Vice Squad
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Prostitution and the Internet

One of the barriers to illegal prostitution is the establishment of a connection between prostitutes and johns. In recent years, the Internet (including e-mail) often has served to provide that connection. This mechanism has certain advantages for both the demand and the supply side. For prostitutes, it provides widespread advertising, while also permitting screening of clients in advance -- and the prostitute can determine the extent of the screening. E-mail messages leave electronic trails that offer some protection from clients. Men who are afraid of going to the seedy strips that serve as the open prostitution market in many cities might find Internet connections to be especially attractive.

Beyond official "advertisements," informal prostitute "rating" sites have also built up on the Web. While to some extent these sites provide a sort of "Consumer Report" for this illegal industry (illegal in the US, that is, except for Nevada brothel prostitution, for which rating sites have also sprouted), they also provide a form of "advertising" that is not controlled by the prostitute. The anonymity of the Web means that men who patronize a prostitute can inform (or misinform) thousands of others about their "exploits" -- while in the absence of the web, the same men might have been too embarrassed to tell even their closest friends about their illicit encounters.

The public availability of the Web, however, means that law enforcement can also find about prostitution. For "official" sites, this might not be much of a problem, as the sites do not openly refer to prostitution and the evidence required to secure convictions can be difficult to acquire. But the informal rating sites are another matter -- they might give the game away entirely. And so it happens that such a site has led to the arrests of seven people for operating prostitution houses ("corrupt organizations" disguised as health spas) in Western Pennsylvania, and to the arrest of seven others on prostitution charges. And the people of Western Pennsylvania can rest more soundly.

(Incidentally, this turn of events suggests that such businesses might want to establish their own "rating" sites, where customers can comment. Then the owners can edit out material that poses particularly severe legal problems.)

Here's some more heads-up police work, using the Internet to uncover a vicious call girl operation. The Stafford County (Virginia) detective involved in this case is a real pro, having succeeded in a similar sting a year earlier.

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