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Craigslist and Buying Sex in the Digital Age

Last Updated: April 10, 2015

Justice Week 2010Craigslist, which some have referred to as “the world’s biggest brothel,” is a great example of how commercial sex exploitation is facilitated by digital and social media. In 2009, Craigslist—due to public pressure—took the half-hearted measure of changing its “Erotic Services” section to “Adult Services.” Recently, pressure has been applied again as pimps and traffickers continue to enjoy the convenience of advertising women—including minors—on the site.

According to a letter from 17 state Attorneys General to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark,

“We recognize that Craigslist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads. No amount of money, however, can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craigslist.”

In the 21st Century, the sad reality is that for the buyers of commercial sex, the new “double click” is violent porn with the first click and a live woman or child with the second.

– – – –

Watch CNN Correspondent Amber Lyon’s investigation of Craiglist’s adult services. In 2008 Craiglist agreed to report any suspicious ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Two years later, the Center says Craigslist has reported fewer than 100. Please note: the video contains some sensual and sexually exploitative images. Viewer discretion is advised.

  1. Garrett

    I believe I was addressing Brian’s comment, as well as your response to it… but it appears you have since deleted that response. Oh well.

    • @Garrett – Didn’t mean to delete that, sorry. It’s true I’d rather have no adult services section that law enforcement can use than to have a non-compliant and non-cooperative Craigslist incorporation. I believe the presence of online adult services only serve to fuel the demand for commercial sex, both for individuals and in the culture. I do agree, however, with Miss Boyd that Craigslist could have made an ideal place for law enforcement to go after perpetrators.

  2. Garrett

    @Luke: Good thoughts. Clearly the exploitation of women was still going on to an extent, but (a) Craigslist made it more visible, which raised awareness, and (b) Craigslist probably allowed a good number of women who were new to the trade to avoid entering into a relationship with a pimp.

    As for Craigslist helping law enforcement… what exactly could they do to help that local law enforcement can’t? It’s not like they know anything about the identities of the “sellers,” short of an IP address, which they’d have to turn over if a subpoena were issued anyhow. If anything it seems that a local directory of prostitution ads would be an incredible help to local law enforcement looking to find and rescue these women and children. Now they will have to do more work, not less, to uncover the abuses that will continue to happen even without Craigslist’s facilitation. What am I missing here?

    • @Garrett – I agree. Craigslist could only do so much, but unfortunately, according to the reports, they worked very little with law enforcement. The point of this post is not to praise the censoring of Craigslist (I don’t even mention the censoring issue in the post). I would love it if Craigslist could have worked alongside law enforcement in a more productive way.

  3. Garrett

    While I can’t help but agree that Craigslist’s facilitation on prostitution has been regrettable, this move by Craigslist will only serve to further victimize women as it pushes them even further into the horrific black market of human trafficking. Craigslist once allowed these victimized women to take a step away from their captors and to bring their activities (somewhat) into the light. No more. It’s not like these women are going to give up prostitution because Craigslist shut down the adult services section. No, instead this will push them back towards the pimps who abuse them and trap them in this awful profession.

    Just because we won’t see it doesn’t mean it won’t continue to happen. Sad, but true.

    More from this perspective can be read at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danah-boyd/how-censoring-craigslist-_b_706789.html

    • @Garrett – I respect Danah Boyd’s thoughts on this issue. I’ve always thought she had a good grasp of issues around social media and culture. But the exploitation of women by the pimps was happening even when Craigslist allowed for adult ads. Granted, Craigslist was a ready-made place for law enforcement to find Johns and victimized women, but there are thousands of other places to do this online. Maralek’s book, The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, talks about the this vast network and community of male exploiters.

      I agree that censoring Craigslist did nothing to stop the cycle of abuse. Boyd’s comments, “What we desperately need are for sites like Craigslist to be encouraged to work with law enforcement and help create channels to actually help victims.” Right. But that didn’t happen to the degree that it should have.

  4. About a week ago, Craigslist removed their erotic services section from their site. In its place is the word “Censored” – highlighted in black, at least in my locality.

    It appears that pressure from the public and law enforcement has turned a new page.

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