Sex & Relationships

Scapegoating Craigslist Is Not Going to Solve the Problem of Underage Prostitution

For years, politicians have gone after Craigslist for ads promoting sex trafficking and prostitution. At best their efforts are misguided, and may even exacerbate the problem.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any media-aware person who has never used or heard of Craigslist, the online classifieds that enjoy a uniquely ubiquitous Internet presence all over America and increasingly around the globe.

Craigslist serves 700 cities in 70 countries. It’s the 11th most visited website in the U.S. and it’s used by 50 million unique users a month, who make 423 million monthly visits and generate billions of page views. Chances are, you or someone you know has bought a used couch, looked for a job, found true love, or tried to get laid using Craigslist.

These days, Craigslist is getting a different, far less desirable kind of attention: The site’s personal ads have come under aggressive scrutiny and attack from law enforcement officials all over the country. Predictably, a media feeding frenzy has ensued.

Anti-human trafficking advocates, frustrated by the horrific and seemingly intractable problem of sex trafficking in the U.S., have accused the site of facilitating forced prostitution.

Meanwhile, for several years, a pack of Attorney Generals, led by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, has targeted Craigslist with lawsuits and threats, claiming that the site features ads for underage prostitutes and sex trafficking victims. Several have demanded that Craigslist entirely drop their Adult Services section.

Most recently Jackie Speier, a member of Congress from the Silicon Valley area, held a press conference where she asked Craigslist to halt Adult Services. Speier raised the publicity stakes further, asking the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on how Web sites like Craigslist are being used to "facilitate criminal activity."

You read that right: Speier is not asking for a hearing about the problem of underage sex trafficking. She’s asking Congress to investigate Craigslist, despite the fact that the site has not broken any laws and has made countless changes to address the concerns of law enforcement officials, politicians and human rights activists.

Here’s how Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster responded to Speiers’ attack:

I'm confident you will soon realize shutting down portions of Craigslist is no answer, and in fact would be a big step in the wrong direction with respect to the very issues you have raised ... Trafficking and child exploitation are despicable, and while exceedingly rare on Craigslist, any ad facilitating crime is utterly unacceptable, and we work tirelessly with law enforcement to ensure any such victim receives the assistance they deserve and anyone responsible is prosecuted. With 50 million Americans engaging in billions of human interactions each month, the overwhelming majority of which are well-intentioned, the incidence of crime on Craigslist is exceptionally low. However, our tolerance for crime is zero … 

So what’s the real story here? Do Craigslist’s critics, who seem to have singled out the site as their focus in the fight against teen prostitution, have a point? Or is Craigslist merely a convenient scapegoat?

The Unique, Unorthodox Power House that is Craigslist

Over the past decade the wildly successful Craigslist has wreaked havoc in the media industry. The site’s hugely popular free ads have undermined a newspaper industry financially dependent on paid advertising. The online classifieds have hastened the decline of dailies as well as alternative weeklies, creating many unhappy – and more than a few unemployed – people.

Founder Craig Newmark is a well-known figure that attends many conferences, making himself quite accessible in his own inscrutable way. He is the earnest nerd, the shy eligible bachelor, the non-partisan good-government and journalism advocate who at times as referred to himself politically as a Whig. With characteristic modesty, Newmark says his title is "customer service rep.” Yet Newmark sits atop a potential goldmine. If Craigslist is ever taken public or is sold, Newmark could make billions. Hell, the New York Observer recently listed Newmark as the 14th most powerful real estate figure in NYC, ahead of Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo, likely the next governor of NY.

But Newmark is not interested in using the site to turn massive profits. And part of the reason for the media frenzy always surrounding Craigslist is the site’s unorthodox business model, which seems to cause equal parts fascination and frustration.

The site’s lack of interest in making a huge profit, as well as in offering the latest bells and whistles of the sophisticated technophiles, has made it a target of the business-oriented tech press, led by Wired, which is owned by the mega publishing company Condé Nast. 

A recent Wired story by Gary Wolfe was headlined "Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess." The article criticizes Craigslist for not trying to up its profits the old fashioned way, by improving services, adding technology fixes, and charging money.

Wolfe writes that Craigslist reaches nearly a fifth of the nation's adult population every month. "It is the most important community site going and yet the most underdeveloped. Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are Craigslist has considered it and rejected it. If you try to build a third-party application designed to make Craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down."

