On review boards for commercial sex, buyers denigrate the women they rate and spin fantasies about sex acts. They use forums on the sites to warn one another about anti-trafficking busts and to answer each other’s questions about the “hobby.”
“We now live in 'Yelp' for sex,” said Lt. Christopher Sharpe, who leads the New York City Police Department’s citywide human trafficking case team.
Rarely do these men wonder aloud about whether the woman or girl they're reviewing is a consensual sex worker or coerced, despite evidence that at least some of the providers are victims of sex trafficking. Nor do they seem to consider the humanity of the other person, who is often boiled down to her physical attributes and objectified.
In one post, a buyer applauded a “great pump and dump.” In another, a reviewer complained that a woman just laid there, avoiding eye contact, and he couldn't stay aroused.
Hobby boards, as they're often called, have become integral to the U.S. sex trade in recent years, following an awareness campaign and subsequent crackdown on other types of sites where women used to advertise their services. Trafficking task forces rely on the boards for enforcement activities. And for some of the women who depend on commercial sex for income and who have nowhere else to go, the sites are a resource to find clients — despite being havens for misogynistic content.
On the boards, women are compared to beaten down dogs and free-range chickens, their breast sizes among a list of physical descriptors available to the public.
“You can pretty much do or say anything as a client, and because you’re a man and you’re looking for a prostitute, it’s okay,” said Laura LeMoon, a sex worker and sex workers’ rights activist based in Seattle.
The Internet has long been a marketplace for the sex trade, where now defunct websites such as Backpage and Craigslist personals were demonized as hotbeds for illegal activity, including human trafficking. Hobby boards aren't new either — one of the most infamous boards, which is no longer accessible in the United States, launched 20 years ago.
“You could rate a woman before you could rate a restaurant,” said Rob Spectre, an anti-trafficking expert and founder and CEO of childsafe.ai, a software startup that combats human trafficking. “As a consequence, this part of the Internet is one of the most mature online ecosystems that exists.”
In 2018, Backpage was seized by the government after the company was widely blamed for facilitating sex trafficking. That same year, Craigslist shut down its personals section when Congress passed a new law that could hold websites responsible for hosting illegal activities, including sex trafficking.
Since those popular sites shuttered, hobby boards have emerged as a greater hub for buyers, and in turn, for trafficking, according to Spectre.
“This is where the entire demand is going to shift," he said. "There’s never going to be another Backpage. It’s never gonna look like that. It’s gonna look like this."
Unlike with Backpage or Craigslist, review boards' moderators are “highly unlikely” to cooperate with law enforcement, said Kim Mehlman-Orozco, a human trafficking expert witness and author of "Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium." Many of the review boards are run overseas and less known than Backpage and its peers were, which means there's less social pressure to shut them down, she added.
The platforms are relatively anonymous, but most of the reviewers, who refer to themselves as hobbyists or mongers, are presumed to be men. The providers they’re reviewing tend to work as cisgender women, with transgender sex workers less welcome on many of the forums.
The power dynamics at play make these boards misogynistic by definition, Spectre said. On a thread about what to text a girl, for example, one member called women a demeaning slur and jumped straight to asking how much a specific sex act would cost.
“There’s an anonymity which they have, and that anonymity gives them a false sense of bravado,” said Sharpe. “They feel quite comfortable talking about anything.”
Different boards enjoy regional popularity, and how women are treated depends on the site and its administrators. Chuck, a buyer who started looking at boards around 2012 and asked to use only his first name because he’s admitting to criminal activity, said some of the sites don't give women a chance to respond to what's being said about them.
In fact, one of the most popular boards creates profiles for providers without permission, said a sex worker based out of Orlando, who goes by Sasha Benjamin.
“Unless you look yourself up, you won’t even know,” Benjamin said. “And they don’t ask for permission. They literally just steal your information from wherever they’re getting it from and they make you a profile.”
NBC has chosen not to name the boards to avoid driving traffic to them, as many of the sites are not yet widely known. They pop up on search engines, and much of the information they contain — such as contacts, prices and descriptions for a provider — is available to all visitors.
“This isn’t dark web,” said Spectre. “This is all public, surface, Googleable Internet. All available without login. You don’t even have to sign up for an account. You can see a lot — certainly everything you would need to transact.”
