Online prostitution and trafficking

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Date: Spring 2013
From: Albany Law Review(Vol. 77, Issue 3)
Publisher: Albany Law School
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,003 words

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You are not safer because you work indoors. Craigslist is just the "internet streets," where the same predators and hustlers are meeting you with the same intentions except they look like straight people who go to medical school and have Blackberrys.

I consider myself in the same risk and danger zones as a street worker. I am an upper working class anonymous client worker. (1)


The use of Internet technologies to traffic women and children to prostitution will be described in this article. We will summarize the history of online trafficking and the remarkably effective use of the Internet for advertising prostitution locally, regionally, and internationally beginning with the development of social networking sites, discussion forums, message boards and online chats. Examples of sex buyers', pimps', and traffickers' use of the Internet and online classified advertising sites will be provided.

We will also summarize the empirical evidence for the psychological and physical harms of trafficking for prostitution and will discuss the risks of compartmentalizing arms of the sex trafficking industry that are in fact elements of multinational, constantly expanding, businesses. False distinctions have been erected between online and offline prostitution, child and adult prostitution, indoor and outdoor prostitution, pornography and prostitution, legal and illegal prostitution, and prostitution and trafficking.

We will discuss what is known about the involvement of organized crime in online trafficking, and summarize several successful cases brought against online traffickers. We describe public campaigns and educational boycotts against online traffickers and the development of online alternatives to the sex trafficking industry. There has been a range of legal responses to the crimes of prostitution and trafficking. Prosecutorial challenges in this newly developing field include the anonymity of the Internet, blurred jurisdictional boundaries, reluctance to prosecute prostitution cases where there is no evidence of physical coercion, and a very slowly increasing number of cases brought using existing legislation, in part because of the need for special training of criminal justice personnel. Nonetheless, there are tools available that provide both criminal and civil remedies.

Compartmentalization of the various arms of the sex industry, regardless of their location or legal status, has confused and sometimes derailed policymakers, the public, and law enforcement and has resulted in a failure to understand prostitution and trafficking as crimes against vulnerable women and children. Prostitution is the sale of a sex act. (2) Payment for sexual use is usually made in cash but can also be made in housing, food, drugs, clothes, gas, or other basic needs. (3) For young women with few alternatives, Internet prostitution is a portal into the sex trafficking industry. (4) Prostitution is glamorized and mainstreamed for women who believe the recruitment messaging, "prostitution is fun!" "sexy!" and "you make tons of money!" (5) Online classified websites Backpage, myredbook, escortpost, theeroticreview and others have sections advertising prostitution--thus functioning as online brothels. Craigslist was described as "training wheels" for selling sex. (6) In third world or recessionary economies, prostitution is a last-ditch survival option for poor young women or for women who are marginalized because of racism. (7) Korean women, for example, are recruited by traffickers for prostitution in the United Sates via Internet advertising. (8) An advertisement aimed at financially vulnerable women on the website read: "We know that in Korea these days, unemployment, the recession and the Special Law on Prostitution make it hard to earn even half of what you made before." (9) Enticing the women into prostitution, the traffickers then specify how much money can be made in a bar or massage parlor, declaring: "Advances possible. We take care of visas and bad credit." (10)

Most contemporary legal definitions of trafficking do not require physical movement, but rather coercion, force, fraud, or abuse of power to trap a victim in an exploitive situation. In some international legal definitions, consent is irrelevant. (11) For the purposes of this article, we will use a definition of trafficking like that used in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act: "[T]he recruitment, [enticement,] harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act." (12)

Prostitution often meets the legal definition of human trafficking in that pimping or third-party control of a prostituted person cannot be distinguished from the identical crimes perpetrated in trafficking. (13) According to estimates from eighteen sources including research studies, government reports, and nongovernmental agencies, on average 84% of women in prostitution are under third-party control or pimped or trafficked. (14)

