Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Internet has driven sex industry deep into shadows

A Burlington police officer stood earlier this month at the entrance of the Extended Stay America hotel, where the body of Sanisha Johnson was found.

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A Burlington police officer stood earlier this month at the entrance of the Extended Stay America hotel, where the body of Sanisha Johnson was found.

This hardly seems possible, but being a prostitute now is even more awful than it used to be.

Back in the 1980s, when Audrey Morrissey was in the life, things were more clear-cut. Working the Combat Zone, she was, by design, highly visible. She could see and be seen, sizing up johns before she got in their cars or went with them into alleys. She could demand to see a license or have a friend take down a plate number. If she got into trouble, people would know and hear her screams. They might even help.

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“I’m not saying horrific things didn’t happen,” said Morrissey, now 52 and assistant director of antitrafficking group My Life My Choice. She was robbed, raped, beaten, and had knives and guns held to her. “I know quite a few girls who were murdered. But it’s more dangerous today . . . because it’s invisible.”

The Web has driven the sex industry deep into the shadows, where buyers and pimps are protected, victims are out of view, and the rest of us don’t have to think about it. Not until it bursts into the open, as it did two weeks ago, when Sanisha Johnson was murdered in a Burlington hotel room, allegedly by two men who were making a night of robbing prostitutes they’d found through backpage.com ads.

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Behind those online classifieds are legions of women and girls like Johnson — alone in hotel rooms visited by 10 or more johns a day. Those buyers once had to risk being seen in the act of solicitation but now find prostitutes with a few clicks of a mouse in the privacy of their own homes. Pimps park women in these hotel rooms, sometimes in cities they don’t know, without friends or money or cars or cellphones. Every knock on the door brings somebody who might hurt them.

“You’re stuck in a hotel room for hours, days, weeks,” said Lala, who began working as a prostitute in 2005, when she was 16, and didn’t want her full name used. “You turn tricks, that’s all you do, and you’re lucky if you just run through them, and don’t get raped or robbed or beat up.”

Lala, now an activist like Morrissey, was hardly ever lucky.

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“The most unimaginable things happen to you on a regular basis, it just becomes so normal,” she said. After a while, she got a sense of who could hurt her as soon as they walked through the door.

“Those are the ones you think, ‘I have to be extra cautious,’ ” she recalled. “Don’t turn your back. I guess in the life you make up things you can do to make it safer, but there really isn’t anything.”

Besides, whom would she tell if somebody hurt her? She was more afraid of upsetting her pimp than she was of any john. It’s not like she could have gone down to the lobby and explained her situation.

“I used to get stopped when I went to a hotel,” Morrissey recalled. “ ‘Miss, where is your room key?’ Nobody stops that stream of males getting on the elevators.”

In May alone, there were 10,000 Boston sex ads placed on backpage.com, according to Ziba Cranmer, who heads Demand Abolition, a Cambridge-based organization trying to reduce the demand for purchased sex. Each of those ads averages 27 responses, she says. That is a mind-boggling volume of traffic, made possible by armies of people looking for sex, or looking the other way.

The backpage people know they’re making sexual exploitation easy, but, just like those who run scores of other classified sites, they’ve chosen profits over the safety of women like Lala.

Many of us are complicit, maintaining the fiction that prostitution is a victimless crime. Or judging the sex workers, instead of their sleaze-bucket customers.

Hearing Lala describe her harrowing life as a prostitute, you catch yourself getting almost nostalgic when Audrey Morrissey talks about what it was like to work the street in the ’80s.

That by itself is a measure of the sickening new low we’ve reached.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.
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