Once upon a time, prostitution could be found on dark street corners or, if you knew the right people, made to order in upscale hotels. But along with the Internet have come a slew of new promotional tools for the world’s oldest profession.
Websites such as Craigslist and Backpage have made advertising such services, often disguised under the header “erotic” or “adult,” just a phone call or the click of a mouse away.
Conversely, Backpage has also become a tool for many local police departments, including West New York and Hoboken, for making prostitution arrests.
“Censorship will not create public safety nor will it rid the world of exploitation.” – Backpage.com
Hitting close to home
West New York, Union City, and Hoboken have made prostitution-related arrests over the past few months thanks to services advertised on Backpage.
Just a couple of weeks ago, detectives in Hoboken arrested two women involved in an alleged prostitution ring and escort service after following up on a tip about an establishment advertising on Backpage.
West New York Police Director Albert Bringa knows firsthand the bevy of prostitution arrests that websites such as Backpage can yield. His department has racked up record numbers of prostitution-related arrests this year alone due to undercover operations begun from ads on the website.
But Bringa said he’d prefer to see the site and anything like it shut down.
“The better thing for the community is to eliminate that kind of action,” he said. “I’m against it all around. It’s detrimental to the community and to quality of life.”
The West New York Police Department doesn’t even have to go online and look for leads. Many tips pour into the station via the department’s hotline.
Their efforts have been so successful that lately when they’ve tried to follow up on tips they’ve gotten as a result of the website, they’ve been told those services are no longer offered in West New York.
“I think we’ve proved our case,” said Bringa. “People can say there’s no ending to this, but if there’s no ending at least we’ve put a dent on it. I think we’ve gained the confidence back from the community, and that’s big. It takes an entire effort from everybody; if it wasn’t for the community we wouldn’t have much to go on.”
Over 20 states demand shut down, but not NJ
After 17 state attorneys general demanded the shutdown of the adult services section on Craigslist early last month (and Craigslist complied within a couple of weeks), many quickly turned their attention to Backpage, owned by Village Voice Media, which also boasts a booming adult section .
Over 20 states are now demanding that the site shut down the racy section because it permits the promotion of illegal services.
But New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow is still not one of them. Although her office was quoted in a published report a few weeks ago saying they are “reviewing their options,” for now the review continues.
Leland Moore, a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, echoed the exact same message as his colleague last week saying, “While we don’t automatically sign onto group initiatives, we are aware of the allegations regarding the Village Voice media-owned Web site and are currently reviewing our options.”
Big business in adult services
Before shutting down its adult services section, Craigslist anticipated revenue of almost $45 million from adult ads (which cost $10 a pop) for 2010, according to published reports.
A fee is charged for listing other kinds of ads, including those for real estate and jobs, but most are free.
According to a press statement from Backpage (one of the first websites to charge for adult services ads), since 2008 users have posted 58 million ads on the site, only 6 million of which were in the adult section.
But an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal said the site is projected to earn an estimated $17.5 million from ads related to adult services alone this year. And that number may increase. Since Craigslist shut down its adult services section, traffic on Backpage has increased, according to website trackers.
Perhaps in light of that recent success and the projected earnings, Backpage.com recently issued another press statement “respectfully” declining the demand from the state attorneys general to close the adult classifieds on the website.
According to the statement, in response to the attorneys general concerns, the website has increased its efforts to provide and enforce rules while cooperating with law enforcement when requested.
“The Internet was born,” reads the statement. “The federal government enacted laws to regulate its use and to allocate responsibilities and immunities to web operators. Backpage.com follows those laws and it declines to censor an entire section of free speech from its website. Censorship will not create public safety nor will it rid the world of exploitation.”
Will shutting it down really help?
Some critics of the effort to shut down the adult services sections have said that blocking ads will not end sex crimes but instead violates free speech and inhibits law enforcement from using the site to keep tabs on illegal activity.
And even though advocacy groups and attorneys general have said they will continue their mission by going after other sites that post sex ads, it’s easy to see that the traffic will just keep moving somewhere else.
While the adult services section has been removed from Craigslist, similar ads are still popping up in other areas of the site.
And other classifieds sites, such as Oodle, which have smaller amounts of adult services posted on their pages, are poised to pick up the slack after the next site gets shut down.
Meanwhile, much more explicit websites are not shying away from advertising their adult services throughout Hudson County including CityVibe (which includes a specific section for Jersey City) and Eros Guide (featuring dozens of entries from all over North Jersey, particularly Secaucus and the Meadowlands).
So what do you think of the efforts to ban adult ads posted on the Internet? Visit our website, www.hudsonreporter.com to take this week’s poll.
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Poll closes on Thurs. 10/14)