Human Rights

Craigslist Is the Newest Target in the War on Prostitution

Having largely failed to make a dent in sex solicitation on the streets, law enforcement is now using Craiglist to bust people trading money for sex.
Forget Larry Craig.

It might have taken one foot-tapping senator in an airport bathroom stall to make it fresh news, but the undercover sex sting has been a media favorite long before anyone outside Idaho heard the name of the ruined senator. With phenomena like "To Catch a Predator" and the steady outing of high-profile pastors and politicians keeping it in the public consciousness, sordid sex is big news these days.

Now law enforcement is increasingly focused on the Internet in going after sex crimes; with parents nationwide convinced their child will be the next to be sexually predatored, perhaps it was only a matter of time before their target would become ... Craigslist.

On Sept. 5, the New York Times ran a front-page story: "As Prostitutes Turn to Craigslist, Law Takes Notice." According to the piece, the Nassau County Police Department has been trolling Craigslist's Erotic Services section -- labeled "the high-tech 42nd St." by one police chief -- since last year, responding to ads and even posting false ads to lure unsuspecting clients. It's a low-energy, higher-tech sex sting, and the result has been over 70 arrests, and counting.

The Times story came at the heels of a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported on local mayor Shirley Franklin's attempt to hold Craigslist responsible for promoting child prostitution. "Children are being marketed through Craigslist," the mayor announced, calling on the site to remove its sexually suggestive material. Adding that Craigslist is a "place where men meet men to arrange sexual encounters in the bathrooms at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport," the story elicited predictable outrage and denunciations.

One blogger lambasted the story. "By blaming Craigslist, demanding that it take down these ads and making a big public stink about this, all the mayor's office is doing is pushing those who are really doing illegal activities to move elsewhere where they're less easily tracked and caught," said a contributor for "But, apparently going after those who are actually doing illegal activities doesn't get you as much press as blaming some website."

Craigslist is getting press all right. One Arizona radio personality has labeled it "a clearinghouse for gay sex" and police nationwide have complained that Craigslist is facilitating prostitution ("It's a pretty fine line between promoting prostitution and allowing advertising," says the commander of the Nassau County Narcotics and Vice Squad).

But the Times piece wasn't about a site in peril. In fact, Craigslist is pretty solidly protected by law. (The Communications Decency Act of 1996 dictates that owners of websites cannot be held responsible for user-generated content -- the very definition of Craigslist.) Instead, as the cheap, easy, and anonymous alternative to street corners nationwide, Craigslist has proven not just irresistible for hookers: it's proving irresistible to police.

Across the country, police departments are logging on to Craigslist in search of potential sex criminals and the resulting numbers look pretty good at first glance. This past July, for example, Chicago police arrested more prostitutes via Craigslist than they did on the streets: 60 versus 43. An ad placed on Craigslist Seattle caught 71 customers this past November, "including a bank officer, a construction worker and a surgeon," according to the Times. In Jacksonville, Florida, " a single ad the police posted for three days in August netted 33 men, among them a teacher and a firefighter." And an arrest this summer in Sandpoint, Idaho ("population 8,105"), the local police chief reported, "was probably our first prostitution case since World War II."

So this is ... progress?

Depends. In an era when Congress is passing laws to allow warrantless wiretapping, it would seem pretty naïve to be surprised -- or outraged -- at the idea that the police may be monitoring people's internet use. But are the ends really justifying the means? Are we really safer after the arrest of that surgeon or firefighter? And what exactly do these arrests amount to? As with sex sting operations of yesteryear, it would seem the answer is: not much.

In Feb. 2005, the New York Times ran a story about a different anti-prostitution scheme, this one focused on training young female cops to walk the streets as "decoys." "Call them the newest recruits for the oldest profession," wrote the author, explaining that the point was to targeting the demand ("johns") rather than the supply (hookers.) This particular mission had been around for more than a decade, but had been temporarily suspended amid budget shortages. Now it was back, albeit with the same title: "Operation Losing Proposition."

The Times article struck a sassy note: ("Every woman has a little prostitute in her," laughed one cop with and a "slight shimmy.") But, it also included the requisite sober what-does-it-mean-for-our-rights-and-liberties quote.
"Is this really what our police department should be doing?" said Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights lawyer.
Beyond the sleazy nature of these particular techniques -- fairly obviously entrapment, although law enforcement and legal experts argue the point -- Siegel noted the "consensual nature of the crime," an argument echoed by civil libertarians who consider prostitution more often than not a victimless crime, certainly not one worth spending a lot of limited law enforcement resources on.

Besides, said Siegel, "history shows that it's very hard to deter this kind of activity."

For a bit of easy data, the Times could have reached into its own archives. Back in 1994, it had run a piece about an identical technique being exercised in Murray Hill, when Operation Losing Proposition was in its infancy and being carried out by the NYPD's "Public Morals Division" (to be renamed the Vice Enforcement Division the next year).

This article noted the way in which such stings were designed to maximize the "shame factor" and the Times seemed eager to pitch in, printing the name, age, and residence of one unfortunate man who it described as pleading and "shaking visibly" as police arrested him and searched his car amid gawking onlookers. John Miller, deputy commissioner for public information called such public humiliation "a huge deterrent."

