After coming under fire from women’s organizations such as The Rebecca Project, which successfully pressured law enforcement, Attorneys General from states across the country finally shut down Craigslist’s adult section. A victory for women and the power of women’s organizations: prostitution and sex trafficking was being advertised on the popular site out in the open as if it were no big deal and perfectly legal. Now its all been shut down! Hurray!
But is Craigslist’s “erotic services” section closing a real victory for women and victims of sex crimes?
No doubt it’s shocking that sex and sex with children was being sold blatantly on the internet– and shocking that no one seemed shocked– letting it all just go on for years like no one cared and it didn’t matter at all except to a few fanatic feminist organizations. Not only was Craigslist perpetuating child abuse and illegal activities, but the company was making 36 million dollars from its adult section.
But is shutting down Craigslist’s adult section really just shooting the messenger?
Women’s organizations argue even if it is, that messenger is a key to facilitating crimes against women and children. Craigslist and sites like it provide the crucial PR and marketing arm for sex trafficking, without which sex crimes would not have the massive outreach they do.
But others argue shutting down Craigslist only pushes sex trafficking further underground. The site was a tool used by law enforcement to monitor all kinds of illegal activity, a telescope into the murky, secret world of sex crime is now lost.
As far as the millions of dollars Craigslist earned from its adult section, the company was donating 100% of proceeds to charitable causes, including organizations to help women. Though now, women’s organizations are rejecting that money. The Center for Young Women’s Development burned a $100,000 check.
Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory thought this money from Craigslist going to women’s organizations posed an interesting dilemma for these non-profits and called several of them including NOW, Equality Now, and the Fair Fund, to ask what they thought. All of their spokespeople told Clark-Flory they saw no dilemma at all; they would take no money from Craigslist. Girls Educational and Mentoring Services told the New York Times the same thing: “That money has come from pimps and traffickers who have sold many of the girls who will then walk in my door.”
I’ve got to admire any organization that stands by its principles and burns an $100,000 check. I think that must have been an empowering act for the Center for Young Women’s Development. Though I also believe its challenging to claim any money is pure. Obviously all donors aren’t investigated. It seems like every cosmetic company on earth gives money to help eradicate breast cancer, including all the ones that test on animals and sell magical creams that promise to banish cellulite. Obviously selling girls is far worse than selling potions and lines have to be drawn. Oprah doesn’t carry ads in her magazine from cigarette or diet companies. Everyone’s got their limits. Or they don’t.
I’m most troubled that Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, hasn’t said more about sex trafficking. I saw a much repeated CNN interview where a reporter kept questioning him about the ads on his site and he mostly stared back at her, stone faced. He seemed mad. Now he has a “Censored” sign over his adult section and that seems angry too. Especially because Craig Newmark isn’t being censored. He has a voice on CNN and any TV news or radio outlet or national magazine he wants. Why doesn’t Newmark use that platform to do something to help the powerless, voiceless kids who are victims of sex crimes instead of petulantly sulking that he’s being censored?
Is it that Newmark thinks, as Businessweek reports, that he’s not really mainstream, he’s an “alternative” site, still using the .org suffix even though he’s not a non-profit? Unlike Twitter, AOL, Yahoo, Facebook, and YouTube, Craigslist never hired extensive staff to monitor the site. Businessweek reports Newmark believes in “crowdsourcing.”
Craigslist believes that the Internet enables a new kind of small enterprise to create a global service that delivers a public good by tapping into the power of users who “crowdsource” content.
By becoming mired in a seemingly never-ending legal scrum over adult ads, Craigslist is forcing even Internet true-believers to question that model. “I have concluded over the years that crowd-sourcing isn’t enough,” says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at California’s Santa Clara University. ‘There has to be enough of a human presence to make sure sites can deliver on the trust that users want to have in them. It could very well be that Craigslist is just understaffed, and there is no model for it to continue operating at the current level.’
