After a series of human trafficking arrests involving the same online classifieds site, a Toronto sex worker says she worries a crackdown on internet sex ads could make her more vulnerable.
Toronto police have charged eight GTA residents with dozens of charges in four separate cases this year involving the website LeoList.com. In one, police say a 17-year-old schoolgirl was taken to a series of GTA motels by a man with a gun and forced to sell her body to strangers.
The latest bust was announced last week, after police say a man physically assaulted a 28-year-old woman several times, including one attack that left her with broken ribs.
In all four cases, alleged pimps forced women to place sex ads on LeoList.com and took all of their earnings.
In one, an alleged pimp even threatened a sex worker’s pet, police said.
“I can tell you stories that will fill your head,” Perry said.
But the Toronto sex worker, whom the Star is not naming because she fears for her safety, said she worries a sweeping crackdown against human trafficking on the internet could push independent adult sex workers underground.
The 30-year-old sex worker, whose real name is known by the Star, is a member of Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex workers support network. She said she has been a sex worker in Toronto for two years.
She said sex workers use the internet to vet their potential clients and even ask for references.
“They can screen,” she said. “They can increase their safety.”
Toronto police declined to comment on LeoList.com. The Star attempted to contact the website by email and at a toll-free phone number listed on the site’s contacts page, but received no response.
There’s a major difference between sex trafficking, in which girls and women are coerced into prostitution, and the sex trade where adult women make independent decisions, said Karen Campbell of the Toronto-based Canadian Women’s Foundation.
The 2018 shutdown of the site Backpage.com, once a popular host for sex workers’ ads, was distressing for many, Campbell said in an interview.
“It pushed a lot of people back onto the streets,” she said.
Cracking down on online sex ads also won’t help undocumented women who are reluctant to go to police, she said.
“If they were to go to police, they would end up detained and deported,” she said.
Perry said the average Toronto sex worker when he was on the job entered the sex trade at age 14.
There seemed no end to men wanting to prey upon them, Perry said.
“We had a mandate to rescue these kids, get them help and go after the pimps,” Perry said. “Every time we arrested a pimp, there were two or three to take his place.”
Perry said fewer sex workers could be seen on the streets after pagers became popular a few decades ago, a change he said made it tough for police to monitor their safety.
“A lot of the girls that used to work the streets were suddenly carrying pagers,” Perry said. “At least when they were on the street we knew them.”
When sex work was more visible on downtown streets, it was easier for social workers to try to help women and for police to keep an eye on their customers, Perry said.
“They may be in a more vulnerable position now because they have no interaction with police,” Perry said. “Prostitutes don’t generally walk into a police station and report intimidation.”
Some Toronto sex workers were local residents while others came from abroad, smuggled into the city on the hopes of getting a job, Perry said.
There was some organized crime involvement, often connected with bikers and strip clubs, he said.
Perry said he fears pimps now use websites to fly under the police radar and exploit women. Some websites are out of the country, presenting jurisdictional challenges for police.
“We’re almost giving a license for pimps to be anonymous and control women,” Perry said.
LeoList.com, which bills itself as “Canada’s classified site,” automatically redirects to the address leolist.cc — using the internet country code of the Cocos Islands, a tiny Australian territory. The contact page refers to Unicorn House Ltd., a company based in Budapest, Hungary.
To post an ad, users are charged a cost ranging from free to more than €2.50 ($3.75 Canadian) — the site bills in euros — depending on region and category.
As of Wednesday, a personals ad for a female escort in the GTA costs the poster €2.65. That same ad in Hamilton costs €1.79; an ad for a male escort in Ottawa is free.
The personals section contains dozens of recently posted ads for male and female escorts across the GTA. Many of the site’s other classifieds categories — including for vehicles, housing and jobs — appear little used.
The site’s landing page boasts it has more than 150,000 registered users and millions of total ads.
LeoList.com appears to have become more popular since Backpage.com was shut down by the FBI last year; before Backpage.com, classifieds site Craigslist was one of the most popular sites for advertising sexual services.
A study of sex ads on Craigslist released this year by researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, supports the Toronto sex worker’s comments that the internet can make the sex trade safer.
The study suggests that the old Craigslist “erotic services” ads made sex work safer by helping sex workers screen out the most dangerous clients.
The internet allowed women to do background checks of clients, even seeking references, the Baylor team found. It also “may have caused outdoor street-based prostitution to transition to the safer, indoor channel,” researchers found.
Scott Cunningham, one of the study’s authors, said in an interview he suspects LeoList.com is absorbing a market once filled by Backpage.com.
“The market is probably adjusting in Canada,” he said.
Cunningham said he wasn’t surprised the Toronto woman said internet ads make her feel safer and freer of pimps.
“Sex workers have been saying this for years,” he said.
Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org