Fifty years ago pimps coerced women to solicit on the street where they were advertised to the relatively limited marketplace of sex buyers who evaluated the women's physical appearances and made selections on the street corner. Prostitution is now a business that is advertised on the Internet, expanding the reach of pimps to a wider market of potential sex buyers. Women can be sold for 15 minutes or for a week for johns' sexual use, selected and purchased online like a rental car. As the following evidence shows, the vast majority of prostitution today takes place online. Police in Syracuse, New York estimated that 90% of that city's prostitution trade had gone online between 2009 and 2011. (15) Eighty-eight percent of sex buyers in a 2011 research study had bought women and children for sexual use indoors via Internet-advertised escort agencies, strip clubs, gentlemen's clubs, brothels, and massage parlors. (16) In the early 2000s, about half of all searches on the Internet search engine AltaVista were related to the business of sexual exploitation. (17)

The Internet and computer technology have been developed and exploited by sex businesses to offer prostitution to men across the globe. (18) Internet websites provide contact information, specifics on sexual acts that will be performed, pornography of the woman to be sold for sex, coded prices, and reviews by sex buyers. (19) Technology, smartphones and other digital devices make it possible to conduct business, advertise, and increase earnings from women who have for the most part been trafficked or coerced by a combination of joblessness, poverty, racism, and sexism into sex businesses. (20) Bitcoin, (21) an unregulated online currency that unlike credit cards provides the anonymity of cash, is being used to pay for web access to sites containing extremely violent or illegal images of real women and children, including online auctions of them. (22) Adapted by traffickers, pimps, and pornographers, the global reach of the Internet has facilitated sex buyers' access to prostituted women and children, thereby increasing sex trafficking. (23) The Internet has facilitated prostitution's shift from the street to indoor locations: to massage parlors, residential brothels, hotels, (24) call girl or escort prostitution (more accurately described as cell phone prostitution), and strip club or gentlemen's club prostitution. (25) Although there is a myth that indoor prostitution is safer than street prostitution, little evidence for this exists. Instead, the evidence of physical and emotional harm caused by prostitution holds constant wherever it happens. (26)

The development of the Internet requires new prosecutorial strategies for arresting pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers--a challenge that requires law enforcement officials and prosecutors to keep up with traffickers' familiarity with, and skills in, web technologies. Online prostitution provides greater anonymity for johns and pimps and it blurs jurisdictional boundaries since Internet content can be accessed and published anywhere. Social networking media such as Facebook, classified advertising websites such as Backpage, message boards, and dating sites all provide platforms for prostitution marketing with relative anonymity and impunity. Sex buyers and traffickers benefit from the relative lack of accountability of Internet service providers for their websites' content, despite token gestures described below. At the same time, online prostitution results in an online record that can be used as evidence in prosecutions.


Advertising women for johns' sexual use is essential to pimps and traffickers.

   The truth is that a lot of deep marketing-thought goes into the sex
   industry, whether the entity being sold is an independent escort's
   companionship or couples' porn.... Mainstream ad agencies deal with
   versions of this problem all the time as they market brands and
   lifestyles, but sex workers tangle with it in a different way,
   because the thing on the market block is them. (27)

   [I]nternet access has proved to be far more about men's access to
   the bodies of women and girls, than about women's and girls' access
   to resources, education, employment, empowerment.... The
   vulgarisation of privilege that Engels foresaw has taken strange
   new directions; every man wealthy enough to own a computer and pay
   an ISP can enjoy an infinite virtual harem in the seclusion of his
   home. (28)

"Advertisement is the most important part of the business," said a member of the Mafia crime family, referring to Internet advertising in a case involving organized criminals' use of the Internet to traffic women. (29) Escort agencies, brothels, and strip clubs are advertised on websites and chat rooms, enabling pimps and traffickers to sell women for sex. Furthermore, the Mafia understood that pimps need a flexible business model and that advertising online attracts sex buyers who may be seeking one type of sex business but who can be enticed via the web into buying prostitution in some other form. For example, a sex buyer may first look at free pornography downloads, then be offered hardcore pornography for sale, and then he might see a pop-up advertisement for prostitution in his zip code. Web-based advertising happens daily in all areas of business enterprise on the World Wide Web. While traffickers use the same online sales model as other businesses, they also use Internet technologies usually not accessed by other businesses such as online forums, Skype, and gaming technology such as "Xbox Live, Sony Online Entertainment, or [real-time games such as] World of Warcraft." (30) Gaming technologies are used to facilitate trafficking since they permit midgame user-to-user communication. (31)

