Prostitutes still walk the streets, but many are moving their business online to the information superhighway and police are following. The result is a game of cat-and-mouse with prostitutes and police constantly trying to outsmart one another.
Police are playing the game hard and making headlines. This past week, sheriff deputies in Winter Haven, Fla., arrested 98 people—52 customers, 28 prostitutes and 16 pimps—as the result of an online sting. Oklahoma City police used the internet to arrested 12 women for prostitution and four more for aiding or abetting prostitution. Last December, detectives in Polk County, Fla., used online ads in a sting operation that produced 80 arrests. Suspects included a 16-year-old girl and the 20-year-old man who drove her to the hotel where undercover officers were waiting.
Despite the headlines that online stings generate, thousands of “adult ads” are added daily to hundreds of websites. Law enforcement claimed a major victory in its campaign against online prostitution in September 2010 when pressure from state attorneys general persuaded Craigslist to remove the adult services category from its websites. However, that victory proved short-lived when many of the “providers” began advertising instead in the adult services section of Backpage, a website similar to Craigslist with sites in cities across the U.S. and worldwide. A Backpage spokesman told the Chicago Tribune in April 2011 that it was spending millions of dollars to hire 120 employees and install new software to root out prostitution ads.
Three years later, Backpage remains a major venue for adult service ads under sub-categories that include escorts, body rubs and male escorts. (The suspects in the Polk County sting were lured using an ad posted on the Tampa Bay-area Backpage site.) Backpage ads are much less explicit than the ads on Craigslist were, however. For example, Backpage ads show pictures of escorts in suggestive poses wearing lingerie and tight-fitting clothes, but no nudity.
Backpage is tame compared to hundreds of other sites where prostitutes post nude photos, list the acts they will (and will not) perform, and publish reviews by clients. Knowing full well that law enforcement is monitoring what they post, they attempt to protect themselves legally by using abbreviations for sex acts or including statements that they are selling “companion services only.” Prostitutes are betting that these moves will keep police from following them online.
As the recent spate of online prostitution stings shows, such subterfuges are n0t effective when law enforcement sets its mind to make arrests. Appleman Law Firm, a Minnesota criminal defense practice, points out that using euphemisms or abbreviations to describe sex acts is not a defense. California criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi says police can use online ads to investigate crimes as long as they do not induce people to commit crimes they would otherwise not commit.
So why is that police do not make more arrests for online prostitution? It is not that police are not willing to follow prostitutes moving online, nor that they do not have the tools to combat it, but rather the sheer size of the online sex trade is overwhelming. As hard as the police try, the prostitutes still seem to be one step ahead.
Commentary by J.W. Huttig