Tobi Hill-Meyer

Craigslist Adult Services Censored by Government

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | September 08, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: censorship, Craigslist ad, sex work

Over this last weekend, those who relied upon Cragslist adult services got a clcensor.jpgrude awakening. Without any warning, and with no official statement yet, Craigslist removed the adult services section from all US sites and replaced it with a small censored image.

One friend of mine was extremely startled, as she relies on the ad section for her source of income and had to suddenly scramble to make up the few hundred dollars that she needed for the rent that is due. Presumably, thousands of others are in a similar situation.

"Could you imagine going into work one day, only to find out the building has been burned to the ground by an angry mob wielding torches and pitchforks; You're out of a job and have no clue as to what's next?"

After searching for news, it turns out this occurred because last week 17 state Attorney Generals sent a letter to Craigslist demanding that they shut down the section.

Apparently there was an advocacy agency that paid for newspaper ads where two 17 year old girls discussed their experiences as victims of human trafficking and blame Craigslist because their captors used the service to place ads about them.

It is indeed a horrific story of abuse and all reasonable actions need to be taken to prevent such cases from happening. But legally holding the ad service accountable and demanding that they shut themselves down (relying on intimidation of legal threat rather than obtaining a court order) seems to be a tactic unique to the adult industry.

I receive scam offers through my email service regularly; some even seem like they might put my physical safety at risk. Yet if anyone does fall for them and is taken advantage of, I doubt the government would demand google shut down their email service - or that Western Union shut down their money wiring service.

Too often people are allowed to get sloppy when discussing stories which invoke sexuality and panic at the same time. In the UK, attempts to change the laws on prostitution (making it more illegal) were based upon the fear that the vast majority of people engaging in prostitution were trafficked and forced into prostitution. Fiona Mactaggart, a Labour Member of Parliament stated that "Something like 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp, or their trafficker." However, there are no such studies that make any sort of claim. She was more likely confused by the UK statistic that 80% of women in prostitution were not born in the UK - which is often used to imply that all or most of those women are trafficked.

Similarly, the Craigslist story is already being used as a platform to perpetuate these uncited and imagined statistics and claims. In the Huffington Post, Danah Boyd claims that "the vast majority of prostitution is nonconsensual, either through force or desperation," and uses that claim to advocate for further police stings and arrests of sex workers. Without supporting that claim with any reasoning other than her own gut feeling, she relies on the vague concept of a person's employment being non-consensual because they are desperate. If that were a valid line of reasoning, most minimum wage employers would have a major non-consensual labor problem.

Even if most people are engaging in prostitution out of desperation as she claims, removing their preferred or only source of income or putting them in jail will not help them. This would be obvious except for the fact that she conflates "force or desperation" as being relatively the same experience. Not to mention that incarceration -- and often deportation -- is not an effective way of helping trafficking victims either.

Craigslist has been doing a lot to respond to criticism that traffickers take advantage of their site. A few years ago they started charging for ads in the adult services section, holding onto credit card numbers as a way to track anyone suspected of trafficking. They have since also required a verified phone number to place an add and have begun manually reviewing ads for hints or coded language referencing anyone being underage or trafficked.

Yet despite all this the entire system has to be shut down. Those who rely on it as a comparatively safer way of engaging in sex work are now desperately searching out alternatives and, I would imagine in some cases, turning to less safe ways of engaging in sex work. For whatever traffickers that may have been using craigslist, they are being forced further underground where their ads won't be reviewed and their contact information will not be kept on record. To quote the first site to report the news:

"Craigslist Sex is what scares the general population, and it's what the press and the politicians will continue to use to get their hits and votes. So the Craigslist Adult Section was removed. Is the world now a safer place?"

--TechCrunch


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One of the main reasons abortion was legalised throughout most of the West was the high number of women dying from back-street abortions. One of the strongest arguments for legalising drugs is the high degree of risk associated with uncontrolled, unmonitored dealers and producers who often pad out their wares with other substances, many of which are more dangerous than the drugs themselves. The US Prohibition ended in part because of the huge amount of funding it provided for criminal cartels - itself another argument in favour of legalising other drugs. In Africa, homophobia has pushed gay men and women into the shadows resulting in an ideal situation for the rapid increase in rates of HIV and other STDs.

