Recent crackdowns targeting the sex-for-hire industry have reduced the number of commercial ads on the internet and helped fight online trafficking. But activists and police say the efforts may have had unintended consequences – landing women and girls back on the streets, where dangers also lurk.
The impact was almost immediate after the seizure of Backpage.com by the federal government in April and President Donald Trump’s signature the same month on the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, a law meant to hold internet platforms accountable for facilitating sex trafficking.
The number of sex ads online plummeted by 75 percent, an indication that the law was thwarting human traffickers no longer protected by the anonymity of the internet. But sex workers and their advocates say another casualty was the income of escorts who advertised online, along with the ability to vet clients better than on the street.
Statistics establishing a pattern are hard to come by, but police in some of the nation’s biggest cities told The Associated Press they are also seeing a shift, if sometimes only in the age of the sex workers they’re encountering.
“I have seen a group of fresher faces, so that would make me think that they’re new to the street, maybe from the internet,” said Lt. Jimmy Sides, of the San Antonio police.
Law enforcement in San Antonio arrested 296 people for prostitution between March 21, when the Sex Trafficking Act passed Congress, and Aug. 14, according to a public records request – a 58 percent increase from the same span the year before, when police made 187 arrests.
Phoenix police said they experienced a surge in street-prostitution arrests in 2018 but did not provide figures. In Houston, levels have remained constant, but more 14- to 17-year-olds have been working outdoors since May, said James Dale, a police captain.