Organized crime is an essential element in the sex trafficking industry. (32) Profits from the business of selling sex "contribute to the expansion of organized crime in the United States and worldwide." (33) "Trafficking in persons is often [facilitated] by official corruption in countries of origin, transit, and destination, thereby threatening the rule of law." (34) Russian and Balkan organized criminals' trafficking of women on the Internet was noted in 2000 when gangs placed ads in an Internet magazine Streetwalking the World which was aimed at sex buyer markets in Europe, the United States, and Australia. (35) "The fact that they can put these human beings out for viewing not only shows how they regard the women, but also underlines how strong the market is," said a UK police officer. (36)

      The trade is fuelled by the insatiable appetite of punters for
   "new" girls and by the need for pimps to cater for more extreme
   sexual demands, such as torture, as well as unprotected sex. The
   trade in imported women is slowly spreading across the UK,
   centering on cities where there is a major off-street sex industry,
   such as Glasgow. According to sources in the trade, one flat in the
   city connected to a sauna offers eastern European women for clients
   with "exotic" tastes.

      In Edinburgh, three Lithuanian women were deported after police
   discovered they had been put to work in the city's sex trade by a
   Russian gang. Two worked in a sauna and the other in a lap-dancing
   bar, but information that they were working against their will soon
   went round the city's small but highly competitive industry and
   police were called in. (37)

Organized crime operates in similar ways regardless of the criminals' national or ethnic origins. Criminal gangs in Taipei used hundreds of websites to advertise the sale of young women to sex buyers and used online chat rooms to lure teenagers into prostitution with bribes of money and free drugs. (38) Four United States criminal cases from 2011 illustrate organized criminals' commitment to the use of online technologies for trafficking. Nine men from the Gambino organized crime family in New York were convicted and sentenced for sex trafficking, murder, racketeering, extortion, and wire fraud. (39) The men trafficked young women for sexual use by advertising their prostitution on Craigslist. (40) The trafficked women were offered to gamblers in the Mafia's high-stakes poker businesses. (41) A second case from Atlanta included indictments for kidnapping, sex trafficking, and transporting women across state lines for prostitution. (42) The male and female defendants recruited young women into prostitution on Internet sites Craigslist and Backpage, then terrorized them (for example binding them with duct tape and imprisoning them in a closet; forcibly addicting them to cocaine, and handcuffing them to beds) and sold them in various cities to sex buyers. (43) A multistate sex trafficking gang's use of the Internet triggered a third 2011 organized crime case. (44) The Internet was the prostitution ring's primary marketing tool with online ads for prostitution in Tennessee, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Ohio. (45) One of the traffickers took photos of the women and posted them to Backpage, USAsexguide, Preferred (411), Date Check and other websites offering "adult services" or "escort" services that included pornography of the prostituting women. (46) In a fourth case, police discovered an online prostitution ring,, in Pennsylvania. (47) Evidence used against the companies was based on fees and payments from website users including money orders, checks and credit cards, and numerous accounts at various financial institutions, funds, and financial services. (48) In 2011, the companies who controlled the prostitution ring pled guilty to money laundering and agreed to pay $6.4 million for developing and operating, which was subsequently shut down. (49) The organized crime groups kept numerous accounts at various financial institutions, funds, and financial services. (50) After the link to the online prostitution ring was uncovered, the FBI, State Police, IRS and city police raided the corporate offices and found eighty boxes of evidence. (51)

Alternatives to classified advertising sites such as Craigslist and Backpage have begun to appear. is a website aimed at providing safe and socially responsible classified advertising. (52) During the period of time that consciousness about online trafficking was increasing, from January 2009 to June 2010, Geebo's revenue increased 300%. (53) Despite this innovative trend, sex industry businessmen continue to use online technologies for the purpose of paid sexual exploitation and abuse.