The situation with prostitution is not significantly different from these. You're never going to stop it (not unless you consider universal male castration a serious option) and forcing it underground will cause far bigger problems in the long-run.

What a great comment!!! I agree completely with everything you said.

Hey, women enjoy sex workers too! Both male and female ones.
So, you'd have to destroy female bodies as well if you wanted to end prostitution.

Other than that, I agree with everything you said.

HIV/AIDS is spreading rapidly in Africa, but not because of anything "gay men and women" are doing.

Gay men ARE being used as the scapegoats by American christianists who travel there and preach blind hatred of gay people -- epidemiology be damned.

I don't have a problem with legalized prostitution but I did with how craigslist ran the adult section.If I want to place a business ad on craigslist I have to provide a phone number and receive a call telling me a code to enter. They didn't do that with the adult section and I had a problem. Someone who I had a spat with decided to post an add an the adult section complete with my address and phone number.That should never of happened and the worst part the police didn't do anything because how do you prove it? If that person had had to provide a phone number one of two things would have happened most likely.They wouldn't have done it or they would have and been caught. I'm not the only person this has happened to their was another woman in my area that it happened to and I'm sure many more throughout the US.

I have to agree. I'm a big fan of legalized prostitution. Craigslist wa'n't it. In fact the 'Adult Services' section ENCOURAGED exactly what we'd like to end by legalizing and regulating prostitution. Human trafficking, risky behavior, and disempowerment.

Craigslist certainly has it's problems, but I was under the impression that they now do require a verified phone number to post in casual encounters as well -- if that's what you are talking about.

Even if that's not the case, I'm not sure about the logic that they should be responsible for those who violate the terms of use (if not the law) when using their services. I briefly picked up a stalker who sent lewd, obscene, and threatening emails about me to myself, my friends, and public officials -- I never once thought to blame their email provider.

And for Phil, I'm a bit confused. Can you explain how craigslist encourages trafficking and disempowerment?

I don't see any other comment you made, Phil, are you talking about Drake's comment? Because it too is all claim and no warrant. It's not enough to just say that craigslist encourages trafficking, you have to give some reasoning behind it. And the fact that there are statistics showing that trafficking is a problem does not show causation -- in fact it doesn't even show correlation.

There have always been runaway (and kicked out queer) youth have turned to sex work. When services like craigslist are available, many people use them for their convenience, the ability to screen clients, and to remain independent. The only argument I can even imagine you inferring is that the comparative safety encourages folks to voluntarily engage in this work -- and that makes about as much sense as saying that seatbelts encourage driving and condoms encourage sex. Perhaps if we took away seatbelts and condoms from escorts and prostitutes they would no longer drive to meet clients or have sex with them -- or perhaps they'd do so under even more dangerous circumstances.

Yes I agree there have always been kicked out and runaway lgbt youth but is pointing them to prostitution really in the best interest of the lgbt. The number one thing that I consider a failure of the greater lgbt movement is the failure to help ourselves at the most basic of levels. We know there are many things that can cause an lgbt person of any age to become homeless or unemployed yet we don't even attempt as a group to do something about it on our terms and in our own way. Instead we let them fall into religiously run and State run programs that don't have their best interest at heart.It is long past due that we start our own homeless programs in cities and States.Where we can't, make sure those lgbt youth and adults that go into homeless programs aren't denied their right to identify as lgbt. Let's put ending homelessness and employment issues where they belong at the top of the list instead of totally off the radar.

Yes I agree there have always been kicked out and runaway lgbt youth but is pointing them to prostitution really in the best interest of the lgbt.

I think you misinterpreted me, and this is important so please review what I've written. I do not advocate that homeless youth should get into the sex industry and I've never said that. I do advocate that sex workers be given basic dignity, respect, and the tools to keep themselves safe.

Other than that, I really agree with your comment. Employment and homelessness are major issues for our community. In fact, part of the impetus for me to write this article is because a friend of mine came that much closer to being homeless because of this.

Wouldn't it be better if your friend hadn't almost became homeless because of this because we as fellow humans and lgbt gave that friend more choices? Or that we make sure no LGBT youth turns to Prostitution? They belong being left as kids until they are old enough to understand what it means to be a prostitute and to freely choose it because they understand and wish to.

