At least twelve more men face felony charges in Washington for posting comments to the now-defunct web forum known as The Review Board (TRB). The dozen defendants, most of whom who will be arraigned in King County District Court on December 14, face one count each of promoting prostitution in the second degree—a charge historically used to target people who profit off of the prostitution of others but more recently favored by King County prosecutors to go after people who write positively online about area prostitution.
Prior to this new wave of charges, the King County Sheriff's Office has already prosecuted more than a dozen men in 2016 for what amounts to little more than online speech related to prostitution. Many of those men accepted plea deals after the county threatened to add additional charges and a sexual-motivation enhancement (i.e., more prison time and sex-offender status if convicted) for anyone who attempted to fight back but give those who plead guilty lenient sentencing. After initially portraying these men as a despicable ring of international sex-slave circulators, King County wound up letting most of them off with a bit of community service or electronic-home monitoring and an admission to posting on TheReviewBoard.net while knowing that it might "advance" prostitution.
The individuals whose prostitution was advanced on TRB included mostly independent, adult sex workers who also advertised their own services on the site, and some adult (mostly Asian) women who were in town temporarily working at escort agencies and had ads posted by bookers—often other sex workers or former clients—for a fee. Anyone who advertised on TRB had to be approved by site owner "Tahoe Ted," whose personal touch irked some sex workers in the area (he was sometimes accused of discriminating against women who weren't white or conventionally attractive) but also seemed to avoid the problem that plagues purely user-generated content sites like Craigslist and Backpage: underage women. In general, the point of TRB seems to have been one part digital "locker room," one part semi-curated advertising platform for sex workers, and one part system wherein both sex workers and clients (or "hobbyists," as many on the board referred to themsevles) could serve as checks and balances against bad actors on both sides.
In the latest batch of TRB-related arrests, defendants are accused of basically the same activity as the first group: reviewing Seattle-area escorts on TRB, messaging other members about local sex workers, and emailing with sex workers themselves about appointments. One of them is also accused of helping a Japanese woman who had been supporting herself as a sex worker in Guam for a few years, then Hawaii, to set up advertisements on TRB and find an apartment when she moved to Seattle, after he had struck up a casual but ongoing relationship with her in Guam years earlier. Granted, TRB posts do tend to describe semi-graphic sexual activity (although not necessarily sex; some review providers of "full body sensual massages" who don't do "full service" appointments). And emails exchanged between sex workers and defendants do hint at prostitution. But people write all sorts of things online that aren't based in reality, and without having talked to sex workers seen by defendants, or witnessed any part of any of the sessions themselves, the cops have no way of knowing whether any illegal activity—or any IRL meetings at all—took place.
This is, of course, part of the evil genius of how King County is going after people who pay for sex. With the "promoting prostitution" charge, law enforcement needn't show that defendants actually engaged in pay-to-play sexual activity themselves. All they must show is that the men "advanced" the prostitution careers of others by saying positive things about them online.
Of course, at many points throughout the overall investigation, King County deputies and cops from the Bellevue Police Department also posted graphic sexual reviews to TRB of real local sex-workers, messaged with other TRB members about them, and arranged appointments with them. According to these agencies, whose officers met undercover for many prostitution appointments, undercover cops always ducked out of "dates" before any sexual activity could go down. But that still means that the exact same activity undercover cops routinely engaged in is, too, the only activity police allege of most defendants in charging documents. If these defendants harmed the people prosecutors describe as "exploited" and "prostituted" women through such activity, it would seem King County cops are guilty of doing the same, for years.
But in certifications for determination of probable cause against new defendants, authorities present no evidence that the women these men "promoted" were being exploited, other than the mere fact that the women were engaging in sex work at all. At least a couple of the "prostituted women" mentioned in charging documents are prominent sex-worker rights activists. In the Certification for the Determination of Probable Cause against one defendant, emails from nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Sex Worker's Outreach Project (SWOP) and Center for Sex Positive Culture are even presented among evidence.
In other charging documents, defendants are found suspect for emailing with Donald Mueller, whom charging documents describe as a "convicted human trafficker" and "the primary pimp and trafficker for Korean nationals" as part of a "criminal organization named 'Seventh Heaven of Asia.'" But Mueller was not convicted of human trafficking, merely of promoting prostitution (the same charges leveled against defendants now) and the"criminal organization" was him and sometimes one other person. King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey—who signed a statement swearing to the truth of these same charging documents—described Mueller to me last June as someone who was "providing a place" for and "promoting" the prostitution of Korean sex workers, but with no "evidence that [he was] really like physically restraining or assaulting these women," or doing anything else that would allow human trafficking charges to stick.
Clients of Sex Workers Allied for Change (CoSWAC) issued a Tuesday statement "condemn[ing] this continuing crusade" and expressing solidarity "for those being arraigned tomorrow. We call on the King County prosecutor's office to put an end to this fiasco, and work to find real solutions for public safety, including the safety of sex workers in the Seattle area," it said. "We call on the people of Seattle to examine all facts before rushing to judgment, and to join us and the sex worker community in advocating for more humane and effective alternatives."
For a more in-depth look at the origins and consequences of this case, see my September Reason article, "The Truth About the Biggest U.S. Sex-Trafficking Story of the Year."