Guest Blogger

Does policing Craigslist actually threaten safety?

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 28, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: anti-violence, Craigslist ad, media attention, New York City, policing Craigslist, prostitutes, sex workers

Editors' Note: Guest bloggers Andrea Ritchie and Jarad Ringer are two of New York City's foremost experts on violence against sex workers. Ms. Ritchie is the Director of the Sex Workers Project at Urban Justice Center. Mr. Ringer is the Coordinator of the Hate Violence and Police Relations Program at the New York City Anti-Violence Project.

1craigslist.jpgThe New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) and The Sex Workers Project (SWP) have been following and tracking recent debates concerning the use of Craigslist and similar websites to offer erotic services and to negotiate consensual sexual encounters. We are very concerned about the NYPD's increased attention to policing the use of Craigslist, and specifically about their apparent targeting of LGBT individuals who use the site to meet sexual and romantic partners.

Gay men and transgender women in particular have been arrested for prostitution-related offenses based on their use of Craigslist for cruising, dating and commercial sexual exchanges. AVP and SWP work together to support and advocate for people who are engaged in sex work and/or perceived to be sex workers - including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities, who have a long history of being profiled and targeted as sex workers.

SWP's 2005 examination of the indoor sex industry, Behind Closed Doors, found that indoor sex workers experience lower levels of violence than street- based sex workers. Sex workers themselves point out that, rather than promoting trafficking in persons and violence against them, Craigslist and similar sites allow them to operate more independently and free of coercion or exploitation, and to screen potential clients more carefully.

Unfortunately, several high profile cases have led to a perception of people who use sites like Craigslist as dangerous and criminal. The murder of George Weber murder earlier in this year by a person he met on Craigslist and agreed to engage in consensual sex with, has been used as justification for increased targeting of gay men "cruising" on Craigslist. Similarly, the recent murder of a Queens man, allegedly committed by someone he entered into a commercial sexual exchange with over Craigslist, has been perceived as evidence of the myth that there are a large number of "murderous sex workers" looking for victims online.

The increased media attention brought to the site by the case of the Massachusetts medical student who is accused of murdering and assaulting women he met on Craigslist has unfortunately led to increased policing and punishment of sex workers using the site. The focus on the evils/perils of sex work, rather than a recognition that because the accused met the victims on Craigslist law enforcement was able to more rapidly identify a suspect than, for instance in the case of the Green River Killer, who was able to murder dozens of street-based sex workers over a period of decades before ever being caught, only serves to keep sex workers in dangerous situations.

AVP and SWP are joining with members of the LGBT community and sex worker rights organizations to call for restraint and objectivity in law enforcement's approach to websites such as Craigslist, especially in same-sex personal ad links. Law enforcement efforts focused on targeting Craigslist users believed to be engaging in sex work and members of the LGBT community seeking to meet sexual and romantic partners often result in the arrests of innocent people in LGBTQ communities rather than prevent violence against sex workers and other members of the community.

We encourage the NYPD to instead focus their efforts on holding perpetrators of human trafficking and others who exploit and abuse sex workers and members of the LGBTQ communities - including those within their own ranks.


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Thank you so much for your work on this. I watched as my local police cracked down on sex workers using craigslist, ironically over the week of the international day to end violence against sex workers. It was clearly intended only to terrorize sex workers, and one of the officers talking to the press specifically said that was the only goal (in the hopes that fear would cause folks to stop working).

It's counterproductive, putting people at risk, and has no benefit. This targeting needs to end.

This has had an alarming effect on the economic lives of many, many trans women.

It needs to stop.

I read this article and the comments left and I'm sitting here taken back. I absolutely hate when one tries to justify why a certain illegal activity should not be pursued because there are other more egregious illegal activities that they want pursued.

Honestly, there is a difference between cruising for sex on line and selling your body for money regardless of your method. It's a weak argument and insulting to imply they are the same and that the "police" treat both groups the same way because they don't. You can not be arrested for having consensual sex with a stranger, but you can be for selling your body that is reality.

Well, actually, people *do* get arrested for having consensual sex with strangers. But that aside, 'the crackdown is ok because prostitution is illegal' is such a weak argument. Who does sex work hurt? Who are the cops protecting here?

