Backpage and online ads

Backpage and online ads

Increased police presence in downtown Wilmington wasn't the only motivating force for the streetwalkers to head elsewhere.

Craigslist gained major momentum in the early 2000s, but came under intense scrutiny for allowing open advertisement of prostitution. In it's wake, a website called Backpage took over.

"It's like online shopping - you don't have to go out to the stores and buy," said former streetwalker Patty. "It's convenience. It makes it a lot easier for the girls and a lot easier for the guys."

Backpage has also come under criticism with major credit card companies refusing to work with them and multiple lawsuits for running prostitution ads. Backpage remains in operation because of free speech laws and 47 U.S.C. 230 (Section 230), a law Congress enacted in 1996 to protect websites from liability for third party content.

"It's blown it wide open," Patty remarked.

Before prostitution was widely sold online, the empirical evidence suggested that one person involved in outdoor prostitution (streetwalking) was indicative of about ten more girls working indoors, according to Lindsey Roberson, former assistant district attorney in New Hanover County and current Board member at A Safe Place.

"Now with the huge explosion of online prostitution opportunities we have no way of quantifying of what's happening indoors, off the street," Roberson explained.

Nikki, a woman arrested in a prostitution sting, agreed to talk about her life and explain the lingo used on Backpage.

"For a quick visit which is 15 to 20 minutes, it's $60," she explained. "For a half hour its $120, for an hour it's $180 to $200."

On the ads you'll see some unfamiliar terms. For instance, "incall" means the client goes to the girl, "outcall" means she goes to him.

Many ads will have "no pimps" listed, to prevent the men scanning Backpage from trying to find new girls to work or traffic.

"No African Americans" or "No AA" is also common. The girls explained they have trouble getting business from white clients if they don't put that on their ads.

One of the women took us through the entire cycle. She purchased Bitcoins online (essential, since credit cards won't work with the website anymore), typed up her ad, posted in Wilmington. It only took three minutes before her phone started to ring.

At this point the girl would head to the "Johns" address or he would go to her hotel. She would wait until he has parked to give him her room number, allowing for a bit of surveillance on her part to make sure he's not a police officer.

Neither party has much idea what to expect unless he's a repeat client. False advertising on Backpage is rampant.

"It will have a name, sometimes using a fake name; some brief description of what they do, what they won't do," explained NHCSO Vice Detective Evan Luther. "Pictures - sometimes they're real pictures, sometimes they're fake pictures."

Luther says it's mostly a word game.

"100 'kisses,' well that means $100," Luther elaborated. "100 roses, $100. Its merely a word game to mask what they're doing. Any time you have to post something that says 'Not Law Enforcement Affiliated' you're probably doing something illegal."

Other girls try to slide under the radar by advertising "massages." But without a business license and a massage license, that too is illegal.

"You have reputable massage companies that charge $60-$70 an hour for an hour massage at a legit business, why would you pay $200 for the same?" Luther questioned. "It doesn't make sense."

According to the women, Backpage is the reason why more "independent" women are working the streets today. They can easily market themselves online, so long as they have internet connection. As a result, some prostitutes argue that pimps are no longer a necessity.

"Backpage was the pimp," said Kasi, a prostitute being held at the NHC Detention facility. "That's the only way you can put it. Backpage was the one that facilitated it, was the one that started it. You could post to be a prostitute on this website, for yourself."

Kasi had used Backpage for several years until her recent arrest.

"My name on there is Destiny, and I remember saying, this is my destiny," Kasi said, trailing off. "To begin with I didn't have self-esteem, but when I got on Backpage the more calls, the more I felt better. My self-esteem personally went up because I was sought after more. The attention, [I] love the attention I got."

A day in Kasi's life on the street usually started at 9 a.m., having gone to bed just a few hours earlier. She'd have her Backpage ad posted by 10 a.m., her hair and make-up done by 11 a.m., and her first call in the door by noon at the latest.

Most days the phone rang immediately.

During a recent visit to her block inside the jail, she pointed out that of the roughly 40 women inside her area about 10 were on Backpage.

"There's no where to turn. You become manipulative," Kasi explained. "You manipulate your own mind because you have no where to go."

It's a lifestyle that takes mental training.

"This is my job. This is what I have to do," she said. "If I don't do this - I'm not going to get high; I'm not going to have a place to sleep tonight; my car insurance ain't going to get paid; and for the one's who are moms, how is my kids gonna eat?"

Kasi's arrest made local news but a headline does not tell her story.

"I still have feelings. I still care. I still love. I still hurt," she said. "I deal with hurt more than I've ever dealt with love."

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