Internet replacing streetwalking for Inland prostitution

10:00 PM PST on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

By JESSICA LOGAN
The Press-Enterprise
The woman wore clear high-heeled shoes with a Louis Vuitton bag slung over her shoulder as she walked toward the house in Sun City, hoping to make some fast Christmas money.

Inside the home, one of several similar to it on the cul-de-sac, she expected to find an off-duty Marine who would pay her for sex. Instead, a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy waited inside.

She agreed to perform a sex act on the deputy for $150 in the living room. Deputies hiding in a bedroom rushed out to arrest her on suspicion of solicitation of prostitution. The woman was one of six women arrested in the sting operation at the house on Dec. 13.

Story continues below

William Wilson Lewis III / The Press-Enterprise
Riverside County sheriff’s Cpl. Geoffrey W. Green monitors surveillance equipment during a prostitution sting. A camera hidden in a Christmas tree in an adjacent room monitors transactions.

They are among a growing number of women and men who solicit prostitution using vague language and explicit pictures on Craigslist, an easy and free venue for ordinary people to advertise on.

The increasing use of the Internet among prostitutes is changing the world’s oldest profession, say people who study sexual relationships. It’s moved prostitution from the street, attracted a more sophisticated clientele and raised new questions about the danger this method of prostitution brings to society.

“In this age, Internet prostitution is the biggest thing going,” said Riverside police Detective D. Woolley.

He noticed a spike in the number of ads on Craigslist three years ago and at the same time the number of prostitutes walking University Avenue, a once-popular strip for streetwalkers, has been whittled down to a handful of prostitutes.

“There are maybe four prostitutes on University Avenue who work just long enough to get a fix (of drugs) and rent a motel room for the night,” Woolley said.

Last weekend, 700 people advertised under Craigslist’s erotic services in the Inland Empire.

Julie Albright, a professor at USC and an expert in online relationships, said Internet venues attract an entirely new type of customer and prostitute.

“The Internet gives people the opportunity to explore things they never would have before because the Internet provides a cloak of secrecy,” Albright said.

But it’s unclear whether that cloak of secrecy tempts more into the business.

George Washington University professor Ron Weitzer, a prostitution expert, said no studies have been done on Internet prostitution to determine if anonymity leads people into selling their bodies.

Weitzer said studies have shown that strippers are more likely to ease into prostitution. And, Albright said, American culture is obsessed with strippers.

“Housewives are taking stripping classes,” Albright said. “There are stripper poles in some hotel rooms. This fosters a sex-work type culture.”

Both agree Internet prostitution attracts a higher economic-class client because people who have access to the Internet tend to be wealthier.

“I definitely think the Internet attracts a more educated customer, a more middle-class man who thinks no one will know what he is doing or ever find out,” Albright said.

Sting Operation

Finding prostitutes online was easy.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department obtained permission to use a private home. Deputies trolled the Internet, looking up ads for erotic services. They phoned dozens of women, some from as far away as San Diego County.

When the women showed up at the home a deputy posing as a customer greeted them at the door.

Once the discussion turned to money for sex, deputies made the arrest.

A deputy pulled a razor with a large yellow handle out of one woman’s bag after she was arrested.

“What do you need this for?” the deputy asked.

“Because,” she said, her eyes red and the smell of marijuana wafting off of her.

Weitzer and Albright believe the Internet insulates prostitutes from some of the violence inherent in street prostitution and protects communities where streetwalkers work.

But police say prostitutes are still vulnerable to violence and that type of crime can still spill into the surrounding communities.

Since Internet prostitutes go into any neighborhood, that makes any area vulnerable to violence from pimps.

“I have never arrested a prostitute who has never been assaulted in some capacity,” Woolley said. “They are victims of crime constantly. Let alone the mental abuse from pimps.”

Riverside police Detectives Woolley and C. Lanzillo say pimps are typically gang members who trade in women instead of drugs.

Enforcement Differences

Enforcement of prostitution law varies, even between Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The crime is punishable with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to state law, but first-timers rarely receive jail.

Riverside police have been arresting Internet prostitutes and their clients regularly for the past three years. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department conducted a couple of stings recently.

But the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department says it only makes prostitution arrests if it receives complaints, choosing instead to focus its efforts on violent crime.

“Prostitution is not something we are having ongoing issues with. Gangs, gang violence, violent crimes and narcotics are serious issues that the department is aggressively targeting,” San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller said.

However, Riverside County sheriff’s deputies and police say they believe periodic stings curb online prostitution.

“If we started at 20 and now we have trouble finding three (prostitutes), that means we’re having an impact,” said sheriff’s Cpl. Geoffrey W. Green, who participated in the Sun City sting, the second sting deputies have conducted.

But Albright and Weitzer said prostitution will grow despite these efforts.

“I’m not so sure (law enforcement) is going to be able to catch up,” Albright said. “It’s just so big … There is an unending supply of vulnerable women.”

Reach Jessica Logan at 951-368-9466 or at jlogan@PE.com.

http://www.pe.com/localnews/sbcounty/stories/PE_News_Local_S_prostitution02.9893.html

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