Two weeks ago, Eric Omuro, a California man who operated myRedbook.com, a website for personal ads, was convicted of facilitating prostitution and sentenced to 13 months in prison. Omuro and a coworker had been arrested last June and myRedbook shut down, much to the chagrin of sex workers on the west coast who advertised their services on the site for free. At the time, sex worker rights groups said that closing myRedbook would make it more difficult for sex workers to screen customers safely and push some women back out onto the street, where sex work is more dangerous.
“Today we also lost extensive online forums for a community of sex workers to keep each other safe, screen clients, and blacklist predators,” wrote Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, spokeswoman Patricia West in a statement published by the San Francisco Examiner.
Law enforcement’s success in convicting Omuro (the trial of the other operator is still pending) is problematic on another front as well. It may embolden authorities to go after other websites, like backpage, Craigslist and eros.com, which also run personal ads, thus depriving sex workers of the means to negotiate sexual transactions safely. As I discovered in researching my forthcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, providing sex workers with online forums where they can post ads actually allows them to be more independent of pimps or others who might exploit their labor. It also takes them off the street where, studies show, negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) is far more difficult.
In addition, law enforcement routinely work with such online sites in investigating specific cases of sex trafficking (by law, all underage prostitutes are considered trafficking victims.) But once such sites are shut down, police no longer have an avenue into the shadowy world of child prostitution. Indeed, when myRedbook was first shuttered, San Francisco police complained they had lost a valuable resource — the net in which they fished for pimps and conducted sting operations in recent years.
“We’ll just have to be a little more creative,” San Francisco Police Chief Michael Massoni told the Examiner after myRedbook was closed.
As I note in my book, underage prostitution continues to be an elusive nut to crack, in large part because many teenage runaways who sell sex are fleeing from abusive homes and regard their pimps as saviors, at least in the beginning. Eradicating child prostitution should be a top priority, but we’re going about it in exactly the wrong way, researchers who study this issue say.
Instead of expending taxpayer dollars on prosecutions that do nothing to help vulnerable teens and harm the women and men who are doing sex work by choice, we should be putting more resources into social services that actually help teens survive without resorting to sex work.
“Part of the solution has to be dealing with the root causes—parents who may be physically or sexually abusing their children and abusing drugs and alcohol,” says Ken Lanning, a retired FBI officer who specializes in crimes against children. “Law enforcement can’t deal with it by just making arrests.”
Touché, Mr. Lanning.