For most of the world's prostituted women, prostitution is the experience of being hunted, dominated, harassed, assaulted, and battered. Prostitution is a gendered survival strategy that requires the person in it to assume unreasonable risks. (54) Most people would not be willing to assume these risks. Prostitution formalizes women's subordination by sex, race, and class and thus poverty, racism, and sexism are inextricably connected in prostitution. (55) Women are prostituted because they are vulnerable as a result of poverty, a lack of educational options, lack of employment opportunities, and as a result of previous physical and emotional harm. They are purchased on the basis of race as well as sex stereotypes.

Childhood abuse is such a common precursor to prostitution that it is nearly universal among those in prostitution. Survivors link physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as children to later prostitution. (56) Seventy percent of the adult women in prostitution in one study stated that childhood sexual assault was responsible for their entry into prostitution. (57) Family abuse and neglect not only caused direct physical and emotional harm, but also created a cycle of victimization that affected their futures. (58) Familial sexual abuse functions as a training ground for prostitution. (59) One young woman said, "I started turning tricks to show my father what he made me." (60) Dworkin described sexual abuse of children as "boot camp" for prostitution. (61) These histories make girls and young women particularly susceptible to the manipulations of traffickers who often lure their victims by initially providing a supportive family-like environment, housing and food, protection from others who have exploited them and special gifts like clothing and jewelry. Adolescence is the most frequently reported age of entry into any type of prostitution. Boyer and colleagues interviewed sixty women prostituting in escort, street, strip club, phone sex, and massage parlors (brothels) in Seattle, Washington. (62) All of them began prostituting between the ages of twelve and fourteen. (63)

Childhood abuse has been shown to increase the likelihood of online sexual victimization. (64) Adolescents who have been victims of childhood physical or sexual abuse and/or neglect are at risk because they are more likely to visit chat rooms, (65) be solicited sexually online and offline, (66) and receive aggressive sexual solicitations (67) than their nonabused peers. Moreover, childhood abuse victims are likely to experience physical and sexual revictimization and exploitation. (68)

A number of authors have described and summarized the sexual and physical violence that is the norm for women in prostitution. (69) Silbert and Pines reported that 70% of women suffered rape in prostitution with 65% having been physically assaulted by customers and 66% assaulted by pimps. (70) The Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland reported that prostituted women were raped an average of once a week. (71) In the Netherlands, 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults; 70% experienced verbal threats of physical assault; 40% experienced sexual violence; and 40% had been forced into prostitution and/or sexual abuse by acquaintances. (72) Most young women in prostitution were abused or beaten by pimps as well as johns. (73) Eighty-five percent of prostituting women in Minnesota had been raped in prostitution. (74) Of 854 people in prostitution in nine countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States, and Zambia), 71% had experienced physical assaults in prostitution and 62% had been raped in prostitution. (75) Eighty-nine percent of those people stated that they wished to leave prostitution but did not have other options. (76) In another study 94% of those in street prostitution had experienced sexual assault and 75% had been raped by one or more johns. (77)

Prostitution can be lethal. (78) A Canadian commission found that the death rate of women in prostitution was forty times higher than that of the general population. (79) A study of Vancouver prostitution reported a 36% incidence of attempted murder. (80) An occupational survey noted that 99% of women in prostitution were victims of violence, with more frequent injuries "than workers in [those] occupations considered ... most dangerous, like mining, forestry and fire fighting." (81)

Two factors are associated with greater violence in prostitution. The greater the poverty, the greater the violence, and the longer one is in prostitution, the more likely one is to experience violence. (82)

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly occurs among prostituted women and is indicative of their extreme emotional distress. PTSD is characterized by anxiety, anhedonia, depression, insomnia, irritability, flashbacks, emotional numbing, and hypervigilance. (83) In nine countries researchers found that 68% of those in prostitution met criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, (84) a prevalence that was comparable to battered women seeking shelter, (85) rape survivors seeking treatment, (86) and survivors of state-sponsored torture. (87) Across widely varying cultures on five continents, the traumatic consequences of prostitution were similar. (88) Vanwesenbeeck found anxiety and hypervigilance among 90% of a sample of women in legal Dutch prostitution (brothels, windows, and clubs). (89) Two studies of prostituted Korean women reflect the women's intense psychological distress with PTSD prevalence rates of 78% and 80%. (90) Web-based pornography of women trafficked in prostitution increases their vulnerability and 10 increases their emotional distress and traumatic stress. (91)

