Craigslist, Sex Work, and The End of “Innocence?:” Why Our Efforts to Address Sex Work Are Misguided


Last summer, a sex worker from San Francisco called a client she found through Craigslist and they made plans to meet in the best hotel of a small Southern town. Shortly after they stepped into the hotel room, police stormed in to join the FBI agent who had posed as the client, and arrested the sex worker as part of a nation-wide sting which targeted venues such as “truck stops, motels and the Internet,” according to an FBI report on Operation Innocence Lost. Operation Innocence Lost focuses on rescuing children forced into sex work, but has arrested hundreds of consensual adult sex workers since its inception in 2003.

“They kept me in the hotel room and tried to interrogate me for more than three hours, but I refused to talk to them,” recalls the sex worker. A year later, after spending approximately $5000 on bail and legal fees, she continues to work as an escort, although she is traumatized from her arrest: 

“Now I feel paranoid and jumpy in ways that might be too extreme. I still have nightmares where FBI and police are chasing me. I just wanted to run and hide and be somewhere safe. I’m generally easygoing, but my emotions have been all over the place.”   

While the FBI’s Operation Innocence Lost is supposed to focus on the exploitation of minors, according to attorney Sienna Baskin from Urban Justice, “in the process [it] arrests hundreds of consensual adult sex workers.” Urban Justice’s Melissa Broudo has noted various trends in arrests over the last few years, including police conducting “sweeps” during which they arrest numerous women at a time at stroll districts; false arrests of gay men and transgender women; busts of dungeons; and individuals being arrested for selling sexual services over the Internet.

In terms of trends, police often go to sex workers’ stroll districts to arrest many [sex workers] at once in a van. There’s been many false arrests of transgender women, and I certainly have met some people who have been arrested for selling sexual services over the Internet.

The stories of consensual adult sex workers, like the aforementioned woman from San Francisco, who was 39 years old and planning on exiting sex work to start her own business at the time of her arrest, are missing from the mainstream media coverage and leads to a low level of public awareness about the consequences of police and FBI “anti-trafficking” and “child rescue” activities.

On September 4, 2010, when Craigslist shut down its “erotic services” category, sex workers suddenly lost access to the most popular online venue for sexual services advertising in the US. Craigslist had given in to the pressure, which had been intensifying since 2008, from seventeen attorneys general—including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Beau Biden of Delaware—and several non-profit groups. The attorneys general and non-profit groups claimed that Craigslist was unable to adequately monitor for child exploitation and sex trafficking activities.

Although the shutdown of Craigslist’s “erotic services” is not in and of itself criminalization of sex workers, sex workers and their allies claim that it is another of a string of recent law enforcement actions that further marginalizes adult sex workers while failing to effectively fight child exploitation and trafficking.

Sex workers organizations such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Desiree Alliance have been trying to raise awareness about how neither Operation Innocence Lost’s prosecution of sex workers nor the removal of mainstream advertising outlets like Craigslist will actually protect sex workers. In fact, they argue, it further compromises the ability of law enforcement to fight trafficking and child exploitation. 

According to Dr. Michael Goodyear, professor of medicine and feminist ethics at Dalhousie University, “Shutting down the Craigslist ads will only force sexual services advertising to move elsewhere…[to] places such as Backpage.com.” Craigslist was the only online sexual services advertising venue that worked with police to monitor its “erotic services” section. Now that the section no longer exists, “it is harder for law enforcement to monitor criminal activities,” says Goodyear.

Additionally, says sexologist Dr. Larry Falls:

“When the industry is forced to go underground, it is harder for sex workers to continue to work independently and avoid pimps and organized crime.”

Sex workers and their allies are also publicly criticizing the motives of the attorneys general and non-profit groups that pressured Craigslist to shut down “erotic services.”  When Norma Ramos, director of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women, declared that “prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession—it’s the world’s oldest oppression” on the Alyona Show, Stacey Swimme, sex worker and founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, responded:

“Prostitution today is a way that men and women and people of all genders are making a living. It is a real issue that we need to talk about.”

Swimme added that debates about the morality of prostitution and censorship distract from the more pressing questions: “What is happening right now to the people who are no longer able to advertise on Craigslist? Where are they now and what are they doing?”   

Other non-profit groups at the forefront of the movement to shut down Craigslist “erotic services” advertisements included the Polaris Project and the Rebecca Project. Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Rebecca Project, an organization that works directly with child victims, claims that her organization is not anti-sex work. This suggests that there is a range of positions on prostitution within the non-profit groups who collectively called on Craigslist to shut down “erotic services.”

When asked if she would support consensual adult sex workers’ use of Craigslist, Saar said, “Sure.” But because Saar believes that Craigslist failed to effectively monitor its content, she was a strong supporter of the removal of sexual services advertisements on Craigslist.