CEO Buckmaster makes it clear why Wired and many seem frustrated: "Craig Newmark and I have been called communists and socialists for putting community ahead of financial considerations. After 15 years of focusing on public service, 50 million people now rely on Craigslist each month for their everyday needs. To the eternal amazement of financial analysts we have never sought to maximize our personal gain. Not because we’re saints, but because valuing service over money is more fulfilling and enjoyable, and has always felt like the right thing to do.”

Wolfe seems frustrated that Craigslist is free: "Besides offering nearly all of its features for free, it scorns advertising, refuses investment, ignores design, and does not innovate. Ordinarily, a company that showed such complete disdain for the normal rules of business would be vulnerable to competition, but Craigslist has no serious rivals. The glory of the site is its size and its price.” Wolfe and Wired seem exasperated by Newmark's and Ceo Jim Buckmaster's philosophy. "People are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day," Newmark says. Continues Wolfe, describing Newmark’s worldview: “If most people are good and their needs are simple, all you have to do to serve them well is build a minimal infrastructure allowing them to get together and work things out for themselves.” 

Craigslist’s 50 million users don’t seem to mind.

The Trafficking of Children

As for the giant, ongoing flap about Craigslist's Adult Services section: for reasons that seem to reflect how poorly our society deals with its fundamental problems, Craigslist is blamed for crimes committed by people who use their services.

Craigslist has broken no laws. Not only that, but the site has taken many significant steps to help law enforcement officials capture those who are selling stolen goods, causing physical harm, and engaging in illegal sex acts. Craigslist doesn’t actually have to do any of that, because they are not liable for what appears on the site (the 1996 Communications Decency Act immunizes providers from content posted by users) – but they choose to collaborate with law enforcement anyway. Nevertheless, legal officials and advocates continue to scapegoat Craigslist.

Craigslist is blamed for serious and intractable social problems like forced prostitution and child sex trafficking, stubborn and disconcerting problems that those actually responsible for making and enforcing laws can't solve – or perhaps have yet to find the will and resources to seriously try.

The sexual trafficking of young girls is a despicable crime, and increasingly prevalent in our cities and communities. In many cases this horrific problem is going on unchecked. Here is what veteran reporter Dan Ratherhas to say: "In covering news for more than 60 years, I'd like to think that few stories shock me anymore. But this is one of them. We ran across it late last year and the more we dug, the more disturbing it became. Eighty-year-old men paying a premium to violate teenage girls, sometimes supplied by former drug gangs now into child sex trafficking big time? You've got to be kidding. Nope. That's happening and a lot more along the same lines. The business is booming. One of the worst areas for it runs along lines running roughly from Seattle to Portland, to San Francisco and Los Angeles, to Las Vegas. But no place in the country is immune."

It’s difficult to assess how many children are involved in underage prostitution -- some conservative estimates peg the number in the range of 100,000 American children who are involved annually, while others say they believe it's closer to 300,000 or more. As one example, in a long investigative report at a micro news site Oakland Local,author Barbara Grady estimates that on any given night there are 100 underage prostitutes on International Boulevard, the main thoroughfare for finding prostitutes in this medium-sized California City.

Portland, Oregon, one of America's favorite cities and one known for civic pride and great public transportation, is surprisingly also a hot bed for child prostitution, ranking second in the number of child prostitutes that are rescued. The much-admired Portland actually presents a sad example of law enforcement’s failure to attack child trafficking head on.

Supply and Demand ... and Easy, Safe Money

Like most illegal activities, prostitution in general, and the trafficking of underage girls specifically, is fundamentally a question of supply and demand. In the case of teenage trafficking, supply may be increasing due to complex social and law enforcement factors. For example, it has been reported that increasingly, men in the drug trade are switching to human trafficking. Some speculate that many dealers have left the drug trade for pimping because more money could be made in trafficking, but also because there’s far less pressure from the cops --- there is little risk of arrest, and most prostitutes are unwilling to testify against their pimps.

It is a very lucrative business, according to Doug Justus of the Portland police department, who is quoted in Rather’s story. 

An average pimp with one kid will make between $800 and $l,000 a day. That's seven days a week, 30 days a month," he said. And the pimps usually have a stable of young girls. No wonder so many criminals in the drug trade have turned to it which they have in droves. There's less chance of being caught, less chance of being prosecuted if caught, lighter sentences -- if any -- if convicted.

