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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.

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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.

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