Selling sex online
Developments in technology have made it easier than ever to sell sex and harder than ever to prosecute human trafficking crimes as sex rings move off the streets and onto websites.
Sexy. Discreet. Guaranteed satisfaction. Your best kept secret.
These are some phrases commonly used in adult advertisements in the Honolulu section of Backpage.com, a U.S. site for prostitution advertising.
“More and more, as our phones and other electronic devises become sleeker, smart, smaller the Internet is becoming the primary means of advertising and entertaining [the sex industry,]” says Kris Coffield, Executive Director of IMUAlliance.
Many of the advertisements show explicit photographs and list the physical traits of the women being advertised, such as their bra size, weight and ethnicity. The adult classifieds advertise for services and establishments such as massage parlors, independent providers and specials with two or more women. Each advertisement typically lists a phone number or address, linking the virtual world to the physical commercial sex industry.
“You see hundreds of ads posted everyday for Hawaii-based prostitution,” Coffield says. He estimates that over 100,000 ads were posted during 2013.
Many of the women advertised on Backpage.com and other adult classifieds could be victims of sex-trafficking, according to a study by students in Information and Communication Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The students spent almost a year mapping prostitution circuits by tracking phone numbers on adult online advertisements.
“Online advertising of sex is integral to sex-trafficking,” says Kathryn Xian, founder of Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery (PASS). “All the survivors I have helped heal from trafficking have been [displayed] online here in Hawaii and across the U.S.”
In January and February of 2013, online advertisements from Backpage.com were collected to track advertisements for Hawaii escort services. The study used indicators defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Polaris Project to flag the online ads based on potential signs of sex trafficking, such as references to ethnicity or inconsistencies in age and aliases across multiple ads.
The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act of 2000 defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”
The study analyzed 1,436 escort advertisements over a course of three weeks during a six-week research period. Eighty-two percent of the ads contained one or more of the sex trafficking indicators.
Coffield says that providers as well as their pimps post the ads online. However, most of the ads in Hawaii are posted by the owners of establishments that sell sex, such as massage parlors or hostess bars. The owners may even hire third-party advertising agencies to design and post the ads for them.
“The Internet has really increased the number of encounters … the law enforcement community has to build up their capacity,” says State Senator Suzanne Chun Oakland.
On an average day, there anywhere from 40 to 70 adult advertisements on Backpage.com and many of them are explicitly advertising sexual services. According to a recent study by IMUAlliance, there are 2,652,000 exchanges of sex for money in Hawaii each year that contribute to a $625 million industry in the state.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro says law enforcement officers are forced to step up their investigation techniques if they want to keep up with illegal online trades. He says that it’s critical that police work with prostitutes to become witnesses against their pimps.
“When you start doing these cases, you have to improve on investigation,” Kaneshiro says.
Jerry Inouye, a Major in the Narcotics/Vice Division at the Honolulu Police Department (HPD), says the police department does not think it can be successful without the public’s help.
“If people refer us to the online ads … We will conduct an appropriate investigation,” Inouye says.
He says that online advertisements lead to the majority of encounters between providers and their “johns,” and that the ads have caused prostitution to spread to areas outside of Chinatown and Waikiki, which was not common in previous years.
“Those in the commercial sex industry are taking advantage of technology and changing their methods to commit prostitution crimes,” says Inouye. “The police department has to be able to adapt to that.” He says that the majority of investigations are undercover. During the interview, he said he could not comment further on HPD’s investigation tactics.
Coffield says that since the industry has moved online, the ability to prosecute individuals who use the Internet for prostitution becomes increasingly complex when factoring in the legalities of Internet privacy.
“Obviously the Internet provides a huge layer of anonymity,” he says. “If you’re doing all of your transactions online, then for you to be prosecuted, the prosecutor would have to get a subpoena for the ISP, which is a huge, huge gray area of the law right now that hasn’t become well-defined because the technology is so new.”
Together with the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery and the Hawaii Board of Massage Therapists, Coffield is planning to introduce a bill that would help prevent prostitution advertising. Specifically, the statute would ban advertisements that use images showing body parts other than the hands or forearms when advertising for massages. In effect, law enforcement would be able to directly target the posters of the ads who use explicit photographs to advertise services.
“We counted 108,000 advertisements one year,” Coffield says. “But you would only expect that number to rise as people’s connectivity with the Internet rises.”
This feature is part 4 of a series of 4 articles covering sex trafficking in Hawaii.