In his recent TV show and article, Dan Rather took a look at the effort that Portland puts into this issue, when compared with the drug war. He notes:

There is, and has been for a long time, a national "War on Drugs." There isn't one on child prostitution and what amounts to a slave trade. Only feeble efforts at best. Justus, the Portland police detective is frustrated that the Portland police have only two full-time vice investigators, compared to dozens of drug investigators ."I'm not a politician. I'm just a cop. But if I'm a criminal and I got busted for drugs and I had a regional (drug) task force over here. And there's another task force over there, and there, and then I know there's only two vice investigators in the city of Portland, let me think. I think I'll sell women because what are the chances of me being caught?"


Consider the billions of dollars that are invested in the drug war, and the militarization of police departments across the land as a result of the overwrought fear of terrorism that has spread into towns and small cities all across the land. And consider the firepower: Our cities and communities are armed to the teeth to bust pot and cocaine dealers, and be prepared for the extraordinarily unlikely chance that they will be involved with terrorism. Meanwhile, a huge number of vulnerable kids are being violated and abused every day. Might we also consider what would happen if some of police departments’ firepower were aimed at pimps? If cops broke down doors of pimps that abuse kids with AK 47s in the dark of night in full combat gear? Might that not help slow down sex trafficking (not that I think it is a good idea to use that kind of police tactics in general)?  But where are our priorities?

Why Scapegoating Craigslist Is Dangerous

Scapegoating Craigslist while ignoring more significant problems is not only misguided – it’s also dangerous. The publicity creates the illusion that the problem of trafficking is being addressed, when it's not. Focusing on Craigslist avoids real and substantive solutions to the problem, and obscures what appears to be our society's fundamental inability to deal with child prostitution.

The reasons for the social failure to attack trafficking are no doubt multifaceted, though they probably have at their core elements of sexism and racism. A San Francisco psychologist, who preferred to remain anonymous, suggested that male ambivalence or outright avoidance of dealing with illegal sex issues can be in part explained by the high number of men of all classes who have had sexual relations with prostitutes at one time or another. According to the recent survey data (University of Chicago Life and Health Study), about 16 percent of men in the US have visited a prostitute at least once in their lifetime. According to Dr. Teela Sanders, a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, and the author of Paying For Pleasure: Men Who Buy Sex, nearly one in three men will buy sex at some point in his life ... and we're not talking porn.  These numbers suggest that somewhere between 15 and 40 million men have used a prostitute at some point in their life. That is quite a sizable market. Perhaps some feel culpability. 

Many elected officials seem addicted to explaining and addressing problems with press releases, which are cheap and require very little work. I don't doubt that they are outraged by what they hear and see -- and of course it is disturbing to hear detailed stories of pimps who have benefited from Craigslist.   But do these media hounds really think that with all of the money being made, and the hundreds of other sites where prostitutes advertise, undermining Craigslist, or getting them to abolish adult services, will seriously address the problem? In fact, all it could accomplish is make it a little harder to catch abusers and harm Craigslist, seemingly the only online classifieds acting in the public interest. It may even send the problem deeper underground, where it will be less visible.

In fact, hundreds of other sites on the web feature sex ads, the most prominent of which is BackPage, owned by the Village Voice company -- more on that in a moment. These other sites get very little attention, in part because Craigslist is a kind of media goldmine for those in search of publicity to pump up their career or their cause. The media seems little more than a Pavlov dog when it comes to Craigslist. Piling on Craigslist has become a bit of a national sport – but one that represents a dangerous trend for teens and adults forced into sex slavery.

AG Blumenthal and His Fellow Attorney Generals'  Embarrassing Ignorance of the Law

The most visible, and perhaps influential national law enforcement official going after Craigslist has been Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who just happens to be running for the Senate. The Blumenthal candidacy is filled with hope for Democrats, who are desperate to hang on to a significant majority in the Senate. Chris Dodd, the incumbent, retired, presumably because he couldn't get reelected, paving the way for Blumenthal in a a super high priority race. Blumenthal also happens to be the candidate who has lied repeatedly about his service in Vietnam, claiming he was there during the war as a Marine, when he actually avoided the draft for 5 years, signing up at the last minute for the Marine Reserves when he became vulnerable to the draft. In the end he never left Washington, D.C .

