On Wednesday morning, dozens of local adult workers and clients in the Pacific Northwest were logging onto The Review Board to place advertisements, connect with each other, and browse photos and yelp-like reviews. Since its founding in the mid-2000s, the website had amassed a modest following of both adult entertainment consumers as well as adult workers themselves, along with a decent archive of discussion and ad posts, and "reviews"-- short descriptions by clients of interactions with workers.
A few hours later, the website, the discussion threads, the ads, the reviews, and the community had all vanished, only to be replaced by an intimidating line-up of local and federal law enforcement logos and the text:
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. To provide information relevant to the investigation, or for other inquiries, please contact: Trafficking@kingcounty.gov.
"It's...extremely frightening," Savannah Sly, a former Seattle-area sex worker and SWOP-USA president told the Stranger. " It's like punching into work & seeing FBI tape all around your building." Sly was one of many Seattle-area adult work community members dismayed by The Review Board's seizure, and as word spread among web-based sex worker communities, many described the seizure as "the end of an era" and a "loss" in tweets.
"Appointments are being canceled, the community is panicking--what are we going to do? Where are we going to advertise now?" Capri Sunshine, a local sex worker and the SWOP-Seattle media coordinator said in a press release. "It's created real paranoia." Beyond fear over what the closure of yet another adult work site means for the industry as a whole (The Review Board seizure follows the 2015 raid of Rentboy, a male adult work site and MyRedbook, a similar review, discussion, and advertising site in 2014), Seattle sex workers are also upset at the loss of a free advertising platform and a review board that was particularly tasteful.
According to a press release from Sex Workers Outreach Project, The Review Board functioned as a free advertising platform for adult workers, with many relying on the site as a way to advertise and work without management and indoors. "The site was valuable to a lot of sex workers," Sunshine said. "It was free, undocumented workers without ID or credit cards could use it, and it was where most girls got the majority of their work. This has a lot of negative ramifications for sex workers." Now, Sunshine says, local workers are stuck with two options, neither of which are very attractive: those who can afford and have the necessary documentation (many undocumented and marginalized sex workers don't) will shift to paid ad sites advertising websites. Others may shift to working for an agency, outdoors, or another local board that is riddled with explicit language and hostile, disrespectful moderators.
So what, exactly, preempted this? Not much information exists right now and more will surface during a press conference being organized by the King County Prosecutor today. According to Sex Workers Outreach Project, the Bellevue Police department arrested several individuals connected with The Review Board Tuesday night, charging them with promoting prostitution. According to The Stranger, The King County Sheriff's Office issued a media advisory regarding a 'large scale human trafficking investigation,' but has yet to confirm or deny whether this is connected to The Review Board.
There are theories, though. Local sex workers suspect The Review Board was 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. This is a reasonable suspicion derived from the site's advertiser demographics and common racialized law enforcement beliefs about victims. According to Sunshine, roughly half of advertisers were independent escorts and companions -- the kind with polished and personalized websites that eradicate suspicion of exploitation even among those who believe most sex workers are victims. The other half were less individualized and many seemed to be from agencies or massage parlors and many were for non-native sex workers, especially of Asian origin (referred to as K-Girls). Migrant sex workers, especially Asian sex workers are often (erroneously) assumed to be victims of trafficking, despite organized efforts by Asian migrant sex workers to dispel these assumptions.
"I don't doubt that King County prosecutors will wave this is a victory against human trafficking, highlighting the presence of migrant...sex workers on The Review Board to indicate abuse," Sly said. "Just because a women came to the U.S. and works as an escort does not mean she did so involuntarily. These assumptions are blatantly racist and xenophobic. Many migrant workers in the sex trade, domestic work and agriculture emigrate and work voluntarily. It's criminalization and stigma of sex work and immigration status that makes these workers so vulnerable, not the work itself."
And even if a handful reviews or advertisements on The Review Board were connected to trafficking, it's hard to imagine how raising the entire website will even prove to be a good thing for those victims--more likely, it'll harm them by making them more dependent and less visible.
So, then, what exactly is the point? Those responsible for The Review Board's closure will likely assert The Review Board was the "key" to the "growth" of sex trafficking in the Pacific Northwest, and use a logic parallel to "killing the cancer patient is warranted in order to kill the tumor" invoking the emotive and ever-so-visceral victim to effectively stymie objectivity or inquiry into evidence-based strategy or collateral damage. It's certainly a strategy that has worked time and time again. And here's to hoping this time it's a strategy that the world can see through.