Boards tend to offer premium memberships that cost a fee. These days, Spectre said, operating a review board is likely more profitable than running an ad site.
“I don’t like that the site administrators are making hundreds of dollars per person,” said LeMoon. “I don’t like the general idea of a Yelp for sex workers. We’re not commodities, we’re not objects. That’s just icky to me.”
It's impossible to know how many people listed on the boards are consenting sex workers or who is being trafficked, said the NYPD's Sharpe. That’s partly because the buyer-oriented community is unlikely to question how a girl or woman entered the sex trade; they’re just exchanging information about which providers are hot and malleable, said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
“We can say with quantitative confidence the buyers do not care about the consensual or non-consensual status of the provider,” said Spectre. He warned that reviews in commercial sex are inevitable right now, including for trafficking victims.
Police and researchers rely on the sites as a tool, looking for signs of potential sex trafficking victims. The NYPD has two officers who are dedicated to undercover operations, including monitoring hobby boards.
“We can use a small amount of resources to move into a very big market and make a very big difference very quickly,” said Sharpe.
When Mehlman-Orozco was working on her book, "Hidden in Plain Sight," she saw a post on one of the boards about a woman with an apparent developmental disability whose description sounded like a trafficking case. Mehlman-Orozco alerted police, who found the victim and freed her.
“My kids were asleep. I’m in suburban Virginia lounging around writing my book from bed (on) my laptop, and I was able to catalyze a rescue,” she said.
Meanwhile, disdain for buyer-centric review boards runs rampant among consenting sex workers. They say the level of entitlement is higher among hobbyists, which can lead to dangerous situations.
Angela, a sex worker and social justice advocate based in Vancouver, Canada, who asked NBC only to identify her nickname, said manipulative clients can come from anywhere — but there are more of them on boards. She does not advertise on them and refuses to see clients from them.
“I don’t want to be graded on my performance. It’s really degrading, I think,” Angela said. “I’m not a piece of meat, I’m a human being. Right?”
When Benjamin has read reviews written about her on some of the sites, she said she has felt “like a sex doll." On one of the boards, she believes reviewers “do not consider escorts humans.”
“They rate women as if they were dishes in a restaurant,” echoed Bien-Aimé, the anti-trafficking activist.
Maggie McNeill, a sex worker, activist and author who goes by her stage name, said that reviewers are trying to concoct an exciting story or fantasy, not an accurate appraisal. The sex worker they review then has to explain to clients that she doesn’t provide a service, even if her reviews say she does.
“We interview a lot of the johns that we end up picking up, and they’re looking in certain cases to buy a date because the things that they cannot do at home they think they’re going to be able to do with this individual,” said Sharpe. “That might be [to] assault them, or some perverse type of sexual act.”
Leveraging the boards’ buyer-run economy, clients will sometimes threaten negative reviews as punishment after their propositions are denied, sex workers said. When Benjamin received an offer from a former political candidate, she took issue with some of his requests and declined the meeting. He became hostile, she said, so she went on social media to warn the sex work community that she felt he could be dangerous.
He tweeted that she was “a malevolent shrew” and threatened to write a negative review about her on what was the most popular board at the time.
“I panicked,” Benjamin said.
Despite all the negatives, some sex workers say they or their colleagues have to advertise on boards because there are fewer alternatives for them now. “What the review boards are doing is basically capitalizing on people’s desperation,” said LeMoon.
When Backpage and other ad sites vanished, many sex workers who relied on the online marketplace lost their main platforms for earning income. Women were funneled into more dangerous situations, such as working on the street or with pimps, and reported facing physical violence, including rape, at the hands of their clients. Partially because of this urgency, the sex workers' rights movement has gained traction in the U.S., attracting political support and culminating in state bills to decriminalize sex work (although Nevada remains the only state where prostitution is legal in some parts).
“At the end of the day, as long as this activity is criminalized and treated as a criminal behavior, we’re going to have to operate at a substandard way,” said Vee Chattie, a sex worker who goes by their performance name and uses the pronoun “they.” “That’s just the facts."
Chattie advertised on Backpage before it was seized and now posts ads on hobby boards.
“When there’s less places to advertise, that just means that you get less work and less money to live on,” they said. “Which means that a lot of people take more risks.”