A state law that went into effect in 2012 has given authorities greater ability to target pimps, including prosecuting them as human traffickers. Anyone convicted of trafficking a child under the age of 18 can be convicted to life in prison.
For people looking to buy and sell sex, standing on street corners and cruising red light districts are largely a thing of the past, as the illicit sex trade has moved into the digital world over the past decade.
“Boston doesn’t think we have an issue,” said Audrey Morrissey, a former sex trafficking victim who sold her body in Boston’s notorious “Combat Zone” district in the 1980s. “People who were around in the Combat Zone era think it’s been cleaned up. They say we don’t have a problem because we don’t see it.”
Adult classified websites are filled with ads selling sex, often thinly disguised as massage or “bodyworks” services. Others use coded language to advertise sex in posts masquerading as personal ads. On certain message board sites, men hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to share information about sex ads, escorts and massage parlors that offer illegal sex acts. They review sex workers in explicit detail, and share tips on when to call, who to ask for and how to avoid police.
“People can literally go on their computer throughout the day and buy sex on their way home from work or downtown at lunch,” said Attorney General Maura Healey. “It’s lawyers, doctors, accountants, guys who are going home this afternoon to a wife and three kids and who will be coaching tee ball on Saturday with 4-year-olds.”
In many cases, a pimp is behind online sex ads, authorities say. A state law that went into effect in 2012 has given authorities greater ability to target pimps, including prosecuting them as human traffickers. Anyone convicted of trafficking a child under the age of 18 can be convicted to life in prison.
Cambridge-based Demand Abolition estimates that 20,000 sex ads are posted online every month in Greater Boston, with the average ad receiving 52 responses. There are more than 9,000 online searches for sex buying opportunities in the Boston area each day.
“The Internet has made it so easy for buyers who maybe years ago wouldn’t have had the nerve to visit the old Combat Zone or gone to the back of the Yellow Pages for an escort service,” said Lt. Detective Donna Gavin, head of the Boston Police Department’s Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Unit. “With just a click of a mouse or on an iPhone, you can pull up a menu and make a date.”
While the volume of online ads is overwhelming, and many are carefully worded to avoid explicitly stating that they are offering sex in exchange for money, police do occasionally arrest would-be johns in sting operations involving phony sex ads and undercover officers.
The attorney general’s office has joined the National Johns Suppression Initiative, a series of annual stings aimed at reducing the demand for buying sex. Police in Barnstable, Cambridge, Northampton and Springfield partnered with the state police in a series of stings this spring. Departments in Massachusetts have periodically caught suspected johns by posting decoy sex advertisements online and posing undercover female officers as escorts in hotel rooms.
To increase the effectiveness of stings, police departments in multiple communities should coordinate their efforts, said Detective Sgt. Louis Cherubino, commander of The Cambridge Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit.
“The more that we do of these sting operations and the more of a rapport we have with the hotel industry, that’s going to prevent a lot of people from being able to do it around here,” he said. “When Boston does an operation, we found a number of individuals coming over to Cambridge thinking Boston is hot. When there’s a collaboration between Boston and Cambridge, we find we can eliminate that overflow.”
Some police departments, such as Cambridge, have worked directly with hotels to teach staff how to recognize signs of potential sex trafficking and report suspicious cases to law enforcement. Many pimps use hotel rooms to set up paid sexual encounters. Some victim advocates say they want to see such education efforts become more widespread.
While sting operations have caught suspected johns, investigators have also subpoenaed computer records and engaged in surveillance operations to assemble cases against suspected traffickers.
Healey, whose office has a dedicated human trafficking unit, said investigations are often times consuming and complex. More resources, she said, would be helpful in combatting the issue.
In addition to expanding the reach of the illegal sex trade, the Internet has increasingly pushed it into the suburbs.
“Really what it’s done is pushed it to being hidden. You no longer have the red light district and women hanging out on the street, but you have the same problem that’s now pushed online and hidden,” said Stephanie Clark, executive director of Amirah, an organization that runs a safe home on the North Shore for victims of the commercial sex trade. “The general population thinks this really isn’t a problem anymore, but the reality is if you walk into any hotel anywhere in New England, this is happening.”
Lisa Goldblatt Grace, executive director of My Life My Choice, a Boston-based organization that provides services to young women who’ve been victimized by the commercial sex trade, said the Internet has also opened new pathways for traffickers to lure and recruit girls and women into the sex industry.
“The internet has made it much easier for exploiters to meet kids in communities where they might not otherwise walk through the area,” Goldblatt Grace said.
By increasingly moving into hotels and apartments, a whole new set of safety issues arises, according to victim advocates.
Morrissey, who is now associate director of My Life My Choice, recalled that back when she worked the streets, a woman who took a john into an alleyway could yell out if she was physically threatened.
“Now they’re put in hotel rooms, where they can be raped or robbed,” she said. “They’re not going to the front desk saying, ‘I’m turning tricks in Room 302 and this guy just robbed me or raped me.’”
Goldblatt Grace agrees that the Internet has made the sex industry more accessible and less visible.
“When girls were on the streets exclusively, you knew where they were. The community could see those kids and say, ‘We have a problem with this,’” she said. “Now it’s moved indoors. Can you imagine anything more dangerous than being a 14-year-old girl alone in a hotel room with a steady stream of men?”