The False Victory over Craigslist, the Great “Sex Trafficker”

Sep 16, 2010 • Causes, Feature, Vitals

The false victory ove Craigslist, the great "sex trafficker"

I browse Craigslist personals on a regular basis, as a way to check the pulse of sex here in Los Angeles. Over the past few days, I have noticed an increase in the number of ads that suggest a monetary exchange for sex. This shouldn’t be surprising, as two weekends ago Craigslist self-censored the adult services section of the site after a long and drawn out battle with government and law enforcement officials, and activist groups, which culminated in 17 attorneys general writing an open letter to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark:

The increasingly sharp public criticism of craigslist’s Adult Services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution — including ads trafficking children — are rampant on it. In our view, the company should take immediate action to end the misery for the women and children who may be exploited and victimized by these ads. Because craigslist cannot, or will not, adequately screen these ads, it should stop accepting them altogether and shut down the Adult Services section.

The shutting down of this section, in my opinion, and the shift in focus to other sites to achieve similar results is a huge error that will not only not help the dire situation faced by sex trafficking victims, but endanger men and women who are involved in sex work by choice or non-coerced necessity.

As Melissa Gira has pointed out, people involved in sex trafficking will not cease their activities because this avenue is closed off. As I mention in the beginning of this post, listings for adult services are already starting to appear in other sections of Craigslist — in sections that do not require payment for postings, meaning there is no paper trail to follow for law enforcement.

While opponents of Craigslist may shake fists screaming about how Craigslist profits from sex trafficking, it is important to remember that the system of payment for adult services was instituted to create a record. As Gira points out in another article:

The records Craigslist maintains on its users played a critical role in apprehending the so-called Craigslist Killer. The Boston Police Department reported that “Craigslist was cooperative in identifying and locating” accused murderer Philip Markoff; Craigslist spokeswoman Susan Best notes that “a digital trail left by those breaking the law” allows Craigslist to support criminal investigations in a way, say, a newspaper cannot. In the case of Markoff, what could have become a series of murders was put to a quick halt once his inbox was examined. Boston cops said they relied on these “high-tech” solutions as much as “shoe-leather” investigation. The lesson here for those in law enforcement — and a lesson that Richard Blumenthal fails to understand — is that Craigslist is an ally, not a perp.

danah boyd at the Huffington Post agrees, suggesting that shutting down the section will push these activities underground where it will be far more difficult to address these issues:

The Internet has given law enforcement more data than they even know what to do with, more information about more people engaged in more horrific abuses than they’ve ever been able to obtain through underground work. It’s far too easy to mistake more data for more crime and too many aspiring governors use the increase of data to spin the public into a frenzy about the dangers of the Internet. The increased availability of data is not the problem; it’s a godsend for getting at the root of the problem and actually helping people.

… Censoring a space may hurt the ISP [Internet Service Provider] but it does absolutely nothing to hurt the criminals. Making a space uninhabitable by making it risky for criminals to operate there — and publicizing it — is far more effective. This, by the way, is the core lesson that Giuliani’s crew learned in New York. The problem with this plan is that it requires funding law enforcement.

Censoring Craigslist has moved these activities to locations within the site where there is no paper trail, making it hard for law enforcement to crack down on perpetrators. Continued pressure to remove these sorts of sites will result in moving these activities underground where law enforcement will have an even more difficult time addressing the wrongs suffered. As Boyd writes on her piece in the Huffington Post:

Taking something that is visible and making it invisible makes a politician look good, even if it does absolutely nothing to help the victims who are harmed. It creates the illusion of safety, while signaling to pimps, traffickers, and other scumbags that their businesses are perfectly safe as long as they stay invisible… Censorship online is nothing more than whack-a-mole, pushing the issue elsewhere or more underground.

Another problem I have with this issue is the lack of transparency on the part of a lot of so-called trafficking advocacy groups that are actually more concerned with silencing the discussion, exploration and expression of sexuality than they are with addressing the plight of sex trafficking victims. The crime, in their agenda, is prostitution, and they don’t hesitate to use the word trafficking even in the case of consensual prostitution.

Now, while prostitution is a crime in most all states where these ads existed on Craigslist, the site is protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states, in short, that no provider of a site or internet service shall be treated as the publisher of any information provided by said site’s or service’s users, even if a tort is committed. With nothing to assist them on the legal front, the word “trafficking” starts being thrown around.

