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The Dingy Truth of What’s Advertised

Although paid sex is advertised on many sites — through suggestion and otherwise — Craigslist.com and Backpage.com are major nerve centers, offering to do for paid sex what the rest of the Craigslist site does for no-fee vehicles, temp jobs and old couches.

 

In an exploration of this world, more than fifteen Craigslist ads were posted in five major cities and two cities in the state of Kentucky, and interviews were requested by email with “johns” (the men and women who pay for sex). About a dozen frequenting johns, mostly men, consented to answering questionnaires or email interviews, all of which took place over the past two weeks.

 

Two men, J. from Nashville and T. from Philadelphia, were willing to be interviewed by email, as long as they were identified by first initial and city only. A few other men who had replied to ads were also forthcoming, but none of the other men who had replied to the ads consented to an email interview.

 

Craigslist, which took down its Erotic Services section in 2009, added the “adult services” section and a ten dollar posting fee subject to approval by a Craigslist moderator. Every other section helps advertisers post classified ads for free. The Craigslist moderators do not seem to be enforcing this section or the Casuals Encounters section very rigorously.

 

Within the website’s Casual Encounters section, the most traditional of the ads — men seeking women — seems to raise the most demoralizing questions, given the reasonable assumption that most men (and even women) would prefer earnest relationship to paid sex with a stranger, no strings attached.

 

As with so many things on Craigslist, the truth is a little dingier than what was advertised.

 

Among the stories told by the johns of Craigslist are those about the willing but deceptive house guests who posted condemning personal information online; the eager 22-year-olds who turned out to be too shy to go through with it after the rooms have already been paid for; the woman who seemed tame by email but who turns violent after putting on leather; and the reckless sex-seekers who lied about paying them back after they already spent the loan.

These are probably not the fantasized situations people think about when they think about Internet prostitution. The reality is a little more poignant than that:

 

Tales of erotic to bizarre sexual encounters via Craigslist and Backpage sing of the unsung “Romeo” — “more than happy to give more details.” Most of them went along with it—they’re driven to show off, a lot of them. It even seems to be an erotic thrill for them. One man, S. of Houston, said he had enough hours of sexual escapades to fill a book.

 

J., a straight man who lives in Nashville, reminds that it’s a certain kind of john that will respond, the one with a “girlfriend . . . or two.” At thirty-eight, J. projects confidence, and says “It’s not that you can’t get sex, it’s about the excitement and the easy nature of it all.”

Expediency and anonymity seem to be turn-ons, along with variety. J., who admits to soliciting sex online once or twice a year, says most women will never understand that.

 

Prostitution, S. said, at legalized and regulated brothels like Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Mound House, Nevada, featured for two seasons on HBO, often delivers on its potential for reducing sex crimes and sexual transmitted diseases. He says it’s something to think about.

 

In these sections, there is no pretense that anything but paid sex is being offered, which is just fine for people with compromising sexual addictions or customs, looking to avoid polite society.

 

T., who is older and seems docile by email, says he is a sissy maid who began using the site to find dominatrices who would act on a humiliation fetish with him. Craigslist, he’d say, often fulfills its promise of delivering on sexual taboos for minimal risk.

 

“It is tough as there are so many fakes and wannabes out there,” T. said. “But I am still looking.”

Men and women willing to pay for sex often disguise their intent slightly from law enforcement by using “roses” as code for money, as in, “I have roses to give a special lady,” “20, 40, or 60 rose shows,” or requesting “roses” as the subject title of an email response.

 

Also rampant is the paying in drugs for sex. Cocaine users say they are looking for “snow” or for “a ski instructor” who will presumably trade sex for drugs, as in “Looking for some snow,” and “Looking for a cool guy to instruct me on how to ski.” Marijuana users use a longtime code term for marijuana, 420, to identify themselves. A quick search of “420” under the Louisville site quickly reveals almost 100 recent ads.

 

That there is prostitution on the sites should be no secret. Around the country, law enforcement routinely arrests prostitutes operating on the sites; in Pensacola, Florida, Kristin Lipscomb set up a prostitution sting operation focusing on Backpage, which started up in recent years to draw from the traffic of Craigslist. Her online monitoring team provides possible leads for state law enforcement to make charges within the ‘erotic services’ category, outside legal services like massages. A company statement by Lipscomb said the formation of her online team led to a number of arrests in Florida.

 

The sites behave like one ugly market. While the sites both have policies against posting pornographic pictures, they do not seem to be enforced very vigorously; a good number of people include suggestive pictures of precisely what they have to be paid for.

 

Like one ad titled “80 Rose incall Special,” even ads with suggestive pictures feature legal disclaimers. Several on the Louisville site read: “All donations are for companionship services only. Anything else that may occur is a matter of choice between two consenting adults . . . .”

 

On the sites, the language is first. Two johns currently paying into prostitution clammed up, understandably. Bluntly, one john asked for the interviewer to deny being a member of law enforcement. Even more telling: five of the ads posted were flagged and removed within the first 48 hours. The company chose not to provide a statement.

 

But there’s no mention by the johns of the women in these ads who might tell of a sad, sad story not isolated from pimps using the lure of easy money to traffic victims. For these women “new in town” or “just visiting,” these apparent signs of trafficking should raise immediate red flags.

 

While the sites continue to not be enforced very well, law enforcement and online monitoring teams like Kristin Lipscomb’s are beginning to recognize those signs.