The assault on women's sexuality in prostitution is overwhelming, yet invisible to most people. Survivors describe prostitution as a process whereby they are turned into objects into which men masturbate causing great psychological harm to the woman acting as receptacle. (92) Dissociation is a response to overwhelming and uncontrollable traumatic events in which the mind detaches from one's current emotional or physical state. (93) Dissociation occurs during extreme stress among prisoners of war who are tortured, among children who are being sexually assaulted, and among women being battered, raped, or prostituted. (94) Dissociative disorders, depression and other mood disorders are common among prostituted women in street, escort, and strip club prostitution. (95) Dissociation in prostitution results from both childhood sexual violence and sexual violence in adult prostitution. The dissociation necessary to survive rape in prostitution is much like the dissociation that enables a victim to endure familial sexual assault. (96) Vanwesenbeeck noted that a "'dissociative proficiency' contributed to the professional attitudes among women in prostitution in the Netherlands." (97) A Thai woman said, "You make yourself empty inside." (98)


While theory about prostitution as a "choice" abounds, (99) it is impossible to distinguish prostitution from trafficking in most cases. (100) Thus conceptual walls between prostitution and trafficking limit enforcement and prosecutorial options that are available. Noting the impossibility of separating prostitution from trafficking in the real world, a 2006 report by Sigma Huda, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Aspects of the Victims of Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children noted that prostitution as it is practiced "usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking" (101) and therefore, legalization of prostitution is "to be discouraged." (102) The Special Rapporteur observed that "[t]he issue of demand is of crucial importance in addressing trafficking," (103) noting that, "[b]y engaging in the act of commercial sex, the prostitute-user is... directly inflicting an additional and substantial harm upon the trafficking victim, tantamount to rape, above and beyond the harmful means used by others to achieve her entry or maintenance in prostitution." (104) Pimp-controlled prostitution is indistinguishable from trafficking. Seeking to be qualified as an expert witness, a New York pimp argued that beatings of prostituted women are simply "part of the pimp-prostitute relationship." (105)

Compartmentalization of what is actually a global trafficking industry is both a factual and a strategic error that functions as a barrier to the prosecution of pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers. There are no boundaries in the sex trafficking industry that distinguish physically coerced from psychologically coerced victims. Confusion reigns regarding techniques of mental control used by pimps and traffickers whereby victims appear to collude happily in their own victimization. (106) There is also a failure by many--the public, law enforcement, NGOs, health care personnel--to recognize the coercive force of a history of abuse, neglect, racism, sexism, and poverty in channeling women into prostitution. False distinctions create legal and conceptual confusion about the nature of the sex trafficking industry. The following conceptual distinctions are based on myths rather than empirical data: trafficking versus prostitution, adult versus child prostitution, domestic versus international prostitution, legal versus illegal prostitution, indoor versus outdoor prostitution, street versus escort prostitution, and voluntary versus involuntary prostitution. (107) The United States Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged that trafficking victims are located not only in street and brothel prostitution but also in pornography, strip clubs, massage parlors, spas, live video-cam sex shows, mail-order bride or servile marriage services, military prostitution, and sex tourism or prostitution tourism. (108)

Compartmentalization of the sex industry into illegal versus quasi-legal prostitution benefits pimps and traffickers in that it frequently avoids accountability for criminal acts. The goal of pimps' lawyers appears to be to legally blur any distinction between prostitution and not-prostitution. For example, an attorney for argued that prostitution is simply the sale of sex with no emotional relationship. (109) The lawyer failed to note that in today's prostitution market GFE (girlfriend experience), which his client's website advertised, is precisely that: purchased sex with the veneer of a "girlfriend experience." (110) His strategy was to carve out an area of the sex industry that would be difficult to prosecute as prostitution. The seekingarrangement website's goal is to create what the site's pimps describe as mutually beneficial relationships between two people, usually a man willing to pay for sex with a woman. (111) The same strategy is used in online advertisements for escort prostitution. Payment is alleged to be for companionship. (112) If sex occurs, it is alleged to be outside the scope of the financial agreement. Similarly, in strip clubs, pimps allege that the $ 500 payment for private time in a back room is for the bottle of champagne not for the woman's performance of a sex act on a john.

