Still Much Ado About Craigslist

Though Craigslist’s Adult Services section is offline for good, the debate about its role in trafficking continues. Most recently, Michelle Goldberg weighed in on The Daily Beast with an article that uncritically embraces claims about what the closure of Adult Services will do for underage girls. In doing so, she inadvertently confirms many of the points made by those criticizing the anti-Craigslist campaign.

One of Goldberg’s first quotes comes from Malika Saada Saar, founder of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, who says “so many of the girls in the juvenile justice system were there only because of issues of sexual victimization,” immediately pointing to some of the biggest problems for victimized girls and women—their lack of resources and practical support, as well as their criminal status. (Saar is referring not only to prostitution but also to truancy and arrests for fleeing homes where sexual abuse occurs.) It’s unclear why law enforcement, the courts and jail are our best options for dealing with disadvantaged teens, but Saar quickly shifts the emphasis off of the legal system itself and onto Craigslist.

Melissa Gira Grant was one of many advocates for redirecting the energy focused on closing Craigslist towards alleviating those aforementioned institutional problems. In an article for Alternet, she criticized the Craigslist attack as “criminally shortsighted,” adding that health care discrimination, police abuse and criminal convictions all contribute to the suffering and lack of options for individuals within the sex industry, regardless of their gender and age. Why, wonders Gira Grant, are the attorneys general targeting an “intermediary advertising website” instead of working to create change “within the criminal and legal systems in which they have power?”

Goldberg’s article goes on to promote theories unsupported by any studies. Ken Franzblau of Equality Now says “We believe [Craigslist] actually increased the number of women being put into prostitution,” but no proof of such a phenomenon exists. Franzblau further speculates that “an awful lot of casual purchasers of sex are not going to know where to find it anymore and are just not going to bother.” Again, there are absolutely no numbers to support such a wildly optimistic claim, but there are plenty of thriving sex-selling websites that testify to enduring demand.

It’s hard to believe that purchasers of sex will be deterred by a few moments of googling for Craigslist alternatives, or that pimps who had no qualms about lying to, raping, kidnapping and abusing teenagers will suddenly be reformed because Adult Services is gone. Former trafficking victim Jill Brenneman wrote that when calls weren’t coming in, she was forced to work the street. As Gira Grant states, “There is simply no evidence that limiting the venues in which sex is sold improves public health and welfare for anyone.” Indeed, the profound lack of concrete evidence surrounding this highly emotional topic is one of its defining characteristics.

Goldberg’s piece concludes with another quote from Saar, who calls the concerns that closing Adult Services will drive trafficking further underground “bizarre.” But fears that criminals will become more covert instead of reformed are well-founded, alcohol prohibition being the most notorious example and our current failed drug war being another. When Saar says those protestations are akin to “saying it’s better for a child to be raped on our street, because at least we can identify the rapist, instead of around the corner,” she almost seems to admit that her solution is simply changing the location, not the crime.

No one participating in the Craigslist conversation wants another human being to be raped or beaten or otherwise abused. If we take on faith the good intentions and basic human decency of all parties involved, then it’s completely counterproductive to misrepresent some participants as merely “prudish” while others are assumed to be so callous as to value a company’s profits over the suffering of others. This debate is the result of critical differences of opinion in terms of how the lives of those in the sex industry can be improved, and it’s an important debate to be had. But its continuation will be most successful if undertaken with more cooperation and less acrimony, as well as more research and fewer emotional appeals.

Photo from Flickr user tastybit under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Excellent article. Very well written, good points! Thanks.

  2. "Goldberg’s article goes on to promote theories unsupported by any studies. Ken Franzblau of Equality Now says “We believe [Craigslist] actually increased the number of women being put into prostitution,” but no proof of such a phenomenon exists. "

    Yes, actually it does. A good example of this is the Swedish system of prosecuting Johns, not prostitutes, which has successfully reduced the overall industry in that country.

    I don't know why people assume a luxury leisure activity would not decrease when made less simple for purchasers. This has always been the case with other products and services.

  3. Gayle,

    The studies done in Sweden simply study street work and yes, there has been a decline in numbers. That's because the men and women have moved indoors or online. "End Demand" doesn't end demand. Swedish sex workers also point out that the law has made it more difficult for them to work safely, especially for those who still work on the street. Criminalizing any aspect of sex work ALWAYS puts the worker at risk — whether trafficking victim or consenting adult. It always makes me wonder exactly who feminists are fighting for since the majority of sex workers are women.

  4. University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin does not agree with you, Amanda. He wrote an editorial for the Globe and Mail about the Ontario court decision to to gut the federal prostitution laws:

    "Countries that have legalized prostitution have not succeeded in using elaborate regulations to address these problems. In the Netherlands, officials shut down vast sections of Amsterdam’s red-light district due to infiltration by organized crime. A 2005 report commissioned by the European Parliament found that legalized prostitution generally results in higher levels of violence against prostituted women. In New Zealand, regulation of the sex trade has not improved conditions in brothels with a history of problems, and exploitative contracts continue to be used. But the status quo in Canada that criminalizes those being sold for sex is equally unpalatable to many.