After the initial criticisms and legal threats from attorneys general and non-profit groups in 2008, Craigslist staff began to manually monitor and require phone verification for each post on “erotic services,” charging users $10 for each post and $5 for each re-post and notifying police about suspicious activities. But Saar and others saw this as inadequate.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the sex trafficking of minors on September 15, Elizabeth McDougall, a lawyer for Craigslist, said that “Craigslist fears that its utility to help combat child exploitation has been grossly diminished,” pointing out that traffic to Backpage.com (which does not monitor postings for abusers) has spiked sharply this month. McDougall, however, did not address the difficulties of effectively monitoring a website that facilitates billions of interactions each month in the US.

Even sex workers’ advocates who oppose the shutdown of “erotic services” do not argue that Craigslist’s monitoring was working effectively. But instead of removing sexual services advertisements on Craigslist, sex workers’ rights advocates favor decriminalization of sex work, arguing that decriminalization would empower sex workers to collaborate with police and report abuse.

“When prostitution is not a crime,” says the arrested sex worker from San Francisco:

then things that are crimes would be more apparent. It would make the whole industry safer, so when [trafficking or child abuse] does happen, people would not be afraid to speak out about it…with the way the laws are now, sex workers are afraid to report incidents to the police.

The current reality in the US, according to Urban Justice attorney Melissa Broudo, is that “when sex workers experience or witness rape or abuse, most sex workers do not feel empowered to report to the police. Even when they do, they are not given the same respect as other people who report the same crimes.”

“From a legal perspective,” Broudo continues:

“the reason we support decriminalization as attorneys and service providers is that it would allow sex workers to come forward when their rights are infringed upon…and become critical allies with law enforcement to fight trafficking and child exploitation.”  

Although it was imperfect, the decriminalization of prostitution in New Zealand by the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act made sex work safer by making it easier for the government to enforce the use of condoms, monitor workplaces and prosecute those who hired minors. The probability of the US acting as a pioneer along with New Zealand to give sex workers more rights and protections seems unlikely.

In a public statement on September 7, four non-profit groups, including The Rebecca Project, called on Craigslist to shut down its “erotic services” pages worldwide—even in countries such as Canada and France where prostitution is legal.

“While this is a good first step in the US, there are still more than 250 other Craigslist ‘erotic’ pages around the world where children and young women are still being sold for sex through Craigslist,” the statement said.

In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) held a news conference on September 7, 2010, where Sergeant Marie-Claude Arsenault announced that the RCMP is working to bring US measures of controlling Craigslist postings to Canada. The RCMP’s rhetoric did not focus on the urgency of fighting trafficking and child exploitation, such as has been the case in the US. Instead, Sgt. Arsenault expressed an interest in making it harder for consensual adult sex workers to conduct their work: “Not having that service will definitely be an obvious disincentive and it will just make buying sex and finding those kind of activities just a little bit harder.” 

On September 28, the tide changed for Canadian sex workers when an Ontario judge struck down key provisions of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, but back in the US, sex workers continue to lack many basic rights and protections, such as the right to a safe work environment. FBI agents and police officers are able to intimidate and arrest sex workers because decriminalization of sex work is an issue that lacks widespread support in the US.

American sex workers and their allies, however, believe they are making advances in fighting stigma and increasing public support for the decriminalization of sex work.  

“Perhaps there is more public support than we think,” says attorney Melissa Broudo, citing a recent moderated debate on Economist.com, which found that readers ‘voted overwhelmingly in favor…[that] prostitution should be legal.’ “It’s just an issue that isn’t often brought up in mainstream public discourse.“  

The sex worker from San Francisco is also optimistic about public support for sex workers’ rights:  

“Just as in the queer rights movement, as more sex workers come together to tell their stories, and the public becomes more exposed to sex work, then maybe we will end up being more accepted, and people will realize that something is wrong in their society when sex workers have to live in silence and fear.”

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  • plume-assassine

    Great article.

    Any time something is forced to thrive in an illegal black market, away from every day society, then the dangers associated with it are greatly amplified. This applies to prostitution/sex work and other “black market” activities such as smoking/dealing marijuana. If consensual prostitution is legalized and allowed space in the public sphere, then it will be controlled and monitored like any other business exchange, making it much, much harder for things like rape and child sex trafficking to occur. Legalization doesn’t mean that we are asking society to accept or normalize sex work or drug use, only that we are asking society to take responsibility in publicly monitoring who is involved in these activities, thereby making the world safer for them and ensuring that all parties are consenting adults. It is just common sense.

  • mylocalforums

    There has got to be a better way to tackle issues regarding the sex trade. Going out and arresting sex workers over and over again does not solve the problem at all. As Albert Einstein Said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”