Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: Sex for sale in southern Durham?

My dentist is just down the road on N.C. 54. A FedEx Office shop, 45 seconds by car if you make the light. Big Lots across the street. Southpoint, one exit away.

The area I’m describing also signals that it may be a Durham hub of sex for sale and possible trafficking: young women persuaded or ordered to allow access to their bodies for money.

At Exit 278 off I-40E, where the sign says “Hwy 55,” DOT might want to consider adding “HH $80” – what a half hour in a hotel/motel room runs, according to a website I won’t name. It isn’t craigslist.

The provocative ads and pretty brazen photos don’t mention sex. They don’t have to.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has been writing vigorously and critically about this website (which includes ads for jobs, cars, other items). He reported that 48 state attorneys general have written the company that owns the site and asked it, in his words, to “get out of the flesh trade.”

In 2012, the columnist interviewed a 24-year old woman who said when she was a teenager she was bought and sold by pimps who marketed her on this website. She testified at a criminal case, the column says, and six of them went to prison for 25 years.

Kristoff’s work prompted me to take a local look at things.

Turns out it’s simple to line something up right there in that segment of 27713.

There are seven franchised lodging establishments within a quarter mile of Highways 55 and 54. I was able to verbally arrange “appointments” at four of them. There was no discussion of money or services.

Get-togethers set up with one woman or another whose highly racy photos usually appear to be taken in a hotel room. They’re ready for “something I’m sure you’ll love to enjoy” in an hour or less.

On the day I started writing, in the greater Raleigh listing alone there were 95 ads for time with women posted on the site. At noon on a Saturday. And seven ads I saw mentioned this particular Durham zone off the interstate.

Too organized not to be organized.

I don’t seek to judge the young women, some of whom appear to be in their teens. I blame the men likely lurking behind the scenes. And collecting.

There’s money to be made, because the ads are up 24-7. The language in the listings is uncannily similar. So are the poses in the photos.

I counted 400-plus ads in several North Carolina cities alone. If we’re talking, say, 75 ads each in the country’s top 100 markets, that’s 7,500 women.

Young women, teens or minors who may have once been spotted and recruited, then activated and probably trapped.

So, let’s expand the responsibility to get a sense of how many of the modest but well-known hotel chains are likely linked, knowingly or unknowingly, to this website’s activity.

I merely did a test: called from an anonymous number to some of the numbers with the 54/55/I-40 geographic indicators. Said only that I saw the ad.

The woman typically asks if you are law enforcement.

There is little or no mention of anything else except how much time do you want and when can you be here?

She tells you the exit number, and a call or two later, eventually the hotel and the room number. There you are.

Except I never got in my car to go.

I won’t name the well-known establishments I was guided to because I can’t know for certain what’s happening inside them. Just that I was directed to more than half of the lodging choices off Exit 278.

Are they this desperate for a dollar?

Occasionally there’s news of a police sting using this website, aimed at the customers and carried out at a hotel. Here and elsewhere. Court cases sometimes ensue.

Law enforcement, though, can’t hope on its own to stop something on this scale. The demand, too great. The money, too good.

So, at the very least, can’t the mid-range hotels make it way too risky or difficult for this activity within their doors and rooms? Don’t they want to?

Until they step up, what looks like this country’s highway exit brand of exploitation won’t let up. Hundreds of young women or girls in our area may be involved.

Several signs point to a hotel with a household name near you.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.