Life After Craigslist for Online Sex Trade

Craigslist made a splash last month when it announced a set of policy changes aimed at stamping out sex crimes facilitated through the Erotic Services section of its site. But sex workers and legal experts say the measures are likely to have scant impact on the shadowy world of online prostitution.

Following the initial report about the new policies, a reader who identified herself as a “working girl in San Francisco” told InternetNews.com that Craigslist is hardly the only game in town.

“Because of the new procedure on Craigslist, we are turning to other Web sites … to promote our services,” she wrote in an e-mail. “These sites are free and just as effective. I don’t believe that this change in Craigslist will do anything to affect the industry.”

The reader declined to be interviewed further for this report, but people on both sides of the war on prostitution agree that the multiplicity of adult-oriented sites on the Internet has made the policeman’s work considerably more complicated.

“It’s really just a function of today’s digital economy,” said Alexander Southwell, an attorney with the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher and a former federal prosecutor. “The Internet’s ability to make illicit services available is really groundbreaking.”

“It’s a question of convenience,” Southwell told InternetNews.com. “It used to be for prostitution you would have to go to some shady corner of town at night. Now you can do it on the Internet.”

In partnership with more than three dozen states’ attorneys general, Craigslist recently began requiring advertisers to provide a working phone number before posting an ad to the erotic services section. It also started charging a $5 dollar fee, which entails credit card verification, for the erotic ads that users had previously been able to post for free.

The effort follows previous initiatives between state law enforcement agencies and social networking communities MySpace and Facebook to expel sexual predators from those sites.

Craigslist pledged to coordinate with law enforcement officials from the participating states, and has filed a series of lawsuits against companies it believes are providing software to enable people to evade its usage policies.

But Craigslist is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who spearheaded the initiative.

“If you take the sex trade internationally, or even nationally, Craigslist is a pretty small part of it,” Blumenthal told InternetNews.com. “We’re beginning with Craigslist because it’s the biggest and one of the most apparent — and frankly, one of the more cooperative. They’ve been cooperative from the early stages of our investigation.”

That investigation, which in addition to prostitution is probing other crimes such as child exploitation and human trafficking, began early this year.

“We’re reviewing other sites, and we’re beginning a dialogue with them,” Blumenthal added. “My hope is that others will [cooperate] as well.”

As part of its effort to purge illicit sex ads, Craigslist is deploying software and filtering tools to remove ads with pornographic content from the erotic services section. Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but Blumenthal noted that that effort is still in its early stages. In addition to the pornographic images of men and women that can still be found in the section, it also contains ads with warnings about the new enforcement policies and links to other adult-oriented sites.

Reliable statistics on the scope of the industry — particularly the online segment — are difficult to come by. Blumenthal admitted that there is “no way of determining” the extent of the online sex trade.

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Carol Leigh, a long-time San Francisco sex worker and activist who co-founded the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network (BAY SWAN), a group that promotes the decriminalization of prostitution, said that street-level work has historically been believed to account for between 10 percent and 20 percent of the industry. That means that escort services, massage parlors and other off-street operations would account for the vast majority of the activity.

But the Internet has probably shifted that ratio.

“Now that the Internet has nationalized it, and there’s the ability to work off the street, one would assume that it’s less than that 10 to 20 percent,” Leigh told InternetNews.com.

However, she added, “It’s an underground population, so most of them are guesstimates.”

The Internet has brought a more fundamental change to the industry than just bringing prostitutes off the street, according to Robyn Few, an industry activist who formed the Sex Workers Outreach Project in 2002, following her arrest and conviction for conspiracy to commit prostitution.

“The Internet has revolutionized the sex industry as far as entrepreneurship. Sex workers don’t need a manager anymore. The Internet is their manager,” Few told InternetNews.com. “The bad thing about the Internet is it’s isolating, and it’s not safe. It’s up to you to make it as safe as you can,” she added.

“I’m a pre-Internet worker, so I worked where we networked with others. I was dealing with someone I knew or someone who knew him personally, and I mean in the biblical sense. It’s not that way with the Internet.”

Few’s organization has 10 chapters around the country that promote safety and educational resources for sex workers. She has generally advised against using Craigslist because it was widely known as a favorite haunt for undercover police officers.

Her group is based in San Francisco, a city with arguably one of the most professional sex industries in the country. Two days before Craigslist announced its policy changes, San Francisco voters shot down Proposition K, which would have decriminalized prostitution in the city, by 16 percentage points.

In general — and especially in San Francisco — Few said that Craigslist catered to a more amateur class of sex workers than other sites. Because it has evolved into a nearly ubiquitous community portal for everything from finding an apartment to selling an old sofa, it was a logical place for the novice to start.

“These are people who have never heard of things like screening, like a professional would do,” Few said. “Craigslist was very accessible to the police.”

The screening process is crucial, both to protect against a police sting and a potentially violent client, Few said. Steps like looking up the prospective client’s name on Google, and verifying a phone number and other information, are the hallmarks of a professional.

“Any information they give you, you spend an extra hour confirming that information,” she said. “For a serious professional worker, they will go the extra mile to ensure their safety.”

The same facility of Craigslist that was attractive to industry novices has a corollary on the demand side, according to Southwell.

“Your average Joe looking for a call girl is going to go to Craigslist because that’s where they go to look for an apartment or a ride share, so it’s a natural thing,” he said. Of course with the new policies, that figures to change. But what isn’t likely to change, at least any time soon, is the Internet’s role in facilitating the sex trade, he said.

“If it gets turned off at one place, they’ll find that other place.”

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