Can the internet really monitor itself? Does Newmark really believe it can? Especially when kids are so often victims? This theory seems reminiscent of the unrealistic belief that capitalism is just supposed to take care of itself and then we’re all surprised when something like the mortgage crisis happens. This kind of libertarianism only works in a dreamworld where there are no powerless people. Newmark’s claim of censorship reminds me of the movie “The People Versus Larry Flynt” where the founder of Hustler was idolized as a proponent of free speech. I can’t really get behind Flynt or Newmark as some kind of icon of coolness, but at least Flynt used his bullhorn to speak whenever he could. I don’t get Newmark’s silence.
Here’s a statement I received on sex work from Third Wave, an organization for and run by feminists under age 35. (Full disclosure, I used to be on the board of the Third Wave.) I’m not sure what their position on Craigslist is, I’m talking to them tomorrow and will post about it, but I think they put out a great statement that begins to address the complexity of the issues around sex work and young people. Here it is:
Part of the solution: youth engaged in sex work & the sex trade
Third Wave Foundation supports the work of young people to make powerful change in their communities.
As a progressive philanthropic institution, we are committed to strengthening organizations led by-and-for young women of color and transgender youth in low-income communities. Our grant partners work on a broad range of issues and employ myriad strategies, including challenging violence and gender-based inequity and claiming rights to economic opportunity, education, and health care. Through the work of our grant partners and through our philanthropic advocacy, we seek to shift historic and systemic forms of violence and oppression that are rooted in gender, race, and class inequity.
We do not believe that sex work is a cause of that violence or oppression, nor do we believe that seeking to prohibit safe and consensual sex work or the demand for it is the solution to eradicating gender-based inequity or violence. In fact, these attempts to criminalize sex work often have the unintended consequence of leaving young people even more vulnerable. Prohibitions on sex work — even when targeted at third-parties such as customers and advertising venues — criminalize young people and force them further underground in order to meet their survival needs. As a result, they are more vulnerable to violence and isolated from one another and from rights advocates.
Third Wave supports young people engaged in sex work and impacted by the sex trade as critical partners in ensuring health and justice. We at Third Wave are deeply concerned about the ways in which young women and transgender youth may be subject to abuse and violence in any aspect of their lives. Over the last decade of supporting this work, we have learned that young people come to sex work and the sex trade through a wide range of experiences that include choice, circumstance, and coercion. Our community of grant partners and allies includes sex workers, people involved in the sex trade and street economies, and people who have been trafficked. Regardless of how young people are involved in or are impacted by the sex trade, they must be considered partners in the work of advocating for rights and achieving justice.
We recognize and affirm a difference between sex work and trafficking, and urge policymakers and allies in human rights advocacy to approach these issues with respect for that difference.
These are nuanced and deeply complex concerns. Pursuing a plan of action to address violence, coercion, or trafficking without considering the needs and leadership of young people with direct experience in sex work and the sex trade will result in solutions that do not fully address the harms that young people face. Nor will advocates benefit from the depth of their expertise.
With our support, young people engaged in sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade are organizing in their communities and achieving wins.
Across the US, our grant partners are supporting one another to create smart solutions that are rooted in their day-to-day realities.
* They conduct research on the needs of their own communities, mapping the complex social service systems that they must navigate successfully in order to seek support.
* They operate their own health care clinics with state and city-level health partners.
* They advocate for and participate in city taskforces that address youth housing needs.
* They have developed their own programs to secure legal advocacy for their communities.
* They organize and train one another to work within criminal/legal systems to advocate for their rights.
Together, they create innovative new models for peer support and education rooted in harm reduction principles and respect for young people’s power to make change in their own lives.
We value the full range of experiences of young people who do sex work and are impacted by the sex trade, and support work that builds their power and agency.
It is a step forward for policymakers and advocates to recognize that young people who do sex work or who are impacted by the sex trade are not criminals. We must also recognize that not all young people who do sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade are victims.
Partnerships between young people and adult allies must support the vision and leadership of young people. We work in collaboration with young people to secure the resources they need to continue creating a healthy and just world. We urge policymakers who seek to protect young people from violence to include young people’s expertise at every level of their decision-making. We also urge our community partners and allies to center the voices and experiences of young people who do sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade when advocating for their human rights.