Some assume that men in strip clubs watch women dance on a stage and chat with them afterward. Today, strip clubs are where prostitution happens. (113) As a Gambino organized crime family member said, "If I'm gonna build a fucking hooker business, I'm gonna hang out in strip clubs." (114) Today "sex shows" and "strip shows" are forms of online pornography (private strip prostitution) as well as a means of trafficking women. (115) Strip clubs are advertised online. (116) A lap dance, available in all strip clubs, is a form of prostitution in which a man is masturbated by a woman's body to ejaculation even though it may not be named as prostitution by men who purchase those sex acts or by the club's attorneys. A recent case against a pimp demonstrates the lack of difference between prostitution in strip clubs and prostitution elsewhere. Corey Davis was "charged in a fifteen-count Superseding Indictment with charges including sex trafficking, forced labor, kidnapping, and violations of the Mann Act," to which he later "pled guilty to a single count of sex trafficking." (117) The Grand Jury Superseding Indictment detailed how he pimped minor girls and adult women between a Queens, NY home (where he kept them locked up) and Connecticut strip clubs. (118) Davis used physical violence and psychological coercion to force his victims to engage in prostitution at the strip clubs and collected their earnings. (119) A 2011 police undercover operation in North Carolina investigated prostitution on, (120) which published a job advertisement that was a virtual shout-out to Eastern European and United States pimps. (121) The South 13 Gentlemen's Club posted "Currently hiring entertainers.... Must ... have ... a willing and motivated work ethic.... [Sjeeking select Eastern European ladies and Southern Cuties that may be willing to relocate...." (122)

Like other multinational businesses, the sex trafficking industry has many interconnections. Local businesses are connected with national and international distributors of women and children in prostitution. One arm of the sex trafficking business fosters and expands another and can eventually morph into a new enterprise. Online pornography encourages viewers to take the additional step of searching for women in prostitution after seeing their photos. For example, a sex buyer who was arrested for attempting to buy a woman in prostitution said, '"I'm watching a little porn at home, so I get a little horny and decide I want a blow job'.... 'I head to the Tenderloin [district]... and bang! The bitch is a cop.'" (123) Prostitution is advertised online, where it is indistinguishable from pornography. Pornography is one specific means of trafficking women for the purpose of selling women into prostitution. (124) On pornography/prostitution websites, women are for rent and sale. One of the world's largest pornography sites with 10 million users worldwide, located in China and the United States, was busted in 2011. (125) The site used a typical online sex trafficking business model: in addition to selling pornography, the site also advertised prostitution. (126) Visual pornography is a record of prostitution or trafficking. Pornography is a document of what men's domination of women in prostitution looks like in all its sexist, racist, and classist specificity. Pornography is a documentary of specific women's abuses in prostitution, and its consumers obtain pornography as a filmed document of a woman's sexual humiliation. (127) A Danish website advertised "real life amateur slaves," encouraging men to "submit a slave to the picture farm." (128) Sex buyers use pornography to solicit children for prostitution. (129) Both prostitution survivors and the men who buy them understand that pornography is prostitution with a camera. (130) "Yes, the woman in pornography is a prostitute," said a sex buyer, "They're prostituting before the cameras." (131) A number of courts have understood that making pornography is an act of prostitution. (132) Pimps make more money from sex buyers when they advertise women in prostitution as "adult film stars" who are available as "escorts." (133) Exploiting women's poverty, pornographers use prostituted women from Eastern Europe, where "[t]hey cost less and do more," said one German producer. (134)

Pornographers are indistinguishable from other pimps. (135) Both exploit women's and girls' economic and psychological vulnerabilities or coerce them to get into and stay in the sex industry. Pornographers and pimps both take pictures to advertise their "products," suggest specific abuses for johns to perpetrate against women and minimize the resulting harms. Eliminating the imagined boundary between pornography and prostitution, a pornographer advertised that he was "in the business of degrading whores for your viewing pleasure." (136)