Most recently Blumenthal, who has led overzealous AGs into battle against Craigslist many times, subpoenaed the company for information regarding their finances, dramatically declaring, "The Craigslist brothel business seems to be booming."

His tactics were questionable to say the least.

"The Attorney Generals' war on Craigslist is a"bit embarrassing," says Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Matthew Zimmerman, given that their position requires familiarity with existing laws. "They're engaging in an easy PR move where they get to look tough on crime. Problem with that is, it's not the law."

According to Zimmerman Craigslist is protected from liability even if they know that the content posted is illegal, and even if they profit from it. "The subpoena is a trumped up excuse to go in and harass Craigslist and continue to make their life difficult," says Zimmerman.

In 2008, Blumenthal sent a letter to Craigslist signed by 40 AGs demanding the site crack down on ads for illegal activities. After negotiations with Blumenthal, the company instituted several changes to combat illegal uses of the site: users would have to provide a working phone number and pay a 5-10 dollar fee with a valid credit card. Craigslist also agreed to collaborate with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing or Exploited Kids to help hunt down illegal traffickers.

The agreement did not dissuade Cook Country Sheriff Thomas Dart from suing Craigslist a mere 4 months later. Dart not only asked the court to shut down the "erotic services" (predecessor to “Adult Services”) section, but demanded the site pay the Sheriff department's $100,000 investigation into illegal activity on the site. U.S. District Court Judge John Grady was not impressed, throwing out the suit and saying that Craigslist was not to blame for users violating the site's policies.

Undeterred by precedent, South Carolina AG Henry McMaster decided to one-up Dart in May of 2009 by threatening to prosecute Craigslist executives if they refused to drop "erotic services". Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster replied in a blog post that McMaster's suit was baseless. Nevertheless, bowing to pressure after the highly publicized murder of a 26 year old massuesse who'd advertised on the site, Craigslist agreed to scrap Erotic Services and replace it with a new section called Adult Services that would be closely monitored for illegal content. McMaster wasn't satisfied, insisting he'd go ahead with his "investigation." When Craigslist slapped the AG with a counter-suit and a restraining order, McMaster improbably declared victory, saying the site would now adhere to higher standards.

Many advocates for exploited children and trafficking victims are fiercely fighting forced and under-aged prostitution any way they can.

But like the AGs, in order to get their issue in the news, to sound the alarm, to increase their fundraising potential, they primarily go after Craigslist. Amanda Kloer, an anti trafficking activist, who has a petition up at Change.org to pressure Craigslists about Adult Services, told AlterNet "Craigslist is by no means the only group that human trafficking victims are advertised through. The Washington Post still has huge sections of advertisements for Asian massage parlors that are shut down for trafficking. Yet WP hasn’t responded to requests to get rid of those ads. Backpage also run sex ads." So why focus on Craigslist?

"I think Craigslist is not the only one, but they’re the best known. I can’t say there are more ads for trafficked people on Craigslist than other places. But it’s a big organization, and getting them to change their policies would effect more change."

The Craigslist Response and Those Other Sites

One of the stranger aspects of attacks on Craigslist is the fact that traffickers are often caught through the site.

Craigslist emphasizes that it has gone out of its way to work closely with law enforcement to crack down on illegal sex ads. (It must be said here that adults voluntarily engaging in sex work – though there’ also opportunity for exploitation there – are in a totally different realm than children or those forced into prostitution. In fact, it has been argued that sites like Craigslist may provide a safer venue for adult sex workers.)

When I ask Jim Buckmaster why Craigslist is being targeted so frequently, his response was this:

No good deed goes unpunished! It's surprising that after all the improvements we have made Craigslist continues to be singled out for criticism (much of it directed at those very improvements!) while countless sites specializing in utterly unmoderated adult ads continue to get a free pass from politicians and advocacy groups. It leads us to wonder whether, if we hadn't issued a Joint Statement with the Attorneys General, and had refrained from adopting all of the protective measures we've taken, whether all of this could have been avoided.

Buckmaster adds: "Why is it of no interest that companies other than Craigslist, with far more such ads, graphic and unmoderated, are not screening them at all, nor have they taken any of the other protective measures we have taken? Lagging behind (to mention but a few) are the large mainstream internet portals, the major search engines, large telephone companies (yellow pages), major newspapers, chain operators of alternative weeklies, etc — which derive vastly more revenue from adult service ads than Craigslist, while doing far less than Craigslist to combat exploitation/trafficking.”

