People wanting to buy and sell sex online are going after young men and women, even teenagers, right here in the Midstate. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says there is plenty of demand.
The average age range of buyers in Tennessee is between 18 and 80, according to the TBI. The TBI adds that buyers come from every part of the state.
“You have migrant workers to school teachers, school system employees, people that work in the church," said Jeremy Lofquist, assistant special agent in charge with the TBI.
While most of the ads feature women or men who appear to be begging for sex, Sarah Wolfson, assistant district attorney for Davidson County, says several of them are forced to sell their bodies, which is considered sex trafficking when it involves force, fraud, or coercion.
“It’s not always shackles and chains. It’s not always you don’t have access to a cell phone. Often times, it’s just playing on a vulnerability and using that as coercion to get this person to do what they’re asking," said Wolfson.
She works with the TBI and Metro police to track sex trafficking websites. The federal government shut down one of the most well-known websites, Backpage, last year. Around that same time, Craigslist pulled its 'personal ads' section. Wolfson calls Backpage shutting down a win, but says it brings new challenges.
“Those people who are posting on Backpage, they didn’t go anywhere. What they did was they scattered, so now we have numerous other websites that are doing the same thing," said Wolfson. “Most of them have servers that are overseas. What that means for us we can’t subpoena, and it also means that we can’t necessarily reach prosecution to the people who are running these websites.”
In an effort to expose the demand on those websites for women, even teenagers in the Midstate, News4 posted an ad on a website called Listcrawler, which describes itself as a 'website featuring girls who want to hook up now.'
With help from Margie Quin with the group End Slavery Tennessee, a Nashville-based non-profit that helps survivors of human trafficking, News4 monitored the responses. The first response was a text saying 'hi' and was received in less than 45 seconds after posting the ad.
News4 received 26 responses within 24 hours. Four of the texters sent pictures of their faces. One included private parts.
Quin says this type of communication is usually done via text. During this test, almost every single responder asked for rates and additional pictures.
“The men who are looking at these ads don’t even really see a person, they see a product; they see something for sale,” said Quin.“Most are just trying to figure out if they want to spend $100 to have sex with you.”
News4 revealed itself to several of the people responding to the ad. One of the men sent this response:
Before coming to End Slavery Tennessee, Quin worked at the TBI, leading human trafficking stings for over a decade.
“We would have people literally call us from the airport saying I just landed, saw your ad, I can be there in 30 minutes,” Quin said.
She says websites like Listcrawler typically feature a combination of prostitutes and sex trafficking victims.
“When we would do a sting operation and bring women in what we used to do at the TBI is have End Slavery right there on site with us so that whether you’re dealing with a woman that’s a prostitute or you’re dealing with a sex trafficking victim, you want them to understand that they have other choices,” said Quin.
In Tennessee, paying for sex with someone under 17 is a human trafficking charge – a felony. Paying for sex with someone over 17 when coercion is not involved is a misdemeanor, something Quin hopes to change.
“For someone who is doing this all the time, there needs to be an increased level of penalty associated with that behavior,” said Quin. “I would probably mandate some counseling, community service.”
Quin says some of the signs of possible sex trafficking include seeing an older man with a younger woman who don't seem to be related, especially if she is inappropriately dressed.
“All of a sudden has money, all of a sudden has, you know, their hair done, their nails done, new clothes, an older boyfriend," Quin said.
News4 reached out to Listcrawler for a comment, but did not hear back.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is: (888) 373-7888 or text 233733. You can also visit the website by clicking here.