I have written in the past about organizations such as Citizens Against Human Trafficking who have gone after not only sex worker activists, but sex educators, in such a way as to occasionally alienate their own supporters. Bringing trafficking into the picture, nevertheless, can and is an effective way to silence anyone who disagrees that prostitution is inherently evil. Ignorance on the topic and the willingness of people to exploit this lack of information in pursuit of sex-negative goals or political gain results in inaction as a result of semantics, or in dangerous legislation.

E. Benjamin Skinner, author of A Crime So Monstrous — an expose about modern day slavery in various forms — has been a vocal advocate of the necessity of not only differentiating between consensual prostitution and sex trafficking, but also giving the same amount of attention to other forms of forced labor, which are overshadowed by sensationalism surrounding accounts of sex trafficking: “The West’s efforts have been, from the outset, hamstrung by a warped understanding of slavery,” he says in A World Enslaved:

In the United States, a hard-driving coalition of feminist and evangelical activists has forced the Bush administration to focus almost exclusively on the sex trade. The official State Department line is that voluntary prostitution does not exist, and that commercial sex is the main driver of slavery today.

[…] Many feel that sex slavery is particularly revolting — and it is. I saw it firsthand. In a Bucharest brothel, for instance, I was offered a mentally handicapped, suicidal girl in exchange for a used car. But for every one woman or child enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 men, women, and children enslaved in other fields, such as domestic work or agricultural labor.

Recent studies have shown that locking up pimps and traffickers has had a negligible effect on the aggregate rates of bondage. And though eradicating prostitution may be a just cause, Western policies based on the idea that all prostitutes are slaves and all slaves are prostitutes belittles the suffering of all victims.

Skinner wrote that piece two years ago before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 replaced the loose definitions of its predecessor. The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the most recent of which came out in June, now highlights the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking, saying: “Prostitution by willing adults is not human trafficking regardless of whether it is legalized, decriminalized, or criminalized.”

The inability to see the differences between these two things thwarts federal resources set aside for identifying, freeing and protecting actual victims of forced labor. This funding becomes diverted into cases dealing with voluntary sex work, rather than finding its way to assist victims of sex trafficking.

As a society we need to see the censoring of Craigslist as an infringement on our freedom of speech; a threat to law enforcement efforts that once relied on the paper trail to combat the abuse of minors, trafficking and other criminal activity on those boards; and the criminal posturing of politicians looking for an easy fight during an election (yes, that means you, Richard Blumenthal).

How many of you people who are so up in arms about the exploited have marched with the Student/Farmworker Alliance? Boycotted Burger King when they refused to pay an extra penny for tomatoes so that consumers could ensure no debt peonage came at the expense of their burgers? How many know what the Coalition of Immokalee Workers does?

“No one really cares about Mexican dudes working in kitchens,” said sex worker rights activist Audacia Ray in a recent interview with sexuality netcast KinkOnTap. She’s right. They don’t.

  • Alana Joy

    As per usual, a beautifully written post.

    I happen to agree and had a bit of a debate about this topic with Aaron Cohen when he was a guest on This Week In Twitter. (

    Out of all of the shows I did with This Week In, this one roused the most reaction: viewers sent me lengthy emails thanking me for the things I said, which I did not expect.

    Though Aaron disagreed, I expressed the “crazy” idea that not all sex workers are victims of sexual abuse, not all of them are forced and coerced… he said most were introduced into that life as children: though I’m not sure how he can quantify that statement. The way to protect everyone involved, on the right or wrong side (relative) is to legalize prostitution.

    Both sides of the coin should have a license, be required to be tested for STDs. There should be a union, healthcare, and an authority in place: not to criminalize people but to protect them from things like human trafficking and other horrific circumstances.

    Technically, in a real Democracy, the law has no place telling two consenting adults what they can or cannot do behind closed doors. If they were remotely concerned about truly protecting the innocent, they would accept that prostitution has and will always exist and they will move towards a direction of legalization.

  • Anaiis


    Fear of the authorities due to the illegality of prostitution is a very effective way of keeping a trafficked person in line. Sadly, they’re right to fear. As Melissa Gira has written

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