The State Attorneys General who were pressuring Craig's List provided gruesome statistics about all the young women from Asia and Eastern Europe who have been shipped to the US to be sex slaves for their pimps. All you have o do is read the newspapers in any big metro area, and see the news stories about instances of this. There have also been published stories about American run-away girls ending up as Craiglist prostitutes. Sorry, I am not going to say that eliminating the Craigslist ads is a bad thing. Also, I am not going to say that your friend who decides to be a whore for a living is doing anything good for herself or society. She is placing herself at risk to be one of the many prostitutes killed by their customers all over the world each week, along with continuing a life of mental health problems for herself. I am not convinced that legalizing the sex industry is good for the "sex workers" or for society.

You do know that the "gruesome evidence" of prostitution's evils you cite comes from the exact same place that the "gruesome evidence" of homosexuality's evils (think "gay bowel syndrome") comes from, right? Anti-prostitution and anti-gay crusaders are exactly the same: they don't like something because it offends their delicate sensibilities, so they make up ridiculous shit to preach to their respective choirs of like-minded bigots; actual basis in facts not necessary.

Yes, there certainly are gruesome statistics about human trafficking, but are they actually helped by this action? If you really want to help victims of trafficking, a good place to start would be offering amnesty to every victim who comes forward. As it is, way too many get arrested and/or deported, and that creates an environment of fear where one cannot turn to the police for help. Or as one colleague of mine pointed out, if you really want to stop human trafficking, grow your own food and sew your own clothing. Why do we care about victims of trafficking in the sex industry so much more than victims of trafficking in the food and textile industry?

As for your dig against my friend, first off, "whore" as you are using it is a derogatory slur and shows your disrespect and contempt for her right off, along with your assumption that all sex workers inherently have mental health problems and that she isn't screening clients. Secondly, there are plenty of other jobs with high risks and death rates. I'm guessing you don't have such a disdainful view of loggers, aircraft pilots, and roofers. But speaking of the associated dangers, the inability to go to the police is obviously a big part of the problem -- not to mention being victims of police misconduct. According to a Chicago study, 1 in 4 strippers who were raped identified a police officer as the rapist. I imagine the statistics for prostitutes would be as bad or worse.

And finally, if you really are concerned about her and others' wellbeing, it doesn't help to take away a comparatively safe way to engage in sex work. Is it really better for teenage runaways to become street prostitutes? If people are choosing it out of desperation, why take away their preferred form of work? Do you really know better than they do themselves what work is the safest and best option for them?

I never said legalization is the answer to all these problems, but whatever the answer is begins with respect. If sex workers are really all victims as you seem to think, verbally spitting on us and calling for some of us to be thrown in jail does not help the situation.

How about the guy in Boston who killed his Craigslist hooker? I don't know how you can say that Craig's List is a "comparatively safer" way to be a prostitute.

I chose my words carefully and specifically: comparatively safer. It's safer compared to street work. That doesn't mean you're immune to someone murdering you -- it's not true for online sex workers, it's not true for post office workers, it's not true for high school students.

It's comparatively safer because it makes it easier to screen clients, check references, ask your friends about them. It's safer because it makes you less visible, therefore less likely to get the public reporting you to police, therefore less likely to interact with the police, therefore less likely to be arrested or raped by the police if you're not.

For a variety of reasons there is often violence targeted against sex workers -- one big reason is because we're considered disposable and quickly become "his craisglist hooker" rather than being seen as full people. That's why the international day to end violence against sex workers started. That's why we speak up when the tools we use to stay safe get taken away -- even if it's just one imperfect tool, it's still meaningful.

To Phil and Drake,

First, yes, to agree with Tobi, terms like "whore" are the problem, not the ostensible trafficking of women. And ditto on everything else she wrote.

As for the gruesome statistics, there has recently been a great deal of excellent empirical and critical work (some of which, I shall write in a bold-faced way, is produced by me) dismantling the myths and stereotypes about sex trafficking. For an all-round excellently researched blog that regularly takes on the statistics of trafficking, see Laura Agustín's blog at http://www.lauraagustin.com/ Debbie Nathan has also produced some great work on trafficking (you can find that by googling her name and "sex trafficking;" I haven't given a link because more than one link puts this comment in the hold zone).

