This week, representatives of the internet classified website Craigslist appeared before the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing on the sex trafficking of minors and said that they had permanently closed their "Adult Services" section.
It was the first public statement from the company since they replaced their link to the Adult Services section with a single word, "Censored", and no other explanation. The move came after Craigslist suffered a publicity storm over the section because it was often used to advertise prostitution under the guise of "escort services" -- something that is still common in the yellow pages. First, CNN ambushed the semi-retired founder of Craigslist, then 17 attorneys general grabbed for publicity by demanding Craigslist shut down the section. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, as clueless as he is ambitious, crowed when Craigslist censored the "Adult Services" section:
"While this is a good first step in the U.S., there are still more than 250 other Craigslist 'erotic' pages around the world where children and young women are still being sold for sex through Craigslist."
As usual, Blumenthal misses the point. Shutting down Craigslist's Adult Services ads will do nothing to combat the crime of forcing women and children into sex work (otherwise known as "human trafficking"). Those ads will simply move elsewhere, or use different code language.
And that's exactly what happened. During the House hearing this week, Elizabeth McDougall, a lawyer for Craigslist, pointed out that traffic to Backpage.com, a classifieds site that runs ads similar to those once found on Craigslist's Adult Services section, spiked sharply this month. “Consequently, Craigslist fears that its utility to help combat child exploitation has been grossly diminished," she said.
She's right. If Craigslist is used by criminals to post ads for sex with women who have been forced into sexual activities against their will, then authorities ought to use that information to arrest those criminals. Instead, we have Attorneys General moralizing and accomplishing little.
Blumenthal and some other Attorneys General are not merely upset about human trafficking--they want to stop consensual prostitution too. In a recent debate on Economist.com, Sienna Baskin, Co-Director of the Sex Workers Project which provides legal and social services to sex workers, points out that when you punish consenting adults engaged in prostitution, you also punish women and children who are forced into sex trafficking:
...Sex-trafficking victims fear seeking help from law enforcement, believing they will be treated like criminals. In our recent report, "The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons", trafficked women reported being arrested for prostitution crimes up to ten times before they escaped. Even law-enforcement agents admitted the difficulty of gaining trafficking victims' trust...Criminalisation brands sex workers as the "untouchables" of our society, and sanctions violence and discrimination against them.
Baskin advocates some form of "decriminalization." But it would be far better to simply legalize prostitution between adults. Government has no business dictating what acts consenting adults may engage in. Money changing hands should make no difference. Taking the consensual sex trade out of the black market will make it more difficult to hide the genuine crime of human trafficking.