Sure, the crackdown is legal. It's also legal to fire LGBTQ employees. It's legal to take your kid to a KKK rally, and at the same time it may be illegal (depending on where you live) for you to adopt kids if you're single or LGBTQ. Just a cursory glance at U.S. history shows that you really can't count on laws to be fair - sometimes you've got to decide for yourself whether it's really right that, say, African Americans can't be in Oregon after sundown, or that a husband can rape his wife.

If our moral compasses are purely driven by what's legal and what's not, why have brains at all?

Who does it hurt anyway... the person selling their body.

See that's the point I was trying to make. If that's the person who it hurts (i.e. victim), then how does arresting them help? How does cracking down on safer venues help?

Additionally, can you draw out what the imagined harm is? Because all I can think of is the potential for harassment and trauma and the potential for physical danger. Harassment and trauma occurs in many other lines of work, but I've never seen that problem solved by criminalizing the occupation.

As for physical danger, it's only increased by law enforctement taking away safer alternatives like this. A study in Chicago found that 1 out of 4 strippers who were raped identified a police officer as their rapist (Source: Incite). That's not the exact same thing, but it goes to show hat creating a power dynamic where police can ruin your life if they find out what you do for a living leads to more abuse and exploitation as often if not more often then it leads to an end to them.

FYI, "selling one's body" isn't what prostitution is. I get my body back after a call, thank you very much. To use inaccurate and sensationalistic terms like that just makes it easier for the police and others to view us as having no agency and thus no rights. Portraying us all as victims doesn't help anybody.

For what it's worth, my comments have nothing to do with the non-commercial hookups on craigslist and I am not intending to "use" them to justify ending the persecution of sex workers. There's plenty of reason to end that persecution on it's own.

Sure it's illegal, that's reality, but not too long ago it was illegal to have sex with someone of the same gender. In many states, laws against having oral sex are still on the books, even if not enforced. So long as I see a law as unjust, I'm going to protest when enforcement of it ruins people's lives.

Have you ever noticed that the only "victim" in this crime is also the person who is most actively targeted by police? If there really is a compelling reason for the state to put an end to it, arresting the victims in an attempt to scare other people into not being victims is a horrible approach. If someone is really choosing sex work as their only method of survival, taking away their survival strategy without providing them with another is inhumane.

That's like saying illegally selling (having someone broker) your organs is okay because that's the only way that person can make money and its unfair to target them unless they're given an alternative. How about that cute twink who sells drugs or the hot lesbian who steals your credit card and uses it without your permission, are they victims when they get caught? Is it okay because they have no other option? Not in my opinion.

And of course the person selling their body and the person buying the body are both targets... a victim is not someone who makes a conscious choice to do something that is illegal.

I believe to see something as immoral you must consider more than just whether or not it is illegal. The impact of the behavior is key, and the impact of enforcement should not be overlooked.

In the examples you give, there's always some level of harm. Selling your organs could kill you or greatly reduce your lifespan. Stealing a credit card clearly hurts the person being robbed. Depending on the drugs, there can be significant harm (but if you ask me, I am in favor of decriminalization of some drugs, the war on drugs is obviously not an effective way to reduce addiction and violent crime associated with drugs).

My point was that most people see prostitutes as the victims of prostitution and think that they will help them by ending prostitution. However, attempts to do so only push it to more and more dangerous circumstances, not to mention that prostitutes get arrested at significantly higher rates then clients -- and that's no way to treat the people you see as victims. By your framing, though, it sounds like you think of them more as perpetrators. Who's the victim then?

So where's the harm in prostitution? It can be dangerous to meet with strangers, but the danger mostly exists because you can't go to the police for help (and those who do are often not helped). Street prostitution can have larger impacts on a community, but this whole article is about how allowing people to work off a computer is safer and better for the community then kicked them back to the street. So where's the harm? All I see is harm caused by law enforcement, not by the profession.

By the way, I'm not arguing for legalization -- that's a bigger and more complicated issue. All I'm arguing here is that because they are not directly harming anyone, the wellbeing of sex workers should be considered heavily in policy decisions around prostitution rather then having those policy decisions driven by punishment. I'd have the same standard for any other crime that does not cause harm to others.