Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cybersoliciting: How the Net foils the vice squad

In the sex trade, technology has left the law in the dust

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Pull up her photo online and she exudes elegance: the posed photos and glossy hair, the $200-plus hourly rate. However, when she's not talking to a client, she's the first to say the glamour's all a fake.

After 11 years working in Winnipeg's sex trade, she's not the innocent teenager she was when she started working in a massage parlour.

Now, she says, her work as an escort is getting tougher thanks to the proliferation of unlicensed escorts she's competing with online to sell sex.

"It's all inside now," she said. "It's behind the scenes."

Earlier this month, a rare spotlight shone on Internet-advertised prostitution in Winnipeg after a bust in a Wolseley home led to six arrests. According to court documents, Winnipeg Police Service vice unit officers used pictures from Internet websites to identify escorts working in a Stiles Street home and then did surveillance there on clients this June.

A 45-year-old woman and her 53-year-old husband were charged with keeping a common bawdy house, as well as living off the avails of prostitution and procuring.

Two 19-year-old women, a 19-year-old man and a 23-year-old woman were charged with being an inmate in a common bawdy house.

Unlike the highly visible work of street prostitutes, unlicensed escorts selling themselves online say they are generally used to operating under the radar from law enforcement as long as they sell sex quietly.

Their main frustration? Fees they say they must pay to the city to operate legitimately.

One woman said she's paid hundreds of dollars in escort licensing fees for the last decade but recently stopped because so many of her competitors don't pay the fees.

She and three other escorts she knows counted 80 of what they call "illegals" operating in the city on local websites and in print media, she said.

For years, the escort said, she followed strict city bylaws for licensed escorts, like renting an office space in the downtown area. But the Internet helped free up escorts looking to market their bodies, she said, thanks to advertisements that could be posted cheaply, without a city-issued licence number and easily removed.

Anyone with a cellphone and credit card can go online and start marketing sex with explicit photos, she said.

Next to her profile are about 50 other Winnipeg women selling escort services. That doesn't exactly jive with the 14 individuals the city says are currently working as licensed escorts.

Last year, the city's community bylaw enforcement services did not cite a single person for escorting unlicensed or not following regulations.

"None of these girls are going through the hoops," she said, meaning they don't take out municipal licences.

And so now, neither does she. The migration to the web adds a particular allure for an industry that loves anonymity and tip-toeing around grey areas of the law, said experts. Or for making a stand.

One woman charged in the Stiles Street bust has turned to her blog and Twitter page to describe her proud position as a "sex worker."

For fees ranging from free to about $50 a month, Winnipeg escorts advertise their services online.

The photos are often graphic and the language is a lot more explicit than what you'll see in a classified ad section.

Many are filled with acronyms representing fetishes clients can buy, with prices ranging up to $1,500 for an overnight booking.

Another escort told the Free Press the Internet allows them a way to screen clients, share information with other escorts about concerns and market herself more aggressively. But Sgt. Kerry Baldwin, of the Winnipeg Police Service vice unit, said setting up appointments at an escort's home, known in industry lingo as an "in call," does not protect prostitutes from predators.

Baldwin is unequivocal about the "social carnage" caused by prostitution of all forms. The minor penalties the law applies don't make it any easier, he said.

A charge like "communicating for the purpose of prostitution" is a summary conviction offence, what he calls one of the "least serious offences" under the law.

"Why is that?" he said.

"If people acknowledge that it's so harmful to society, then why is it treated that way?"

But more of an impediment is that the laws were written before the Internet emerged.

"A lot of the wording in the Criminal Code in relation to vice work (refers to) a place," he said.

"What is the Internet... is it a place? If there is activity and communication on the Internet, what is it?"

So police concentrate on street prostitution. "It's in a public place, it's affecting the neighbourhoods, people are upset with it," Baldwin said. In 2008, Winnipeg police charged about 180 people with prostitution-related offences.

The Internet poses a risk for exploitation of vulnerable people, said human trafficking expert Benjamin Perrin, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia faculty of law. He said cyberspace is a "new frontier" for people who want to profit from sexual exploitation of minors or human trafficking victims.

He said he's familiar with cases in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario where predators used the Internet to market exploited persons.

"The Internet has become a free and anonymous Wild West for online ads for sex," he said.

"It's clear that the Internet has opened up a whole new avenue... for the anonymous, quick posts that can be put up and taken down."

He said undercover police work can be highly effective at stopping the Internet as "conduit for exploitation," but many of the police units that do that kind of work are understaffed.

"People who are selling others for sex have become more brazen about it," he said.

"They have very little to fear in their minds and they point, of course, to the lack of prosecutions that are publicly made available to deter them."

Even a high-priced escort operating now on the wrong side of the law said she wants police to crack down on websites where johns compare info on workers.

She is trying to exit the business, she said.

"They need to bust these johns that are using review boards," she said.

"Because they're disgusting. These guys are sick, you know what I mean? They talk about what they've done with these women and they bash these women. It's an awful, awful (thing). It's getting worse."

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca

 

What does

the law say?

 

Escorts providing personal companionship or acting as a date are legal in Winnipeg under a municipal bylaw.

However, escorts are expected to hold an independent escort agency licence if they're lone operators or belong to a licensed agency.

Both carry hefty fees: $130 annual fee for an escort licence, $4,000 for an escort agency and $2,000 for an independent escort agency.

To get a licence, escorts must be 18 or older, submit their home address and personal information and supply current photos.

They're also required to keep detailed records of date, time and place they're expected to meet clients.

The bylaw says an escort is not allowed to "show or depict" parts of his or her nude body, or "state, imply or suggest" their services involve sexual or nude entertainment.

Under the federal Criminal Code, there are a variety of charges related to selling sex for money in specific circumstances.

Communication for the purpose of prostitution -- otherwise known commonly as solicitation -- means it's illegal to talk to a prostitute in a public place about exchanging sex for money or other goods. The charge of procuring -- commonly known as pimping -- means it's illegal for someone to try to make someone else prostitute himself or herself.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2009 a6

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