Sex & Relationships

Hypocritical Legal Crusade Against Craigslist Will Not Solve Violence Against Sex Trafficking Victims

AG Richard Blumenthal's obsession with Craigslist does nothing to end the exploitation of people trafficked for sex.

For years, Connecticut state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (and his dozen or so allied AGs across the United States) have aggressively attacked Craigslist's Adult Services section. This weekend, Craigslist opted to self-censor that part of the site. Perhaps now, Blumenthal and his allies in law enforcement might abandon their counterproductive crusade against Craigslist and take steps to confront the issues that actually contribute to violence against people involved in the sex trade.

If these lead prosecutors are truly concerned about ending violence and exploitation, then their focus on one intermediary advertising Web site, among dozens of other sex ad venues, could be considered criminally shortsighted. There’s a tremendous amount the attorneys general could do toactuallycurb the suffering of people within the criminal and legal systems in which they have power. This is what some of us have elected them to do.

People involved in the sex trade, whether by choice, coercion or circumstance, all still face criminal records after a prostitution conviction – even people who have been trafficked. These convictions can prevent a former sex worker or trafficking survivor from obtaining future employment, housing or retaining custody of their children. The collateral consequences of conviction vary from state to state, and can be severe. In Louisiana, Women With a Vision advocates for women who are charged under a 200-year-old “crimes against nature” law when suspected of being involved in the sex trade. Such a conviction requires them to register as sex offenders. They group asks how a young woman of color is supposed to make a living outside the sex trade when her driver’s license is stamped “SEX OFFENDER” in large block letters -- as is the case with hundreds of women convicted of prostitution in Louisiana.

But these collateral consequences of conviction can be changed, even without removing laws against prostitution. In 2010, through the advocacy of the Sex Workers Project (based at the Urban Justice Center), New York became the first state in the nation to adopt legislation allowing trafficking survivors to vacate prostitution-related sentences, removing these convictions from their criminal records. This is a human rights victory that even those who consider prostitution to be intrinsically harmful can and ought to support.

Can we count on Blumenthal and his allied AGs, as they strive to protect human trafficking survivors, to support such critical law reform in their home states?

People involved in the sex trade still face still discrimination, harassment and violence from the people charged with helping them. A 2009 study of Chicago girls in the sex trade, conducted by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, paints a stark picture of what keeps girls isolated and vulnerable. Even when girls sought out the support they needed – from drug treatment and foster care programs to hospitals and the police – they were denied help because of their involvement in the sex trade. Girls describe hospitals discriminating against them and not providing full care, being physically and sexually assaulted by foster parents, and being accused of lying by the police when they seek help after being raped. In fact, girls’ reports of abuse by police outnumbered the stories of other forms of institutional violence that girls encountered by far.

Chicago is not alone. In a University of California at San Francisco study published in 2009, 22 percent of San Francisco adult female sex workers surveyed reported having police as paying customers. Fourteen percent were threatened with arrest if they did not have sex with a police officer. Washington cops fare no better: in a report published on people involved in or perceived to be involved in the sex trade, Different Avenues reveals that one in five people were solicited for sex by the police. They also report that police confiscated safer sex supplies, and strip-searched and assaulted people suspected of prostitution. These actions constitute human rights violations and are especially unconscionable coming from the law enforcement professionals who have a duty to protect people in the sex trade from violent pimps and others who might exploit them.

Would Blumenthal and his allies support a similar investigation into such police misconduct and abuse of power in key cities across the United States?

You could almost forgive Blumenthal and his colleagues for thinking that the root cause of prostitution was bad men and their bad, selfish, insatiable sexual appetites, bad men and their greed and their lust for power over others. They call them johns, pimps and traffickers. Their desire to blame “bad men” makes even more wretched sense when you consider who are among their colleagues in law and policy: Louisiana Senator David Vitter, a client of a Washington escort service, and former New York state governor and famed Internet escort service client Eliot Spitzer. For being such “bad men” who pay for sex, they’re still publicly kicking. Vitter is headed for re-election and Spitzer, though his political career is indelibly stamped with “Client #9,” isn’t hard-up for work. Whereas once CNN positioned its 24-hour trucks outside the apartment of one woman he hired for sex, now it’s Spitzer who’ll be helming their desks -- for his own eight o'clock news show coming this month.

Considering that Spitzer hired someone off the Internet to bring over state lines for sex, he’d likely fall under Blumenthal’s own very generous definition of a trafficker. But to call for charges against Spitzer does nothing now, and to insist that Blumenthal not forget these famous, slightly fallen, yet similarly elected clients of the sex trade is as pointless as asking him to consider turning away from his fight against Internet prostitution. There seems to be no convincing these public officials that there is simply no evidence that limiting the venues in which sex is sold improves public health and welfare for anyone. It is as if these attorneys general believe that the same “bad men” who might risk discovery and arrest by placing an advertisement for sex on a high-profile Web site like Craigslist will simply close up shop now that they must do business somewhere more underground, where it will be much harder for law enforcement and NGOs to monitor their activities. Meanwhile, police will continue to arrest young people in the sex trade, sending them to jails, shelters and clinics that denigrate and abuse them, and leaving them with criminal records that perpetuate the cycles of poverty and violence.

Demanding that Craigslist delete a section of its Web site is a far easier fight than examining one’s own law enforcement strategy. Censoring ads for prostitution does not end violence against people who sell or trade sex. But that’s not the fight at hand, not for the state AGs. Taking action to end violence against people in the sex trade is simply not on their agenda. How could we believe it is when they won’t right what’s wrong within their own houses?

Melissa Gira Grant has written about the Internet sex trade for Valleywag and Slate.