs that could put them on new paths. It can be a long and difficult process, given the psychological and emotional issues many face. But it’s a clearly defined mission, in a war in which police could easily spend all their time regulating the Review Board or cruising Aurora for easier busts.

There are criticisms of this approach. For example, neither Sano or Diaz could think of a single time they’ve rescued an underage male from the business, despite a 2008 study of New York City prostitution that estimated that nearly half of underage sex workers are male. In the federal report, the market for underage male prostitutes is described by law enforcement as a “secret society”.

Dank’s years of interviewing law enforcement have led her to a different conclusion.

“I think the idea of a secret society is ridiculous,” Dank says. “It’s all about the level of comfort in law enforcement. When you’re doing any kind of set-up (sting operation), there has to be a level of engagement with the person you’re setting up a date with. If you’re doing that with a boy, and you’re not gay, you’re not going to want to pursue those angles. The young men involved with this (industry) are no more hidden than the young women and girls. They’re running in the same circles.”

Dank believes young boys will continue to be exploited in the industry, without police help, until they’re seen as victims in the same way as girls.

“This is 100 percent about not seeing them as victims,” says Dank. “There was this guy who would go on a stroll for young boys, and he got robbed twice. He actually called the police about it! And then the police treated him as the victim, not the young boy he was picking up off the street! The (officer) was like, ‘Well, if you’re gay, you’re going to want to pick the ones that are young, right?’ And I was like ‘Woah! Would you ever say that about a girl?’ No. There’s a huge double standard when they’re dealing with this issue. They assume boys all must be doing it willingly, since they’re all sexually charged anyway.”

Nonetheless, many in the community may agree with the police’s focus on underage women. To hear Diaz tell it, this is how the police “can do the most good with the resources we’ve got.” When a home faces a flood, there are forced decisions about what can be saved. The police are making theirs to some extent.

When police limitations and non-priorities become better known, however, there are also those who see opportunity. That has become apparent not only in the growth of online prostitution, but also in what the federal study calls the most prevalent area in Seattle’s sex economy: Asian massage parlors and brothels.

Next in this series:Massage parlors, “happy endings” and the growth of residential brothels

Read the rest of this series:

Introduction

The Street Level

Massage parlors, “happy endings” and the growth of residential brothels

Commercial sex and exploitation: Sorting out the public response

  

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Can the online sex industry be regulated?

About the Authors & Contributors

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 drew.atkins@crosscut.com.