It's also interesting to note that, barring the recent kerfuffle about Brazilian male sex workers in Spain (for more on which, see Agustín's blog), most of the panicked and hysterical narratives focus on women and reinforce the idea that it's impossible for women to engage willingly in sex work.

As far as international sex trafficking numbers go, it's important to consider how certain numbers have been inflated by circumstances created by the very acts of legislation that are supposed to "protect" women. For instance, the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) has an anti-trafficking component which requires women to claim that they had been trafficked for sex if they were to claim asylum - even if they had been trafficked for labour. Which is to say - there's a strong and deliberate attempt to dismantle the idea that women might actually choose sex work and to erase the possibility that sex work is labour (I won't go into the problems that sex workers have with legally immigrating to most countries - but I will point to it as a problem).

Of course, we don't have quite those same narratives about rent boys...for that matter we (in the mainstream, not just in the queer world) don't even want to consider the idea that men might sell their bodies for sex.

No one can deny that women can be and are coerced into sex work, but the actual numbers and the circumstances under which that happens are frequently inflated and sensationalized. The solution to reasonable and effective ways to provide assistance *to the women who need and want it* is not to police places like Cragslist - these ham-fisted and moralistic shots at such an easy target will only serve to put more sex workers in danger by taking away the safety of vetting and checking clients via the web. Such tactics will also mean that the more dangerous forms of coercion will be driven underground, and whom does that help?

Yasmin and Tobi I really don't think you get where I'm coming from, which is sort of pretty bluntly stated in my first comment. The "comparative" safety of Craigslist isn't enough for me, as its an illusion. I want to see Prostitution legalized and regulated. I've dated sex workers before, I'm good friends with sex workers, and my confidence in Craigslists' safety is lacking, as is the confidence of MANY sex workers.

I agree that folks do go into and should go into sex work willingly and should do so without shame. They've got this figured out in other nations, but not so much the USA. Its about time we sort this out. Legalizing prostitution and regulating it will go a long way to providing FAR more protection to sex workers than we have now. Far more than Craigslist will applaud. You can support sex workers and legalizing prostitution and NOT support Craigslist's hackneyed "Adult Services" section. The security blanket it provides is riddled with measles mumps and small pox.

That does make more sense, and I do agree with your ultimate conclusion. Craigslist does have a lot of problems and isn't even the best online ad service available for escorts. However, the part I take issue with is when you state that craigslist encourages trafficking. Unsupported statements get tossed around way too much and that one in particular is being misused, so I think that's a statement that requires some explanation.

As it is, craigslist's services aren't being taken down because they are inadequate in comparison to legalization, but because anti-sex work forces use trafficking as a scapegoat to shut down all sex work related services. That makes me all the more concerned about the unsubstantiated claim that craigslist encourages trafficking. The real threat I see here is not the loss of craigslist's adult services section, but the threat that any online listing can be targeted. If online ad services become illegal by default, that's a step away from legalization, not toward it.

Yasmin and Tobi I really don't think you get where I'm coming from, which is sort of pretty bluntly stated in my first comment. The "comparative" safety of Craigslist isn't enough for me, as its an illusion. I want to see Prostitution legalized and regulated. I've dated sex workers before, I'm good friends with sex workers, and my confidence in Craigslists' safety is lacking, as is the confidence of MANY sex workers.

I agree that folks do go into and should go into sex work willingly and should do so without shame. They've got this figured out in other nations, but not so much the USA. Its about time we sort this out. Legalizing prostitution and regulating it will go a long way to providing FAR more protection to sex workers than we have now. Far more than Craigslist will applaud. You can support sex workers and legalizing prostitution and NOT support Craigslist's hackneyed "Adult Services" section. The security blanket it provides is riddled with measles mumps and small pox.

Yasmin and Tobi I really don't think you get where I'm coming from, which is sort of pretty bluntly stated in my first comment. The "comparative" safety of Craigslist isn't enough for me, as its an illusion. I want to see Prostitution legalized and regulated. I've dated sex workers before, I'm good friends with sex workers, and my confidence in Craigslists' safety is lacking, as is the confidence of MANY sex workers.