This article too carried a critical quote from Norman Siegel (then executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union) as well as a somewhat prophetic line about similar operations' historically dubious results: "In most cases, they only shifted the problem from one neighborhood to another." Fast-forward ten years and, indeed, business has migrated from Murray Hill to "rough-and-tumble places like Hunts Point in the Bronx." But far more significant has been the migration of prostitution operations from the street to the Internet.

Which brings us back to Craigslist. With an estimated 25 million users across 450 cities, one would be hard pressed to find a reasonably web-savvy person who hasn't heard of it. While some of us limit our bartering to couches and second-hand bed frames, it should come as no surprise that the site has been a boon for prostitutes. As a firmly established and conveniently anonymous marketplace, Craigslist offers limitless advertising space. The ads themselves are no different from the stuff on the back of the Village Voice. But there's a crucial difference; these are free.

The author of the popular blog "Confessions of a College Call Girl" offers a glowing testimonial: "To me, the most amazing inventions of the 20th century are DVR and Craigslist," she declared this spring. Originally drawn to Craigslist for its Casual Encounters section, which, like any dating service, allows people to post what they're into and await a reply (hopefully with photos and matching fetishes), "to a girl from a small town with only a limited supply of available men ... [Craigslist] was a revelation in sexual specificity."

Casual Encounters eventually led her to a slightly more illicit realm among Craigslist's subcategories: the Erotic Services section, which really, requires no explanation. "If I was doing it for fun, why couldn't I do it for money?" she figured. "I packed my bags for Erotic Services and never went back."

Call her a satisfied customer.

With "Erotic Services" getting literally thousands of posts a day, it was only a matter of time before the police would catch on. "Most of the arrests are on misdemeanor charges, with convictions resulting in fines of a few hundred dollars," reported the Times, echoing its earlier stories. "Only repeat offenders risk jail time."

So as with street arrests, sex workers and their customers are back in business in no time, and the police are back to chasing them. No matter how many arrests are made, rooting out the prostitutes on Craigslist -- let alone the internet -- is pretty clearly a needle-in-a-haystack endeavor. The boundlessness of the internet means a sort of prostitution without borders and a Sisyphusian project for those police on the morality squad.

"Authoritarian busybodies" is one prostitute's term for such officers, citing the waste of resources represented by such attention to online sex services. And while the Times describes "electronic cat-and-mouse" games between investigators and sex traders that make the stings seem effective and glamorous, in a high-tech COPS kind of way, it's hard to imagine anyone believes they will lead to a take-down of the sex trade. Or even a dent in it.

Aside from freaking out a couple of Craigslisters -- "Open letter to providers/hobbyists - Please read now!!!" -- it's hard to know what kind of effect this has had on business.

The story has elicited predictable snark from the blogosphere: "There Are Hookers on the Internet!" and "When's the last time anyone was able to score a whore on ... 42nd Street?" But no one seems to be asking why the police should continue its undercover sex sting operations online when they have proven so ineffectual on the streets.

In other cities, the decision instead has been to up the humiliation factor. Last April, the Chicago Reader reported on Mayor Richard Daley's latest big idea: a website displaying the identities of everyone arrested for soliciting sex, complete with names and photos.

"We're telling everyone who sets foot in Chicago," the mayor said last June. "If you solicit a prostitute, you will be arrested. And when you get arrested, people will know. Your spouse, children, friends, neighbors and employers will know ... I don't have to tell you how fast information travels on the internet."

He certainly doesn't. Nor does he have to tell the family members whose lives are turned into a nightmare the minute their father, son or brother goes from being a human being to sex offender in front of everyone in their community.

The result of this particular project has been, according to the Reader, "to put on display a lot of blacks and Hispanics," who make up the majority of arrests. What's more, "Chicago has no data to show that the site, which was the mayor's initiative, not the police department's, has reduced prostitution."

That familiar stench filling the room is the whiff of an old dynamic at play. Like the routine drug raids that have long been a staple of the never-ending War on Drugs, prostitution sting operations take a ham-fisted and ad hoc approach to controlling social vices that have too often proven beyond the purview of law enforcement. Historically, the effect has been to disrupt the lives of people whose lives are not terribly stable to begin with.

As the Reader puts it: "More arrests mean more prostitutes with felony records, and a felony rap sheet makes it harder for a woman to find any other kind of work." And while targeting customers online yields arrests that transcend racial and class boundaries, "to fill police wagons with johns may change the ways of those johns, but their number appears endless. To allocate officers to cover all markets would require staffing that does not exist."

"Sure a prostitution bust is exciting (but) ... It's not always worth the effort," one Chicago police sergeant told the Chicago Tribune. Besides, "there is so much prostitution," says one public defender in Chicago, that if you could arrest all of the players, "the jails would be huge. If we put everyone in there, we would all be broke."

The same could be said of the drug war, yet it remains. And yes, the jails are huge. So why keep insisting on tough-on-crime tactics that do not work?

"At the very least, undercover prostitution busts are more colorful than routine traffic stops," reasoned the Times in 2005, quoting an assistant professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It breaks the monotony, and it gives them great stories. Cops love great stories."