Serious Inquiries Only

Knoxville's online world of prostitution finds an unrestricted playground on Craigslist's 'Erotic Services' section

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Photo by Travis Gray

“Ahh!!! The pressures of daily life need to be relieved somewhere and somehow. How about letting us remove those weights and help you relax and have some fun.”

“I will brighten your day by letting you enjoy me your way.”

“Clean, healthy, new to this. Need some cash.”

The language used in many ads on Craigslist’s “Erotic Services” section—right between “Creative Services” and “Event Services” on the site—is rarely 100 percent direct. There’s certainly a mild subtext, a slight code embedded in phrases like “stress relief.” And the uninitiated or naive may wonder, “New to what, exactly?”

Of course, calling them “subtle” would hardly be fair to the concept of subtlety.

Take for example: “I’M HERE TO TAKE CARE OF YOU, ALL OF YOU. I’M HERE TO MAKE YOUR NIGHT EROTIC, I KNOW HOW TO TAKE CARE OF A MAN.”

Some have rates listed—typically in the neighborhood of $100 to $150 per hour. Others advertise weekly specials, or offer some other incentive like a specialty or simply a general willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve “total relaxation.”

The writing is a mixture of traditional and amateurish Web ad copy. There’s the old “Outcall” (your place) and “Incall” (their place) you’d expect to see in newspaper ads listed under “Personal Services.” And that’s combined with the type of creative misspellings, emoticons, and “funky typing” we’ve come to associate with Internet-only ads. When you only have one line of text to grab your reader’s attention in a teaser, your method can be as innocuous as just being a “sPeCial KiNdA gUrL” or going so far as “♥o°.-:¦:*Traveling To Your Terrific Territory For Pleasures*:¦:- *♥o.”

One frequent poster on the Knoxville page actually frames her offer of “sensual massage that is sure to leave your toes tingling” with a text “*wink*.” And most of the ads include naked—or barely clothed—pictures of men or women, sometimes just looking alluringly at the lens, sometimes engaged in sex.

There’s also the frequent assurance that the poster is not “LE” (law enforcement), even though, of course, it wouldn’t matter because he or she is not doing anything illegal, offering only Platonic companionship (*wink*).

Since it was founded in 1995, Craigslist’s sites, more than 400 city pages in total, have become an indispensable forum for Web-based classified advertising. Most of the ads are free, including Erotic Services, a category that was added to shift the often-explicit ads away from other, tamer categories. As the section’s gained popularity, in many cities overtaking print-based ads and specialty websites, it has begun to draw attention from law enforcement.

“It’s gotten completely out of hand,” says Investigator Jeremy Maupin, of the Knoxville Police Department’s Narcotics and Prostitution Division.

Maupin says that KPD is “stepping up” its investigation into suspected Craigslist-based prostitution rings.

Knoxville is somewhat behind the national curve on it. In the past few years, hundreds of suspected prostitutes and “johns” have been arrested in police stings in major cities including New York, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Closer to home, Nashville Police in February arrested 18 men who responded to a decoy Erotic Services ad, met an undercover female officer in a hotel, and negotiated to pay for sex.

The phenomenon, of course, is less pronounced here than in many of those other cities. On an average day on the Knoxville page, there may be only 10 to 15 new posts in the Erotic Services section. The New York page, on the other hand, will typically see more than 1,000 ads in the first 12 hours of the day.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been only seven arrests and two more citations in Knoxville based on Internet stings. That’s less than KPD will yield in one month of street sweeps and stings. The department arrests about 60 people per month off the streets, says Maupin. The charge is a misdemeanor, and typically results in a fine or a short jail sentence.

“It’s really a lot about where the complaints are coming from,” he says. Most of the prostitution complaints KPD hears are from store owners and residents who see the deals happening on the street. “We really don’t get a lot of complaints from people looking at Craigslist. I got one complaint once from a husband who said he saw his wife on there, but that’s really it.”

The arrests from KPD’s Internet stings, says Maupin, have typically involved first-time offenders, often part-time escorts or “floaters,” out-of-town sex workers from around the region who come to Knoxville and set up shop for a few days at a time before moving on. That sounds about right to Susan Lopez, co-founder of the Desiree Alliance, a Nevada-based sex workers’ advocacy group.

“Craigslist is a combination of ladies who were previously on the streets and college students who discovered the erotic services section while looking for an apartment or something, or perhaps a housewife wants to make some quick spending money,” says Lopez. “Craigslist is considered a place where amateurs advertise. It is considered the lower end of the available advertising options.”

Still, those “amateurs” are taking a bigger risk as law enforcement officials continue to take notice. In March, following a Craigslist sting in Lumberton, N.C., Craigslist spokeswoman Susan Best told the Fayetteville Observes that the site actually “makes it easier for police departments to conduct sting operations against prostitution rings” since many of the posters include personal contact information like phone numbers and email addresses. Best did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

“Some of these people are even stupid enough to put up real pictures of themselves,” says Maupin.

The site also provides police a veil of anonymity to conduct the investigations, calling up the listed phone numbers, recording the conversations, and setting up meetings at area hotels. Another method police use is placing false ads themselves, luring potential johns to make deals for sex. Maupin wouldn’t comment on that method, except to say it’s a “strategy that’s being considered” by KPD.

Craigslist is a community-moderated site, and maintains a policy of neutrality when it comes to its ads. However, site moderators do maintain that they will cooperate with any law enforcement investigations.

“I don’t think Craigslist actually condones the decoy ads any more than they condone ads for acts of prostitution. I believe they simply consider themselves a community portal for connecting with what or who you want to, and they are neutral about it,” Lopez says.

But Lopez says that the strategy of Internet prostitution stings is a waste of police resources. For one, taking the business off the street makes it somewhat safer for all involved parties and takes the public nuisance issue out of the equation.

“It is a case of consenting adults meeting their needs, and its nobody’s business as far as I am concerned,” she says. “I am sure there are far more pressing crimes against people and property to attend to. How many murders and robberies go unsolved because the police are chasing these consenting adults?”

Even Maupin says he’s not sure the stings are making a substantial difference.

“It’s a misdemeanor. Most of the time, for first-time offenders, we pick them up and they pay a small fine,” he says. “They’re charging $250 apiece, three of those a night. Do the math.” m

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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