Exchange Initiative busts illegal sex trafficking by comparing photos of hotel rooms with photos in escort ads.
An anti-sex trafficking organization is asking hotel guests to snap photos of their rooms and send them in—so it can use the photos to identify hotels involved in sex trafficking.
Molly Hackett, Jane Quinn, and Kimberly Ritter are the founders of Exchange Initiative, a community organization that aims to combat the trafficking of women. They’re developing a new website that catalogs photos of hotels by name and location, so they can match the photos to images on escort directories like Backpage.com.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which recently profiled the Exchange Initiative, hotels and motels often unwittingly play host to illegal sex trafficking as sites where sex workers typically meet up with clients. For this reason, hotels are often featured in the backgrounds of escort listings and classified ads.
In order to expose illegal trafficking activity, the Exchange Initative is asking hotel guests to upload photos of their rooms to its website, so the Initiative can match the photos with those on escort directories based on the interior of the rooms, from the bedspread to the rug pattern to “even the view from the window.”
Because most hotel rooms are designed to look pretty generic, matching a photo of a hotel room to another on an escort site seems like a long shot. But the Exchange Initiative reports that their efforts have been successful on at least three separate occasions. Last month, for instance, the group was able to identify the Crowne Plaza in St. Louis as a potential trafficking hub by comparing a photo of a sex worker sitting on a desk to a photo of a Crowne Plaza room on an online travel site, featuring an identical desk. They also identified a St. Louis Marriott location as a trafficking site by matching a throw pillow in one escort ad to the same pillow in a photo of a hotel room on the Marriott website.
Although the Exchange Initiative’s sleuthing is admittedly impressive, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article fails to address the following: Who, exactly, is the Exchange Initiative targeting? Considering the media hysteria over sex trafficking, and how nebulous and often inaccurate statistics on trafficking really are (with many stats coming from faith-based “rescue” organizations more interested in getting prostitutes off the street than saving those being forcibly trafficked), it’s hard to argue that every single one of the women posing in these hotel Backpage ads are actually being coerced into selling sex.
Writer Nancy Cambria of the Post-Dispatch seems to take at face value that they are. Although she pays lip service to the idea that “consensual prostitution” is a thing that could possibly exist, the piece almost uniformly refers to the women who offer paid sex as “victims” and those who arrange such encounters as “pimps,” at one point even putting the term “escort” in quotes.
Of course, there are some who are unfortunately coerced into selling sex (14,000-17,000 in the U.S. alone each year, according to one estimate), and it follows that there are others who are coercing them, in which case they should be pursued by groups like the Exchange Initiative and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But I’d venture to say that many men and women who sell sex do so of their own volition, thus failing to fall into that neat little pimp/victim box. In their quest to target and identify the so-called “pimps” and “victims” of sex trafficking, the Exchange Initiative doesn’t seem to realize that the distinction between the two is not nearly so black-and-white.
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