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.