    In 1999, Sweden took a pioneering approach: Rather than punish those who are sold for sex, the country holds the purchasers of sex acts liable. Without demand, there would be no sex trafficking and prostitution. The government also implemented a $32-million national action plan that helps those who are being sold for sex to obtain assistance to exit their exploitation.

    The Swedish model recognizes that there is an undeniable link between human trafficking for sexual exploitation and prostitution. Politicians declared it was impossible to have true equality in a society that condoned the sexual commodification of economically and racially marginalized women and children.

    The evidence is that the Swedish model is working. Between 1999 and 2003, the number of women being sold for sex in the country dropped by 40 per cent. Last July, an independent inquiry by an eminent judge resoundingly endorsed the Swedish model based on its 10-year track record, finding that it had disrupted organized crime, deterred sex-act purchasers, changed public attitudes and cut street-level prostitution in half.

    And the inquiry found no evidence that the problem simply moved indoors, as some skeptics had speculated. It also found nothing to suggest that Sweden’s abolitionist model had negatively affected those being sold. Sweden’s approach is growing in popularity and has recently spread to Norway and Iceland."

    As the professor states, the risks involved in prostitution do not arise from the laws, rather "the violent johns and traffickers who are the real cause of physical violence, rape and murder in Canada’s sex trade."

    • How ironic that the 'revolutionary feminist philosopher' known as Aletha references the opinion of a man to refute the stance of a woman feminist.

      Swedish sex worker groups have critiqued the studies Perrin cited and found quite a number of flaws in them. Those critiques are in English and not difficult to find on the 'Net.

      • Yes, is it not ironic that a male law professor would agree with radical feminists? I found that editorial on the Global Sisterhood Network, posted by Jennifer Drew. It may surprise you to learn, Sheldon, that there are some men I consider friends, and/or allies, besides my significant other. I happen to think that men can play a part in a feminist revolution, and that men who wish to support a feminist revolution should be encouraged to do so. I could have cited the accompanying commentary by Jennifer Drew instead, but on this blog, I thought the opinion of a male law professor might be relevant, and possibly even less subject to challenge as lacking in objectivity than the opinions of myself, or Jennifer Drew. Why? Because unlike me, Ms. Drew, you, or "sex worker groups," Professor Perrin might actually be disinterested.

        Do you wish to debate some of these "flaws?"

        • The whole point of me bringing up Perrin's gender was that if someone on my side had done the same thing, it would have been automatically dismissed along the lines of, "Well, that professor's a man, and he benefits from patriarchy, blah, blah, blah…"

          There is no such thing as 'disinterested' on these matters. Perrin could easily be a john who's covering up his activities with his diploma and degrees; what better way to cover up than to pull a Spitzer?

          As for the flaws themselves, Laura Agustin's website has laid out the problems with the Swedish 'solution' with the meticulousness that the left media usually associates with a Noam Chomsky. Unless someone beats me to it, I'll pull up the relevant excerpts soon.

  5. "Perrin could easily be a john …" There you go with the baseless insinuations again. Are you claiming to be "automatically dismissed" on this blog, Sheldon? It seems you have plenty of allies here, including some of the Ms. bloggers.

    Any study of an illegal activity is going to be open to criticism about methodology and evidence because of all the issues surrounding obtaining reliable information about illegal activities. It is impossible to prove how effective the Swedish approach really is, and as I have stated elsewhere, legislation cannot really solve the problems associated with the sex trade, but I think there is a good argument that the Swedish approach has substantial merits over the approaches of prosecuting prostitutes, or fully legalizing prostitution.

    I read the blog entryBehind the happy face of the Swedish anti-prostitution law on the Laura Agustin site. I presume this is not the specific post you meant, since it focuses on issues the guest author Ms. Louise Persson has with the recent inquiry more than the law itself. Your initial comment mentioned flaws in the studies, then you switched to flaws in the "solution?" The article makes a big point of dismissing the story of one unhappy former prostitute in the report, saying "But this strategy won’t hold up, because Swedes know that all sex workers are not miserable." Is that the point? Do Swedes "know" that most prostitutes are not miserable? If not, is the experience of a few contented prostitutes to outweigh the misery of most? Does libertarian activist Ms. Persson believe that anecdote represents the exception, rather than the rule?

    Out of curiosity I clicked on one of the pingbacks, and came across an interesting opening line from a blogger, lo tekk, who linked to that post in an entry trashing Julie Bindel (another one to prostitutes and their best friend, julie bindel for her opinions supporting the conclusions of the July inquiry. In the immediately preceding entry, feminism as marketing campaign (part 3), lo tekk states: "finally i would move on to consider feminism as successful marketing campaign run by strictly commercial feminist organisations." This blogger goes on to link to various articles arguing that women batter men as often as men batter women, and to state, "having said that I am glad to announce that I am officially through with feminism in all its shapes and forms because in my humble and misguided opinion, modern feminism (with exception of egalitarian strain) at best should be seen as some prejudicial and vicious money making scheme which has very little to offer for modern societies (western) which regard equal, fair and just treatment of all individuals as the highest priority."

    Yeah, we live in a post-feminist world, do we? Gee, thanks for mentioning that exception of the egalitarian strain of feminism. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

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