The Craigslist Sex Panic

How shutting down its “erotic services” section hurts prostitutes and cops.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

Craigslist, the San Francisco-based online marketplace that’s been around for nearly as long as the Web, has always hosted ads for prostitution. That supposedly changed earlier this month when the site closed its “erotic services” section, replacing it with an “adult services” page where posts must be preapproved to ensure they don’t offer sex for sale. For all appearances, the move is a concession to the panic over Philip Markoff, the accused “Craigslist Killer,” who has been charged with the murder and assault of Erotic Services advertisers this April.

Leading the campaign against Craigslist prostitution is Richard Blumenthal. The Connecticut attorney general, hot off a war on Facebook and MySpace for their alleged exposure of young people to sexual predation, started a crusade against Craigslist last March. (He was joined by 39 more attorneys general in November.) Sure enough, when Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster announced the company’s decision to kill the site’s sex ads, Blumenthal and his supporters declared victory. What exactly has Blumenthal won, though? By organizing and consolidating a sector of the informal economy, Craigslist was certainly helpful for sexual-service providers. But it also was a major boon for law enforcement, which could centralize its sting operations—thanks to Craigslist, a bust was only a mouse-click away. While the death of the erotic-services section is a PR win for Blumenthal—and for Craigslist, which can claim that it’s cleaned up its act—it’s terrible news for sex workers, who will lose a measure of safety, and for beat cops, who will now find it harder to crack down on the sex trade that Blumenthal supposedly wants to end.

Though the Connecticut attorney general has deemed it “a blatant Internet brothel,” Craigslist is closer to Times Square in its heyday. Alongside vendors hawking used books, cheap electronics, and hand-me-down gold jewelry, you’ll also find half-baked scams, poorly spelled signage, and sex for sale and trade. It’s also wrong to reduce the now-shuttered erotic-services section to an “online red light district.” The thousands of listings posted there every day offered a range of unpredictable commercial experiences, the majority of which required actual adults to meet in actual homes and hotels to have them. Far from unregulated public sex, each interaction had to begin with a few e-mails and, often, a light background check. These transactions might not always have gone as advertised, but they were rarely harmful or resulted in headlines.

What does make news is a sex panic. After the murder of Julissa Brisman, a Boston-area woman who sold massage sessions in Craigslist’s erotic-services section, Blumenthal’s complaints about the site suddenly had urgency. Forgotten in that moment was the fact that, though sex workers do face real threats of violence, Craigslist isn’t responsible for generating interest in the age-old institution of buying and selling sex. The claims of Blumenthal and his allies that their campaign against prostitution ads will “prevent the exploitation of women and children” ignore the obvious fact that there will always be a black market for sex. No matter how successful you are at driving prostitution underground, someone will find a way to profit from it and control it.

Craigslist’s erotic-services section was simply the latest and most visible underground marketplace, a sexual public square so easily accessible to consumers, providers, and window-shoppers that it made prostitution seem less risky. For sex workers, it actually was safer than working on the streets or advertising in a newspaper. Craigslist enabled sex workers to screen potential customers and to work for themselves rather than rely on a pimp or agency. With the erotic-services section, work conditions also improved for the vice squad, whose job was made all the easier by having a dedicated and high-traffic venue to police.

The most significant difference between Craigslist and a brothel is that the former voluntarily opens its “black book” of clients to police. The records Craigslist maintains on its users played a critical role in apprehending the so-called Craigslist Killer. The Boston Police Department reported that “Craigslist was cooperative in identifying and locating” accused murderer Philip Markoff; Craigslist spokeswoman Susan Best notes that “a digital trail left by those breaking the law” allows Craigslist to support criminal investigations in a way, say, a newspaper cannot. In the case of Markoff, what could have become a series of murders was put to a quick halt once his inbox was examined. Boston cops said they relied on these “high-tech” solutions as much as “shoe-leather” investigation. The lesson here for those in law enforcement—and a lesson that Richard Blumenthal fails to understand—is that Craigslist is an ally, not a perp.        

The reason that Craigslist’s erotic-services section no longer exists is that the site made sex work safer without intending to, and without any input from the cops. Craigslist’s power in the field of online prostitution appears to be far more threatening to Blumenthal, et al., than any modern-day Jack the Ripper who targets those who advertise there. If public safety is his goal—and not a run at the governor’s office—then Blumenthal ought to reconsider who his enemies and allies are in his fight to keep the sex trade in check.