Web-based, video, and print pornography are inseparable from the rest of the sex industry, with crossovers from prostitution to pornography to sex trafficking. Nevada pimps declared their interest in "cross-fertiliz[ing]" legal brothels with other arms of the sex trafficking industry--strip clubs, escort prostitution, websites, and pornography. (137) A strip club website telegraphed the intimate connection between stripping and pornography by advertising, "Breeding pornstars one showgirl at a time!!!" (138) New York Elites, an escort prostitution agency, was busted for numerous offenses including promoting prostitution by flying pornography stars to many locations in the United States for "dates." (139)

Police in Las Vegas located a multi-use sex industry operation that included online prostitution, illustrating the interconnectedness of different arms of the sex trafficking industry. (140) Looking like a small office complex from the street, the business functioned simultaneously as Internet pornography production, cyber-peepshow or webcam prostitution, and a location out of which women in escort prostitution were pimped to Las Vegas hotels and to an illegal brothel. (141)

Live video technology enables johns to obtain prostitution online that is indistinguishable from filmed sexual assaults of children and trafficking. Writing in 2004, Peter Landesman described the evolving sameness of Internet pornography, prostitution, trafficking, and slavery:

   Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the
   Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Va., are.... tracking a
   clear spike in the demand for harder-core pornography on
   the Internet.... Cybernetworks like KaZaA and Morpheus
   through which you can download and trade images and
   videos--have become the Mexican border of virtual sexual
   exploitation.... [A website selling sex slaves showed]
   thumbnail images of young women of every ethnicity in
   obvious distress, bound, gagged, contorted. The agents in
   the room pointed out probable injuries from torture.
   Cyberauctions for some of the women were in progress; one
   had exceeded $300,000. "With new Internet technology,"
   [ICE Special Agent Perry] Woo said, "pornography is
   becoming more pervasive. With Web cams we're seeing more
   live molestation of children." (142)

V. Origins of Online Prostitution

Beginning with websites (143) and email, online technologies have enabled pimps to sell women in prostitution by using new forms of sexual exploitation. Bulletin boards were used to download pornography in the 1970s before the advent of the Internet. The use of credit card payments was pioneered by bulletin board pornographers. (144) Since 1990 pagers and cell phones have been used as the principal technology for escort or call girl prostitution. (145) A pimp who advertised men and women for sale for sex explained that the online sex trafficking industry was constantly evolving and regrouping, "[b]efore Craigslist, there was Yahoo Groups; before Yahoo there was AOL." (146) Next came live video chat, web cam prostitution, and message boards.

With the development of Netscape's Web browser in 1994, transmission of Web pages with text, images, sounds, and video made it possible to traffic women on the World Wide Web. "The first web-based prostitution business, A Personal Touch Services, from Seattle, WA, U.S.A., appeared in late September, 1994" and was described as the year's "most significant Internet marketing innovation." (147) The Internet Business Journal's endorsement of the sex industry's marketing approach "was an early indication of the mutually beneficial relationship between" web technology businesses and sex trafficking industries. (148)

Sex industry entrepreneurs developed the ability to "pagejack" web urls by 1999. (149) In this process, when a web user enters a web address, a criminal has rewritten the html code (usually by one character) and inserted it into, for example, a skateboard video website. When the user attempts to go to the website a hardcore pornography site pops up instead. Often, it is impossible to backtrack and the browser must be shut down to exit the pornography site. While incurring the wrath of some, this method generates enough new customers that sex industry web developers continue to use it. (150)

Today, cell phones permit web browsing of prostitution websites and applications bring the sex buyer in more contact with the pimp and the woman being sold. A 2011 iPhone application advertised " is for generous men looking to spoil, and dynamic women looking for financial support with bills, or who just need some excitement in life!... ... provides a staff of sugar dating experts to help you find the perfect mutually beneficial arrangement." (151)



Social networking websites allow users to create a personal profile that they share with friends, other users, or the public at large. Social networking site users stay in touch with existing friends but also bring online acquaintances into the real world for in-person meetings, (152) thereby providing an opportunity for traffickers to use the Internet for recruitment to prostitution.

