Adult-Service Ads OK For Some, Verboten For Others.
The Valley Advocate was caught in the middle. On one side were the police; on the other side were three women busted for prostitution. And on a third front were local media outlets chronicling the affair.
“Racy Ads Trip Call Girls,” screamed a headline on the front page of the Oct. 26 issue of the Springfield, Mass. Union-News.
The Advocate found itself in this unenviable position after local investigators conducted a sting based on ads that ran in the paper. Acting on leads they declined to identify, the police made the arrests after arranging to pay for sex with the women, who had placed “escort service” ads in the Advocate.
Of course, the Advocate isn’t the only alternative paper that runs racy ads for “adult” services. For instance, the Washington City Paper published more than 40 of them in its Nov. 27 issue. “OOH! AHH! UMM! Scream in ecstasy with one of us!” read one. “EROTIC BUSTY SUPER-FREAK has sizzling luscious lips waiting to put a smile on your face,” promised another.
As long as the ad isn’t illegal and the wording isn’t too raunchy, Washington City Paper will take it, says General Manager Amy Austin.
“If the ad has explicit language,” she says, “then we charge them a higher rate. Sometimes we need to edit the copy — like we won’t print the words ‘cherry picker’ or ‘young girls.'”
Once every six months or so, DC’s finest come calling to inquire about one of the paper’s sex advertisers.
Says Austin: “If they have subpoena we usually cooperate.”
But apart from the occasional court order, the sex ads aren’t problematic for City Paper.
“If the police want to call these numbers and entrap the people, they can do that,” she says. “But even if we chose not to print them, it wouldn’t make it go away. The phone book has them too.”
Things are a little different in other parts of the country. For instance, the Arkansas Times won’t accept any ads that promote carnal pleasures: no escort services, no phone sex numbers, no strip joints, no masseuses for hire.
According to Publisher Alan Leveritt, the Times’ policy is simple: “If it has to do with pussy, we won’t run it.”
Some papers are neither as freewheeling as the City Paper nor as restrictive as the Arkansas Times.
The Dayton Voice, for instance, has a nuanced policy that forbids some sex-related ads while making room for others.
According to Voice Classified Manager Robin Stern, the paper turns down most sexually-oriented ads unless they “convey a sense of romance and not sex. So instead of having ‘Swing Finders’ in our personal ads, we have ‘Date Finders.’
“Likewise, we still take ads for 900-numbers, but they have to fit with our policy of no explicit language. We have no ads for ‘young, hot girls’ or ‘bored housewives’ because they suggest something sexual and we don’t want any ad where women appear to be for sale.”
“We don’t take those because we’d end up getting involved with people we don’t want to be involved with,” says Editor and Co-publisher Marrianne McMullen.. “And we don’t want prostitutes calling us and advertising in our paper.” Potentially problematic ads are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, says Stern. “If a person brings an ad to me and there’s a question about it, I bring it to [McMullen] who makes the final decision.”
David Wachen, a First Amendment specialist with Washington-DC-based law firm Baker & Hostetler, says newspapers that run sex ads face little danger of prosecution even if it is later discovered that the ads promote criminal enterprises.
“If [the businesses] aren’t advertising some type of illegal activity,” says Wachen, “I don’t believe the papers have a legal responsibility. [The papers] are, essentially, just a conduit. Ethical responsibilities aside, the media doesn’t have a legal responsibility to its readers to know whether or not an advertiser is false or illegitimate.
“To say papers are somehow in the wrong when an escort service turns out to be prostitution is like holding them responsibility for the underage reader who sees a cigarette ad in their paper and then goes out and buys a pack of smokes.”