Sex Work

FBI Helps Shut Down Seattle Sex-Work Review Board

Federal agents are more than happy to spend their time playing website whack-a-mole when there are assets to seize.


The Review Board

On Wednesday, visitors to were greeted not by the site's usual array of forums but a series of law-enforcement badge photos displayed prominently above the following message: "This website has been seized pursuant to a Promoting Prostitution investigation conducted by the King County Sheriff's Office, the Bellevue Police Department, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation." 

The site, which The Stranger's Sydney Brownstone describes as "an online mainstay of the Seattle sex industry," previously provided a space for clients and sex workers to dish on one another in the interest of lust and safety, as well offered a free-advertising venue. But like so many tools that make life easier for those in the sex trade, this one runs afoul of our government's new mission to "end demand" for prostitution, which it has rechristened "modern slavery." 

"There's very little information to go on at the moment, but a spokesperson from the Bellevue Police Department told The Stranger that King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg will be holding a press conference related to the website [Thursday] morning," notes Brownstone. The conference will be held at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time. 

The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) offers a few more details, including the fact that several people have been arrested in conjunction with the site's shutdown. "Sex worker communities believe that the site may have been specifically targeted in connection with a raid on a massage parlor where non-native Asians worked or because non-Native Asian sex workers advertised through the website," SWOP-USA reports. 

"Migrant sex workers, especially Asian migrant workers, are often inaccurately labeled as trafficking victims," said SWOP-USA Board President Savannah Sly, who expects prosecutors to highlight the presence of migrant Korean sex workers on The Review Board as evidence of human trafficking. But "just because a women came to the U.S. and works as an escort does not mean she did so involuntarily," adds Sly. "These assumptions are blatantly racist and xenophobic. Many migrant workers in the sex trade, domestic work and agriculture emigrate and work voluntarily."

Across social media, Pacific Northwest sex workers and their clients aired frustrations yesterday. "Uh-oh. Seattle ladies and gentleman, looks like the end of an era. Not in a good way," tweeted Mistress Matisse, a Seattle-based dominatrix and leading sex-worker rights activist. 

"The persistent criminalizing of communication based on hypothetical sexual behavior should be disturbing to everyone," Matisse added. And "the use of police resources to raid and shutdown sexworker resources like TRB message board does not reduce trafficking or make anyone safer. Instead, it increases sex worker's reliance on (possibly coercive) third parties, and makes it harder for us to screen clients for safety." 

"Dumbest thing ever. TRB helped so many on both sides," read another response. "Gotta love the scare tactics," chimed in @sexylezcouple4u. "There will always be a venue. If not that one, there will be another. Wasted funds."

If the past few years are any indication, however, federal agents are more than happy to spend their time playing website whack-a-mole. First it was Craigslist's "adult" section. In 2014, it was Then, last year, the Department of Homeland Security took down gay-escort site Rentboy. And everyone from U.S. senators to obsessed Illinois sheriffs have been trying to shut down the classified-ad site Backpage.

Backpage, however, has refused to just roll over for authorities. Following a string of legal victories (the most recent of which cited an amicus brief from Reason Foundation!), Backpage is now suing the federal government over its attempt to impose criminal liability on third-party publishers. "Given the enormous volume of third-party content [sites like Backpage] receive and disseminate every day," the suit states, "websites cannot possibly review every post to guarantee nothing is unlawful." However, Backpage does flag posted ads that seem suspect and cooperate with law enforcement when specific ads are in question; the site has actually been instrumental in countless cases involving missing teens.

The shutdown of The Review Board is just the government's latest attempt to go after consensual prostitution by stoking fears about forced sex trafficking, and it doesn't matter if they're actually putting everyone more at risk and making trafficking investigations harder. The goal has never been about sex worker safety or saving victims, it's about punishing people whom the government views as blatantly skirting its rules and then wringing from them all the assets that it can.  

So perhaps the only surprising thing about this Review Board situation is it produced a local TV news report (featuring Reason contributor Maggie McNeill) that doesn't merely parrot police talking points. Newscasters actually allow sex workers to speak for themselves about the site's shutdown and how it puts them at risk, while noting that Seattle recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Justice Department to help "eradicate human trafficking" and "end modern slavery."