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City's sex trade moves from street to Web

James Halpin

For as little as 150 "kisses," Sexy Jen will "leave you exhausted with ecstasy."

Miss Foxy requires only 250 "sweet roses" to "do it any way you like."

Another asks a $200 "donation" for a more bold encounter: "I sex you."

Gone are the days when the corners of Spenard were thick with streetwalkers eyeing passers-by. Many of the seedy "massage parlors" that lined the streets in years past are no more.

These days, many prostitutes -- working both alone or for pimps -- are turning to the Internet, where they can post an ad on the cheap, keep a low profile and sit back in a hotel room while the clients come to them.

"We've essentially, through the work of the vice unit, pushed a lot of it off the street, off from being visible to the public and into out-call services," said Anchorage police Sgt. Kathy Lacey, supervisor of the vice unit. "If you've perused Craigslist at all under erotic services, very quickly you realize they are not selling massages or companionship. They're quite graphic."

Craigslist's "erotic services" category in Anchorage, where the above ads were found, draws more than 250 posts a month, many of them offering prostitution services thinly veiled behind wording trying for cloak-and-dagger but achieving only transparency. Cash becomes "roses" or "kisses" and time breaks down into "sessions."

Offers to stimulate "mind and body" are posted alongside pictures of mostly faceless women -- sometimes seductively clad -- often accompanied by a disclaimer: "Any money exchanged is for companionship and modeling purposes only. Anything else that may or may not occur is a matter of choice between two consenting adults of legal age."

Despite such claims, officials say the Internet is playing an increasing role in prostitution across the country.

"It's a virtual shopping mall for sex," said Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California and expert on Internet relationships. "It's hard for law enforcement to keep up with it, so it's a virtual free-for-all in the prostitution arena."

Craigslist has taken the brunt of the criticism. Most recently, the site made headlines when a masseuse who posted an ad in its erotic services category was robbed, beaten and shot to death in a Boston hotel room. A Boston University medical student, Philip Markoff, 23, has been charged with murder in the slaying and with robbing another woman who posted an ad on Craigslist.

Back in March, the sheriff in Cook County, Ill., filed federal suit against the site, saying it not only allows the solicitation of prostitution but has actively created "the largest source of prostitution in America," a claim the company disputes.

"Frankly, Sheriff (Tom) Dart's actions mystify me," Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster said in a statement. "As our counsel explained to Sheriff Dart's Department in 2007, Craigslist cannot be held liable as a matter of clear federal law for content submitted to the site by our users."

Last November, Craigslist pledged to crack down on prostitution by cooperating with law enforcement and requiring anyone posting erotic services ads to give a working phone number and pay a fee with a credit card to aid in identifying them.

On March 9, the company released data showing the number of erotic services ads in five major cities had decreased by at least 90 percent in the past 12 months -- numbers it attributed to its effort to crack down on such ads.

Police and federal officials, however, say that Internet prostitution isn't going away, just moving to lower-profile sites. That much is evidenced by ads on Craigslist itself, where posters, citing an infusion of police sting operations on Craigslist, frequently direct users to other, more explicit, sites.

'BETTER ORGANIZED'

In Anchorage, the majority of police prostitution work now takes place online, Lacey said. The vice squad conducts stings both by responding to ads and posting its own, then meeting the targets at hotels. Women often come here from the Lower 48, post an ad online and set up shop in a hotel room, which they switch often to avoid detection, until, after a few weeks, they move on to another city, Lacey said.

The Internet hooker appears to be a different type prostitute, Albright said.

"The sense that I have is that many of the women that are doing prostitution on the streets tend to be more sort of desperate," said John McConnaughy, a city prosecutor who works prostitution cases. "The ones that are doing it through the Internet, I think, are better organized and they're commanding higher prices."

A number of women posting on Craigslist were reached by telephone but declined to discuss the nature of their ads for this story.

They do, however, sometimes talk to police when arrested. One told officers she came here because she could make $1,000 a day -- a far cry from what she earned in California, Lacey said. On another bust, police found 27 used condoms in the hotel garbage can of a woman working long-distance for a Lower-48 pimp to whom she was wiring money.

"They don't hardly walk through the door for less than $300. You do the math," Lacey said.

ONLINE EVIDENCE

Online ads offer some advantage in prosecuting prostitution cases -- they can be offered as evidence against a defendant, McConnaughy said. But in other ways, the Internet makes enforcement more difficult -- many of the women are wary of stings, Lacey said.

The Internet also makes it more difficult for officials to find children being used in prostitution schemes, she said. Several recent joint prostitution busts police worked with the FBI, for example, turned up a number adult prostitutes and johns but no minors in Anchorage.

Because the Internet offers anonymity, it is usually impossible to tell in advance how old the prostitute is or whether she is being trafficked, said FBI special agent David Heller. Traffickers are often unwilling to send underage girls to hotel rooms because of stings, and they also won't generally send them to first-time clients, Lacey said.

"We cannot use their services and we can't become a known client," she said.

Albright said the Internet has allowed not only pimps and traffickers to expand their businesses, but also given some women business opportunities of their own.

"It's kind of changed the game in a way," Albright said.

What the Internet doesn't do is remove the violence, drug abuse and disease from the trade, she said.

Some of those peripheral problems persist on Spenard, where some streetwalkers are still found, Spenard Community Council president Matt Burkholder said. But in general, the area is cleaned up from years past, the problem likely pushed underground and out of sight, he said.

Allan Barnes, a criminology professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Justice Center, said laws and enforcement simply don't stop prostitution. Fighting prostitution on the Internet can smother, but not end it.

"The only thing I can see going on with the Internet is you're taking them off the streets," Barnes said. "Well, there aren't any prostitutes walking around anymore, but now you have to have a BlackBerry to find one."

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.


By JAMES HALPIN
jhalpin@adn.com