Oh, Craigslist. Why do you have go causing all this controversy about your "adult services" section?
Actually, thank you, Craigslist, for this much: This is the first time I've read a discussion about sex work and sex trafficking in feminist circles where everyone is able to be calm and forthright. Now, I haven't seen the discussion at every blog or on every corner of Twitter, but I've seen a lot of discussion about this, and most of it involves neither hysterically claiming that all prostitutes that work through Craigslist are trafficked or downplaying the fact that trafficking is real. I haven't seen any pro-sex work people make disturbing arguments downplaying the horrors of sex slavery, or doing a bunch of hand-waving to distract from the fact that there's a whole world of prostitutes that aren't trafficked in the classic sense of the term, but are still being basically held as slaves by their pimps. So far, most discussion I've seen admits that a) pimps are a real problem and nothing to sniff at b) trafficking is a widespread issue and a major, possibly the major source of modern day slavery in the U.S. c) Craigslist is being used by pimps to sell trapped women and minors to men who are truly the scum of the earth and d) that most of the women selling themselves on Craigslist aren't trafficked.
That's a lot of agreement! I'm really proud of people. Now that the facts are coming into focus, I think that the solutions are becoming much more obvious. Whatever you think of consensual prostitution, I think it's probably important to join up with the people who are protesting the war on Craigslist.
The main reason is simple: Craigslist helps prostitutes stay away from pimps. Not all, by any means, but for a lot of women, having to go without any intermediary at all allows them to avoid the clutches of men who are in this to exploit them for profit and the thrill of owning women. As Danah Boyd---who is an anti-trafficking activist---explains:
Censoring Craigslist will also create new jobs for pimps and other corrupt intermediaries, since it'll temporarily make it a whole lot harder for individual scumbags to find clients. This will be particularly devastating for the low-end prostitutes who were using Craigslist to escape violent pimps. Keep in mind that occasionally getting beaten up by a scary john is often a whole lot more desirable for many than the regular physical, psychological, and economic abuse they receive from their pimps. So while it'll make it temporarily harder for clients to get access to abusive services, nothing good will come out of it in the long run.
And as Melissa Gira points out, those who actually want to help women who are trapped in prostitution would not arrest and charge those women with crimes, making it hard to impossible for them to get non-prostitution jobs if and when they feel ready to make the move out of sex work. I don't like the way she uses scare quotes around "bad men" when describing the at least deeply unpleasant men who get involved in the sex trade as johns and pimps, but her points are valid. Going after Craigslist is about going after an easy target in lieu of actually doing the hard work of fighting traffickers. As Danah Boyd points out, what this does is suggest that the main problem with trafficking, in the eyes of the law, is that it's visible. Which, in turn, tells pimps all they need to do is stay out of the public eye and they can create rape for pay schemes all the livelong day.
As I've made it clear here before, I'm not a fan of prostitution. Or specifically, I'm not a fan of men who think that they're entitled to buy sex. I don't have a problem with women who freely choose to sell it in the slightest---a lot of them are good people, in my experience. I don't buy most of the apologies made for johns, however. I've made it clear that I think that the myth that men buy sex because they "have" to, because no one else will fuck them or fuck them the way they want, is just that, a myth. (And one that implies that only men have sexual needs that have to be met through commerce if no one is volunteering. People making these excuses rarely have love for women who are hard up.) I tend to believe people make sexual choices because that's what they specifically want, and the act of buying sex is the turn-on and not incidental to the transaction.
But the solution to this problem is cultural change that would make it so the demand for purchased sex dries up. Attacking the women who do sex work---or worse, creating situations where other men can abuse them without consequence---sure as hell isn't the way to bring an end to prostitution. On the contrary, I think that the men who use prostitutes and the men who pimp them out and the men who make a big show out of making life hard for prostitutes, legally speaking, are all playing the same game, and the people who end up holding the shit bag are prostitutes themselves. Anything that drives prostitution underground doesn't do much for prostitutes, but it sure does help out pimps and johns by giving them a shadowy world to work in, where they don't have to pay the price if they abuse prostitutes because no one cares and no one's looking. While I do think that Boyd may be overstating her case of how Craigslist can help bust traffickers, I do think she's 100% right that the only result of driving prostitution out of clearly marked pages for it is that it goes into the shadows, where all the more evil can happen.