Buckmaster insists: "Each ad submitted to adult services on Craigslist is manually screened by one or more human reviewers. Ads that blatantly advertise prostitution are summarily rejected. For example, most if not all of the adult services ads featured by the Village Voice Inc. Backpage ( which carries more adult ads than Craigslist in most US cities) would be rejected by our manual reviewers, and in fact quite a few of them would be submitted to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids cyber tipline "

It should be noted that the Village Voice Co. was taken over in 2006 by New Times, a company which owned 10 weekly newspapers, operating out of Phoenix Arizona, and owned by Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. The owners of the Voice, primarily David Schneiderman, sold their 5 papers to New Times, giving the company unprecedented consolidation of 14 papers in most key US markets including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Houston, Seattle. New Times decided that the Village Voice brand was stronger than theirs and called the consolidated new company Village Voice Inc.

Here are some ads from BackPage, supplied by Buckmaster:


Here’s an ad with photos (NSFW) of bare genitalia (Craigslist reviewers reject ads with nude pictures), describing specific sex acts offered (Craigslist reviewers reject ads with sexual language or code words):
******Ev3Ry !!! M@N’s!///!!% W3tt ***Dre@M __ CuM%TruE*** - 24
Watch closely as i bounce my fat luscious, juicy apple bottom booty up & down ure big c*ck!!! 80Roses** Quk $e$$ion 100Roses** Half Hr 140Roses** Full Hr200 Roses.

This ad offers “greek” in exchange for 100 “kisses” in the ad title (Craigslist reviewers reject such ads):
♥ ♥ SexY EXxXOTiC BuSTii B@RB!E (( g/r/3/3/k)) ♥ ♥ 100 kisses - 21

The following ad, if submitted to CL’s review team, would have been reported to NCMEC’s cybertipline:
** I JuST TuRNeD 18 YeSTeRDaYY** FiNaLLY LeGal - 18
my parents are at work and im all alone jus waiting for someone to cum inside and invade my young, barely legal, juicy, suculant love nest. 

In addition to the many steps the site has taken to discourage illegal postings (Buckmaster has listed their policies here) Craigslist helps law enforcement by creating the opportunity for stings that have helped take down human trafficking operations.

As Valleywag  pointed out during the Sheriff Thomas Dart's lawsuit, Dart's department used Craigslist to bust a prostitution ring, leading to the arrests of 254 women and men. Komo news reported that Everett Washington's Vice Squad depends on Craigslist to help find and arrest sex workers. All officers have to do is answer the ads, set up a meeting and make an arrest if sex for money is offered. A Canadian police chief has said that his regularly uses Craigslist to investigate ads they find suspicious, leading to stings that find girls as young as 15-16 being pimped out.

In an open letter Buckmaster pointed out that dropping the adult services section would actually hurt more than help curb illegal activity: "For the sake of rescuing victims and prosecuting criminals, is it really a good idea to eliminate the only venue for adult service ads that is highly responsive to law enforcement? The only venue that seeks out nonprofit groups and readily adopts their suggestions?"

Scapegoating Is Not the Answer

Blaming Craigslist for the problem takes those responsible for fixing the problem off the hook. Political opportunists of every stripe go after Craigslist because it is an international brand with instant recognition, and the corporate media tends to salivate when it comes to stories about sex and law breaking related to Craigslist.

It is hard to understand how people think that coming down on Craigslist or having them eliminate their adult personals will solve sex trafficking. Unless more resources are invested in making life difficult for the johns who use underage prostitutes, and until heavy heat comes down on the pimps who seduce, manipulate, and sometimes kidnap young girls and make them perform against their will, this problem will grow. That is where the focus, the energy, and the resources must be applied.

If public officials don't target the abusers more aggressively, or intervene with the kids, nothing will change. Craigslist is only the intermediary, as are all personal ads. Does anyone really think if there was no Craigslist, suddenly child prostitution will go away? Not likely. With the large amounts of profit in play, there will always be a marketing, advertising, communication strategy to match the supply with the demand. In the end, primarily going after Craigslist probably makes the pimps very happy.

Full disclosure: AlterNet was the recipient of one general support contribution from Craigslist in 2009. Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.