By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
Troy LeFererra, 42, of Snyder County was lured to his death by an 18-year-old woman who used online classifieds to offer men “delightful conversation” in exchange for cash, according to police.
Miranda Barbour was the last person LeFerrara called before he was found stabbed to death in Sunbury on Nov. 11, said police, who charged her with his murder two weeks later.
Elytte Barbour, who was later charged as an accomplice, told a reporter that his wife made $50 to $850 for meeting men for activities such as having dinner or walking around a mall. Advertisements she placed on websites including Craigslist, he said, all said upfront that sex was not part of the deal.
The ambiguity reflects shifting practices as the Internet makes it easier for people to discretely arrange for paid companionship — sexual and otherwise — according to those who study online connections, including prostitution.
“Some people are looking for casual encounters that do not involve sex — for some company, some emotional connection, even a kind of dating — and are willing to pay for this,” said Ron Weitzer, a professor of sociology and criminology at George Washington University.
Weitzer said it is impossible to know for sure what portion of these paid encounters involve sex. “But we know that it is not rare,” he said in an email.
However, prosecutors say they’re also certain that the business of arranging prostitution has largely moved online, according to the attorney general’s office. One sex-themed website makes an estimated $3 million to $4 million per month in revenue, the attorney general said.
“The Internet is facilitating prostitution. That’s clear,” said Scott Cunningham, an associate professor economics at Baylor University, who specializes in the study of the illegal business, including prostitution.
News accounts show that online prostitution is becoming more common across Pennsylvania and turning up in surprising places.
In July, nine people were arrested for soliciting prostitution after they showed up at a motel in Northampton County in response to an online ad, according to the Easton Express-Times. In September, the Lancaster Intelligencer reported on prostitution arrests involving escorts who advertised online and worked out of hotels in the Amish Country tourist area.
This trend is developing while the number of overall prostitution arrests drops. Over the last decade, prostitution arrests in Pennsylvania declined 22 percent, according to state police reports.
“Part of the explanation is a trend toward more indoor venues, but this does not mean that street prostitution is withering away,” Weitzer said. “Instead, the Internet has provided an avenue for making contacts that exists side by side with the street market.”
Cunningham’s research found much the same, noting that in most cases, prostitutes who arrange trysts online are not the same sex workers that had been working the streets.
“We aren’t sure why then the rise in online prostitution is causing arrests to fall if these aren’t the same women,” Cunningham said in an email. “But we hypothesized it may be the Internet is causing the male client to shift indoors more than it has caused the street prostitute to shift predominantly indoors.”
In metropolitan areas, a variety of websites advertise the services of escorts. In rural areas, the online classified Craigslist has been the alternative.
The site removed its “adult services” category in December 2010 in response to pressure from attorneys general including Tom Corbett, who is now governor. Craigslist continues to offer personal listings, including solicitations for companionship and physical intimacy. But because of its crackdown, ads make no overt mention of compensation. Most of prostitution-related online advertising has shifted to other websites though, the researchers said.
But as the LeFererra case suggests, some of those Craiglist ads are still leading to monetary transactions.
Last summer, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane joined 48 other attorneys general in calling on Congress to revise federal laws that have been interpreted to shield websites from local prosecution for their roles in fostering prostitution. The prosecutors were chiefly concerned about the exploitation of children.
Weitzer argues that states would be better off decriminalizing and regulating prostitution because it would make encounters more open and safer, reducing predatory crimes. He noted the LeFerrara killing “could happen under any circumstances, whether legal or illegal.”
“Legalization is intended to reduce harms and redirect police efforts away from buyers and sellers and toward those who prey on them,” he said.
John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cnhipa.