At a press conference at the King County Superior Court this morning, King County Sheriff John Urquhart described the enormous, multi-agency sting that shut down The Review Board (TRB) and said it was a "rescue" for victims of human trafficking.
Outside the presentation room, local sex workers called the online crackdown futile and dangerous.
For years, TRB functioned as a review site for sex workers. Sex workers could advertise on the same forum where clients (or "hobbyists") could swap stories and rate them. Sex workers also used the site to build a community in which they compared user histories and compiled "bad date" lists.
But as of yesterday, TRB's gone dark. The King County Sheriff's Office, the Bellevue Police Department, the FBI, and the King County Prosecutor's Office seized the site from its GoDaddy domain with a court order. In addition to seizing the site, authorities arrested 14 people, shut down 12 alleged brothels—all in high-end luxury Bellevue buildings—and filed felony charges against 13 suspects for promoting prostitution in the second degree.
Ten of those arrested were alleged members of a select, national group of TRB users called "The League," and officials claim the other four arrestees owned brothels. Officials said that members of The League held in-person meetings and would swap even more detailed reviews of sex workers with one another; their goal, according to the county, was to "continue the advancing and promoting of prostituted persons in the King County area, as well as the broader US market" by setting up another website called kgirlsdelight.com. (Kgirlsdelight.com was also shut down in the raid.)
"The systematic importation of vulnerable young women for sexual abuse, exploitation, and criminal profiteering has been going on for years and it came to a stop this week," King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said. "We intend to keep up the pressure so this is a thing of the past."
In this particular sting, law enforcement officials pointed to evidence of sexual exploitation in TRB's "K-girl" advertisements. Korean women, they said, were brought into the United States on tourist visas so that they could sell sex to pay off family debt back home. They were rarely let outside and not given money of their own, King County Sheriff John Urquhart said.
Urquhart said that the 12 victims identified in the raid often serviced between two and 10 clients a day. The women, he added, would not be charged with anything, and because they were identified as trafficking victims, are eligible to stay in the country with something called a T visa.
Sheriff Urquhart noted that the aim of the raid was to send a message to men thinking about starting websites like TRB or kgirlsdelight.com. He said that the raid also captured the identities of the site's users, or sex buyers, and if reporters filed public records requests, law enforcement was hoping they'd publish them.
"We want to send a message to the customers of these women [that] they're committing a misdemeanor—okay, it's a misdemeanor—and they're probably not going to get arrested, but we know who they are," Urquhart said.
King County's approach to charging sex buyers with misdemeanors and shaming them has come under fire in recent years from sex workers themselves. Groups like the Seattle chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) have pointed out that even when authorities primarily target sex buyers (like members of TRB) over sex workers, they can also put sex workers in danger by forcing the industry into more clandestine and unsafe places, streets included.
Sex workers have also criticized the prosecuting attorney for failing to distinguish between trafficked victims and consensual sex providers; actions like shutting down TRB and potentially punishing its entire customer base, they argue, puts willing sex workers in danger. It creates a false choice, they say, between saving trafficking victims and allowing willing sex workers to advertise and operate.
Satterberg, however, has continued to promote an "end demand" strategy to crack down on the sex trade.
In the press packet distributed to reporters, officials included a snapshot of TRB on January 5 that featured both ads and reviews. Waiting outside the presentation room, Mary*, the founder of SWOP-Seattle, circled the usernames she recognized of independent sex workers—meaning sex workers who used the website under no coercion at all—on the list. They made up the clear majority of the postings.
"It's going to make it very difficult for a lot of people to pay their rent," Mary said. "The most vulnerable, or already precariously positioned individuals, are possibly going to be more desperate and using less safe advertising means. And possibly, even, working under stress in even more dangerous situations. If you don't have a good advertising site, you might end up working on the streets."
Last year, Mary's argument was put to the test when SFredbook.com, a sex work advertising site similar to TRB, was shut down by authorities. After the shutdown, SWOP's Sacramento chapter conducted a needs survey and found that 18 percent of 44 sex workers they interviewed had been forced onto the streets as a result.
But inside the presentation room, law enforcement officials refused to entertain the idea that shuttering the website could, while saving some, have unintended consequences for many more.
"Let's keep in mind that everything they are doing—every man that goes on that website for sex, every woman that advertises on there for sex—it is illegal," Urquhart said. "If they want to change that, then they need to get the legislature to change that, but it is illegal and they are not protecting every single woman there."
*Mary is not Mary's given name. She asked that we use a pseudonym for her privacy and protection.
This post has been updated.