Pimps brag about using these sites to traffic women and children. "It's Y2K pimpin," wrote a pimp in an online chat log seized by police. (153) A pimp sentenced in 2010 for trafficking children into prostitution had initially contacted and then recruited them on MySpace. (154) A U.K. pimp used MySpace to recruit women for an escort prostitution agency and created new profiles if the more blatant advertisements for prostitution were deleted. (155) Pimps easily recruit via Facebook as well. For example, a woman was arrested in Jakarta on suspicion of running a prostitution business involving seven junior high school girls, who had been recruited and then sold on Facebook. (156) Such comments serve as a document of illegal use of the Internet, enabling discovery of evidence for prosecution.

About half of all Internet users are estimated to be using social media sites. (157) MySpace and Facebook, the two largest social networking Internet sites promote casual, anonymous social interactions. Facebook was developed in 2004 for college students but soon expanded to include high school students and the general public. (158) In December 2010 MySpace had 50 million U.S. visitors and Facebook had 153.9 million U.S. visitors. (159) Globally, Facebook had 500 million users by mid-2010--if it were a country, Facebook "would be the third most populous nation in the world after China and India." (160) Facebook easily accommodated advertisements for prostitution. In a 2011 survey, 83% of prostituted women in New York City had a Facebook page (161) despite the Facebook advertising and safety policies prohibiting "|a]ds for adult friend finders or dating sites with a sexual emphasis." (162) When teen users of Facebook began to exit for Twitter, Facebook loosened restrictions to protect minors from advertiser--and pimp--manipulation, granting thirteen to seventeen year olds the ability to post not just to friends but to everyone, becoming "fresh meat for marketers" in the words of one analyst. (163) In 2013, Twitter did not respond to complaints about increased prostitution advertising. (164)

The number of users of MySpace dramatically increased after minors were permitted to join the site as members. (165) Public concerns then grew about the site's facilitation of adult/minor sexual interactions, leading to legal complaints about potential abuse. (166) There have been both successes and setbacks in challenging trafficking of women and children via social networking sites. A victim from Texas sued MySpace after she was raped by a man she had met on the social networking site. (167) A group of child victims who had been contacted by and engaged with predators online sued MySpace for not protecting underage members. (168) Both cases were dismissed based on the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which protects Internet service providers from some forms of liability for third party actions. (169) The CDA does not provide immunity from prosecution in all cases, for example where the website operator fails to act after being warned that illegal content is present (170) or in cases where website operators contributed to the creation or development of injurious or tortious content. (171) Pressure from states' Attorneys General led to the removal by MySpace of 90,000 sex offenders from its site in 2009. (172) MySpace pursued various approaches in 2008 meant to protect children, including enhanced parent controls, faster response time to complaints about inappropriate content, and increased privacy settings for users under age sixteen. (173)

In 2009 Cooke County Sheriff Dart sued Craigslist alleging liability for the costs of law enforcement, providing substantial evidence that the site was being used to facilitate prostitution of child and adult victims and that it was a public nuisance. (174) An Illinois court dismissed the case. (175) Questions regarding website operators' invocations of CDA immunity nonetheless remain. At what point does tolerance of criminally illegal activity, content or misuse of a website constitute "encouraging" that illegal conduct, as in the Jones (176) and Roommates (177) cases; and at what point do website operators become liable for violating state criminal laws that are not preempted by the CDA? While the prostitution and public nuisance laws in Dart may not have been sufficient in Illinois, other states' laws may be broader and more effective. The equitable defenses against the CDA also remain untested but are applicable in cases of women trafficked for prostitution. The doctrine of "unclean hands" for the bad faith conduct of certain website operators would challenge CDA immunity from liability. CDA immunity should not benefit those who participate in or knowingly tolerate criminal attacks against persons trafficked for prostitution. (178) When do online advertisers become virtual traffickers?

In other attempts to block Internet crimes against teens, the Japanese government experimented with blocking social networking sites for users under eighteen, but the results of this policy are unclear. (179) Public pressure has been aimed at online classifieds, urging them to shut down their variously named prostitution advertising. (180)

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A389934482