Saving Face, Endangering Sex Workers: The Craigslist Saga


Craigslist’s self-censorship of its adult services ads will do nothing to end sex trafficking, though it might make it a little more challenging to post adult ads on the site. As a former Craigslist sex worker myself, I know that not all commercial sex interactions are sex slavery. In fact, many transactions facilitated by the Internet involve independent sex workers who have greater control over their working conditions than they would without access to online advertising.

Prostitution–and today’s Internet iteration of the business–is a perennially popular issue for politicians to crack down on because elected officials get the opportunity to speak up for supposedly voiceless and exploited people (13 of the 17 attorneys general making the fuss right now are up for re-election this year). However, people in the sex industry are not voiceless, and we must be consulted when policies that directly affect our safety and well-being are under consideration. There are many different kinds of work experiences in the sex industry, and targeting a single website as a means of combating sex trafficking is not only highly ineffective, but puts people who are not coerced into sex work at risk.

There are thousands of both illegally and legally working sex workers – prostitutes, dominatrices, body workers, exotic dancers, webcam performers, and many others – who utilize websites like Craigslist to advertise their services in an independent capacity. The Internet has now made it more possible than ever for individual sex workers to take control of their businesses instead of relying on agencies, pimps, gentleman’s clubs, and brothels, which are frequently the sources and sites of grievously exploitative labor practices that include but are not limited to trafficking. Individuals who work indoors and advertise online, as I did, are safer than street workers because we frequently rely on online networks to screen clients, maintain bad date lists, and share information about best practices for health and safety. Removing online spaces for this community building, which often starts with advertising, drives independent workers underground and forces them to rely on groups that do not have their best interests at heart.

The attorneys general are right to combat sex trafficking. Coerced labor and coerced sex are clear evils. However, ending sex trafficking takes careful strategy, and what the Federal and State governments are doing to combat trafficking is not working. The federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (link starts auto-download of PDF) has resulted in just over 400 sex trafficking convictions in the last decade, and very few survivors of sex trafficking are receiving aid from state and federal agencies. Furthermore, sex trafficking is over-represented in media coverage of human trafficking. The International Labour Organization estimates that for every person trafficked into prostitution, nine people are trafficked into forced labor situations that include agricultural work, domestic labor, and many others. Furthermore, though public debate conflates sex trafficking and sex work, they are not the same thing. The 10th Edition of the Trafficking in Persons Report released by the Department of State in June clearly states that, “prostitution by willing adults is not human trafficking regardless of whether it is legalized, decriminalized, or criminalized.”

Until it censored adult services, Craigslist was exploring ways to better combat trafficking and exploitative labor practices within the sex industry, and was discussing best practices for this with workers. Losing this avenue for advertising also means that law enforcement officials and social services that strive to improve the health and well-being of people in the sex industry are less able to identify and do outreach to such persons.

It’s true that many forms of sex work are criminalized, but prohibition is not an effective means of halting a practice, especially an income-generating one. Instead of shutting down Craigslist, the attorneys general should engage in conversations with people who work in the sex industry about how to identify sex trafficking and differentiate it from sex work. Instead of arresting individual trafficking survivors or consenting sex workers, we must support individuals who do not want to be in the sex industry in securing safe housing, accessing health services including mental health and addiction treatment when needed, and obtaining the education and training needed to find jobs that pay a living wage that is comparable to or better than earnings in the sex industry.

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  • parker

    Thank you for your well thought out article.  I attended the UNIFEM conference in July and Omega Institute’s Women and Power conference this weekend and though both events had fantastic speakers and intelligent women representing NGOs and human rights organizations, the trafficking rhetoric seemed to dominate any discourse involving sex work.  I went to both venues looking forward to making positive connections on the behalf of a Cambodian NGO that I work with as an international advisor that advocates for women in the entertainment industry (beer sellers, hostesses, karaoke singers/dancers).  I also have experience in legalized sex work as a dancer, so I understand a bit of the environment that these women work in.  It was daunting to me to hear the implications that sex work contributes to trafficking.  It will not stop me from supporting entertainment workers in Cambodia.  It won’t stop me from supporting sex workers in the US.  It does however make me feel that I have to fight for a human rights awareness within the feminist movement for those in the sex industry.

  • cmarie

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  • squirrely-girl

    I think it comes back to choice – women who freely choose sex work should be able to do so without fear or intimidation and be able to practice safely. On the other hand, I’m deeply concerned and disgusted by the idea of human trafficking and forced/coerced/pimped sex work :(

     

     

  • crowepps

    You know, cmarie, this really, truly is offensive.  I am no ‘fan’ of prostitution, and agree that many girls/women are exploited and wish that women had viable alternatives which would allow them to make a decent living in some other way.  Unfortunately, far too many people express their disapproval of this ‘exploitation of women’ by stigmitizing and punishing the WOMEN.  When somebody puts together a well-thought out plan to stamp out prostitution by targeting the CUSTOMERS involved, I might be interested.  Until then, I will continue to support women who are doing the best they can enduring the situations which our society give them little choice but to endure.

     

    Just as one point, there has been pretty persuasive research showing that a high percentage of young girls in the United States who turn to prostitution do so after being sexually abused by their fathers/stepfathers.  Instead of arresting those young girls, let’s arrest their customers for child sexual abuse, and then do sexual abuse investigations of the fathers/stepfathers to make sure they aren’t presently sexually abusing a younger sister.

  • cmarie

    Wonderful!  absolutely arrest the abusive fathers/ stepfathers and provide support for their victims, but for Christ’s sake you don’t do any of that by glorifying the people and industry that sells these same little girls back to the predators.  If you care about the victims you don’t encourage the industry, you don’t make it easier for pimps who exploit them to reach the johns who abuse them and you certainly don’t delude yourself into believing a signficant portion of women or children caught in this nightmare are happy there.

  • colleen

    Wonderful!  absolutely arrest the abusive fathers/ stepfathers and provide support for their victims, but for Christ’s sake you don’t do any of that by glorifying the people and industry that sells these same little girls back to the predators. 

     

    If you reread what she said you’ll see that she suggests arresting the CUSTOMERS rather than the little girls and women. The FBI says that the average age a girl is introduced into prostitution is 10-12. There are few things that would give me more pleasure than to see their customers (because, make no mistake, there is a huge demand for very young children) arrested, prosecuted and jailed for a very long time.

    Of course, this would mean arresting David Vitter and, well, let’s face it, most of congress, elected officials and staff alike.

  • crowepps

    you don’t do any of that by glorifying the people and industry that sells these same little girls back to the predators.  If you care about the victims you don’t encourage the industry, you don’t make it easier for pimps who exploit them to reach the johns who abuse them and you certainly don’t delude yourself into believing a signficant portion of women or children caught in this nightmare are happy there.

    I’m not aware of any poster here who has ever said anything “glorifying” selling little girls to predators or who has advocated making “it easier for pimps who exploit them”.  Your hyperbole tends to be so over the top (and insulting) that people don’t listen.  It’s only my opinion, but assuming you’re really are interested in being an effective advocate on this issue, dialing back the personal attacks on everyone who doesn’t agree with you 100% might possibly be a more effective way to get your points across.  When you come across as a hysteric, people tune you out.

  • crowepps
  • mechashiva

    My goodness, that was a very interesting read. Thanks, crowepps!

  • crowepps

    I’m going to see if my local library can get the book.