Long Island Bodies’ Discovery Puts Glare on Craigslist Sex Ads

The four female bodies that were found on a Long Island beach may not have been missing call girls who used Craigslist, but the grisly discovery has renewed scrutiny on the site—and the safety of Internet prostitution.

As Ashley tells it, she’s just not taking any chances. There are lots of freaks online, not to mention policemen who might be looking to make a fresh catch. “From the wording of their emails, you can sometimes tell if they’re psychopaths or cops,” she said in a phone interview after I found her ad on Craigslist. “If they don’t send pictures, that’s a red flag. If they send too many, it’s a red flag. If they’re asking too many personal questions, again: red flag.”

The last time she hooked up, she said, it was because “his personality put me at ease. He was straight to the point. He asked me the same questions I was asking him.” Plus, she liked that his real name matched his email address. From there, she was able to find his Facebook page, with numerous photographs. When Ashley (not her real name) finally had her rendezvous, she took down his license plate number and texted it to herself on a second cellphone, which she’d left on her kitchen table along with a note for friends and family, just in case she didn’t return. And then she collected her $500 an hour.

Welcome to prostitution in the Internet era.

Fifteen years ago, it was hard to find hookers on the Web. Now they are all over the place. The Internet has given rise to a new generation of sex workers who have more autonomy than ever before, and by and large enjoy a level of safety not shared by their street-walking sisters. Nonetheless, Internet prostitution is a risky business, and those hazards were underscored this month when the bodies of four women were found decomposing on the side of the road near Jones Beach on Long Island. Attention quickly turned to two missing call girls who’d been using Craigslist as their primary means of making connections. It turned out that neither woman was among the victims, but the grisly discovery put an unwanted spotlight back on Craigslist, which in September took down its U.S. erotic-services directory under pressure from law enforcement and human-rights groups. Last week, it pulled its worldwide adult-services ads. (Though Craigslist has managed to get most sex solicitation off its site, it hasn’t completely succeeded, as Ashley can tell you.)

David Henry Sterry has numerous stories about how the lives of prostitutes have changed in the past decade. Last year, he edited Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Prostitutes Writing on Life, Love, Work, Sex, and Money, an anthology that received a stamp of approval from The New York Times. He’s also a former sex worker himself, a rare example of a man who earned his living pleasing older women. (The only common thread connecting his clients, he said, was that they all had money and “most felt powerless because they were housewives, bored, and rich.”)

One of the women who appeared in his book called herself Kat, worked on Craigslist, and had an elaborate screening process in which she would force potential johns to drive up to the location of the assignations, get out of their cars, and stand there while she examined them from a nearby window with a pair of binoculars. Kat refused to talk to anyone with a blocked number. She also chose not to text. If you sent her a photo of your genitalia, a common mistake among potential johns, you were out of contention. “She had developed what she called a ‘hooker’s radar,’” Sterry said. “The tone of the guy’s voice, his walk, she had learned how to instantly size someone up. And if the guy looked sketchy or too much like a toad, she would stop returning his phone calls.”

“People who think they’re going to eliminate prostitution or violence in prostitution by shutting down Craigslist are wildly deluded,” said David Henry Sterry.

Another Internet-era phenomenon that’s friendly to business and helps boost security for prostitutes and johns alike is “the mixer.” This is a cocktail party-like event at which “hobbyists”—the current euphemism of choice for high-spending porn aficionados obsessed with bonking their favorite screen stars—get to meet potential dates. No sex typically takes place on site, explained Daily Beast contributor Richard Abowitz, a chronicler of life in Las Vegas, where the parties frequently occur. “It’s more like a job fair,” he said.

Meanwhile, the review sections on upper-end escort sites like the Erotic Review and the Eros Guide have become a vibrant online community where prostitutes and johns can review and rate each other like products bought and sold on Amazon. If a girl gains too much weight or shows up intoxicated, it gets noted. If the johns behave roughly, warnings are sent out.

Online solicitation does come with something of a safety net as well. Sources in both the sex industry and law enforcement say violent crimes against sex workers now frequently come with a built-in “paper” trail that makes crimes easier to solve than ever before, although that’s still little consolation to the prostitutes who can’t be brought back from the dead.

In 2009, a Boston University student who murdered an erotic masseuse was fingered and apprehended within days by police. They subpoenaed Craigslist for information, got the man’s IP address, and were at his door in an instant. (He killed himself this fall while under indictment for first-degree murder.) In Wyoming, police easily cracked the case of a woman who was brutally raped by a Craigslist predator. (It turned out the victim hadn’t even placed the ad leading the assailant to her apartment; rather, a jilted ex-boyfriend had posted a message with her pictures attached, asking an interested guy to come to her house and take her by force.) And with a series of emails from one of the missing women who had been feared among the Long Island victims, police were able to quickly locate and question her last known john, who has since been ruled out as a suspect.

The Long Island bodies have renewed scrutiny of Craigslist and online prostitution. Human-rights groups had argued for some time that sites like Craigslist, which earned $10 for each classified ad in its prostitution section, largely failed to self-police and remove advertisements featuring girls who were underage and/or trafficked. The groups, along with 17 attorneys general across the country who complained to Craigslist, scored a victory of sorts when the site agreed to shut down the erotic-services directory. At a hearing before Congress this fall related to sex trafficking, Craigslist’s director of customer and law-enforcement relations, William Clinton Powell, could barely contain his contempt for the people who’d targeted his site. “Those who formerly posted ads in the adult-services category will now have to advertise elsewhere, and in fact there is evidence that this process began immediately,” he said.

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Sienna Baskin, the co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, said the focus on Craigslist as a facilitator and beneficiary of women’s suffering is misplaced. “We’ve done studies,” she said. “Street-based sex workers experience much higher levels of violence, so for that reason, we didn’t celebrate the closure of the erotic-services directory.”

And as almost anyone inside the world of prostitution will point out, the shuttering of the erotic-services directory has done little to eradicate the world of sex for pay. On Monday afternoon, I signed on to Backpage.com, a classified listings directory whose interface is almost indistinguishable from Craigslist. In the New York section of the Village Voice Media-owned site, there were hundreds of ads taken at $10 a pop. The site forbids escorts from offering anything other than their time, but it was perfectly clear what was going on. There were “Asian Cuties,” “girls with 36DDs,” Puerto Rican “MILFs,” and “super petite Tinker Bells.”

“People who think they’re going to eliminate prostitution or violence in prostitution by shutting down Craigslist are wildly deluded,” said Sterry, the author and former sex worker. “The only thing it does is help drive things further underground.”

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.