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Dirty Little Secrets?

Lenore Skenazy up at the New York Sun asks an interesting question in her current column: What do you really think the ads for "escort services" or "sensual bodywork" that show up in newspapers and magazines are offering?

As my farmbred father used to tell me: "I'll give you three guesses, and two don't count."

In her most recent piece, Skenazy asks a few questions about these ads – funneling savvy readers to "B" answers – and then ends with the kicker:

If you chose "B" (every time), congratulations. You are a normal New York adult. If you consistently chose "A," however, you are either very young, very naïve, or the publisher of a New York weekly that earns lots of money from classified ads.

How else to explain the fact that week after week, New York magazine, the Village Voice and, until just recently, the New York Press all publish ads showing nearly naked women under headlines like "New York Dolls" and "Wild and Fun Asian Cuties" — yet claim to have no idea what those ads are peddling?

The article goes on to shower praise on a New York media owner who has banned such ads from his publications. By doing so, he estimates that he's costing himself at least a million dollars a year in ad revenue.

The problem with these ads in some people's eyes, of course, is that these services are wink-and-a-nudge prostitution operations – and therefore, illegal. Were they actual day spas, salons or holistic healers, it would be no problem. But when an ad reads "Sensual bodywork by stunning European Ladies – E. 60. Private. Half Hour Special," then, well...let's just say it becomes less clear exactly which muscles are being worked on.

So should newspapers accept ads from vendors who might be breaking the law? Even in better economic times, it's a difficult question. But before you answer it, consider why the sports pages in most papers post the point spreads for college and professional sports events. Or why some also accept ads from sportsbook experts who offer expert advice (for a fee, natch) about wagering on sports events. Gambling on sports is still illegal outside of Nevada – ask former NBA referee Tim Donaghy – so those ads would be guiding people towards illegal activity too, right? There's a lot of gray in that black-and-white fishwrap.

It's tough for me, with my innocent-til-proven-guilty mindset, to say that all newspapers should boycott these shady enterprises. But it's clear that the bar needs to be raised higher. "Don't ask, don't tell" barely works as policy, but it's lousy when it comes to potentially being shills for illegal activities.

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