Why Shutting Down Craigslist “Adult Services” Won’t Actually Make A Difference

Last week the popular online classifieds site Craigslist shut down one of its more lucrative sectors — its “Adult Services” section. Thanks to an effort lead by Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut attorney general, the Craigslist’s “Adult Services” section is now “censored” and unavailable to users. Blumenthal and his associates fought to shut down the the section down because they believe that it was promoting not just prostitution, but child sex trafficking. Said Blumenthal: “… these prostitution ads did not promote a victimless crime. There is human trafficking in children, assaults on women.”

Proponents of the “Adult Services” ban believe that it will help shut down sex and child traffickers by giving them one less venue out of which to operate. But is that really true?Craigslist is hardly the first or only online spot to solicit sex. People looking to pay for sex have a host of online options — not to mention print ads advertising sex in the back of nearly every city alternative weekly. Plus, sex workers have already begun to place ads in Craigslist’s “personals” section — because where there’s a will to purchase and sell sexual favors, there’s a way.

Those in support of the ban believe that they’re preventing “children being sold for sex online,” said Malika Saada Saar, of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a group that worked with Blumenthal to institute the ban. But in fact, banning the “Adult Services” section may have the end effect of making it more difficult to track and follow sex traffickers and their victims. “Instead of being in a small stream, it’s going to be in a big ocean,” said M. Ryan Calo, a senior research fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. Plus, he says, there’s really no legal precedent for the “Adult Services” ban. “They can absolutely keep it up. The law is pretty crystal clear on this.”

So, it’s a shallow victory; sex trafficking is a huge moneymaking industry and lack of Craigslist access will have little effect on that. According to the Polaris Project, there are around one million children currently exploited in the global sex trade, and worldwide it’s a $7 billion dollar industry. So whether or not Craigslist offers an “Adult Services” section won’t have much bearing on the bottom line.

If lawmakers are really concerned with stopping child sex trafficking and ending forced prostitution, they would do well to offer a multi-tiered approach that, yes, attempts to crack down on sites that serve as portals to sex trafficking victims, but also does more to help women who are victims of sex trafficking escape trafficking situations. And above all, they should work on finding and punishing the men who are utilizing these services. Because without demand there is no industry. [NY Times]

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