I agree that folks do go into and should go into sex work willingly and should do so without shame. They've got this figured out in other nations, but not so much the USA. Its about time we sort this out. Legalizing prostitution and regulating it will go a long way to providing FAR more protection to sex workers than we have now. Far more than Craigslist will applaud. You can support sex workers and legalizing prostitution and NOT support Craigslist's hackneyed "Adult Services" section. The security blanket it provides is riddled with measles mumps and small pox.

Phil,

See all comments above. I would add, again, Craigslist is an easy target - and the AG's office is fixating on it because it's an easy way to score points in the public eye. Additionally, again, not only would I dispute the link between Craigslist and trafficking, I - and many others who work on this issue, with a great deal of data to back them up - dispute the discourse around trafficking. The inflated discourse around that is itself a problem, and it's a problem that's lending to the further marginalisation of women, not enabling them. What's also being ignored is that "trafficking" and the often inflated numbers thereof has become part of a worrisome global trend linked to the hypervigilantism around borders and around the policing of sex work.

Incidentally, as far as other nations are concerned - it's not as cut and dry as you paint it. The UK, for instance, has begun adopting the same hysterical outrage as the kind we see in the US and it comes at the detriment to the women.

In all of this, Craigslist is the easy scapegoat.

Bound Not Gagged has been following this quite a bit. http://deepthroated.wordpress.com/

I'll try to get through the comments when I get more chance, but one point that should be made if it hasn't already is that like many rights struggles are being rephrased by the far right and distorted, sex work is becoming more and more annexed under the term "human trafficking," because the latter proves effective in recruiting people to oppose it at any and all cost. Which is not to say that human trafficking doesn't exist or isn't serious -- it does, and it is.

However, the term has been so widely broadened now that if you know someone in Germany who wants to come to North America, you help her figure out some of the immigration hurdles and then she ends up working as a stripper, you're guilty of human trafficking. It's completely overblown, it's distorted the statistics, the way it's defined in study has now muddied the issue to the point that it's almost impossible to track real human trafficking and it wastes resources responding to stuff that's not really exploitation (beyond self-exploitation).

By using this, conservatives are able to get traction in getting backdoor provisions in legislation to further criminalize massage parlors, bathhouses and escort residences as bawdy houses and then reclassified as criminal organizations (i.e. http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/Conservatives_find_back_door_for_new_antisex_work_provision-9001.aspx )using the spectre of sex slavery to justify it.

And all of this has come down on Craigslist (in the US -- Canada and elsewhere are still as yet unaffected).

The fact is, Craigslist offers a safer alternative (not *safe* per se, but safer than streetwork) because you have some control over your circumstances.

The laws that criminalize prostitution usually target things like communicating for the purpose of, living off the avails of, and keeping a "bawdy house" (i.e. your house, if that's where you take clients) -- everything you need to control your circumstances, gauge who your clients are and have alternatives if something goes wrong. All of this serves to drive the trade more underground, disempower sex workers, make the practice as a whole more dangerous and leave people more vulnerable to exploitation.

And voila, more human trafficking. But for the gamey politicos, that's okay: if it becomes self-perpetuating, there will always be a cause to champion.

Excellent comment Mercedes but how do you beat the conservative propaganda machine? We've all been losing to them on many fronts and it looks like they'll win big in November.In college any talk about subjects like this one, gay marriage, gay rights etc has been stifled to some degree. But even worse the other sides talk is being encouraged.Just yesterday in class I heard a young man from Africa stumbling through his beliefs as a Muslim that gays should have no rights, be allowed to marry and that they are not normal. Of course while he's doing this the class tea bagger is saying how he supports sending gays to be murdered in Africa. The teacher didn't do anything about it didn't say it's right or wrong or mention the schools equal opportunity statement. I plan on talking to the schools Provost Marshall about much of what I've observed on campus and to point out that the schools equality statement doesn't include gender identity.I expect to not much to come from the meeting and I'm not a sue happy person.

My older sister just got scammed with a fake in-home office job she found on Craigslist and now "owes" her bank $4,000. Should all job listings on Craigslist now be purged?

What's interesting is that, now that the erotic services section has been taken away, lots of sex workers are posting ads in the regular m4m section of craiglist, where, I suppose, they do as much business as they can before their ads are flagged and removed. I don't know, but I imagine it's also happening in the w4m section as well.