This weekend, Craigslist censored the Adult Services section of their site.
The move comes after immense and growing public pressure from a number of critics and opponents, including some law enforcement officials, anti-trafficking groups, and most notably (and perhaps threateningly) Connecticut state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. It also comes in the wake of the highly publicized so-called “Craigslist killer” case, in which a Boston University medical student allegedly hired a prostitute via the site and went on a murderous crime and gambling spree, later committing suicide in jail.
Lots of people are offering their opinions on this latest event, and- surprise, surprise- there’s a ton of misinformation floating around regarding adult services, what they are, why they were censored, and who it will help or hurt. Here are 5 things every feminist should know about the craigslist adult services censor:
1) It was technically voluntary.
There’s no court order or anything. The site was basically indirectly threatened into self-censoring, after seventeen attorneys general wrote an open letter to Jim Buckmaster and Craig Newmark, the CEO and Founder of Craigslist respectively, last Tuesday, requesting that they “immediately take down the Adult Services portion of craigslist.” In the letter, the attorneys general begged the founders to “finally hear the voices of the victims, women and children” who “plead with you to make this important change.” Shutting down the Adult Services section is the “right thing to do to protect innocent woman and children,” the letter insisted.
2) It’s not the first time something like this has happened.
It’s been a process. Back in May of 2009, the site closed its “erotic services” section, replacing it with the “adult services” page that is now in question again. Any of this sounding familiar? At that time, Melissa Gira Grant, a blogger and writer on sex, technology, politics, and culture, wrote a compelling piece on Slate explaining how shutting down the”erotic services” section hurts prostitutes and cops. It seems the message didn’t get through.
3) You can still buy sex online, and in person, for that matter.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory folks. “The show must go on,” as they say. Censoring one section of Craigslist is not going to put the kibosh on prostitution, or even trafficking, for good. For the curious or unconvinced, I suggest checking out this handy guide to buying sex online, put together by Gawker writer Adrien Chen, who notes that “if Attorneys General and anti-trafficking groups are actually serious about shutting down the Internet sex trade—and not just jumping on a Craigslist panic wagon—they’re going to have to look far beyond Craigslist” before launching into a laundry list of alternative ways to find sex-for-pay online.
4) The Craigslist Adult Services section is a red herring in the fight against trafficking, sexual assault, and child abuse.
The Craigslist Adult Services page may make for a sexy red herring, but the actual task of ending violence and sexual assault against women and children is not outside of our grasp. As Melissa Gira Grant points out on AlterNet in her latest article on the subject:
“If these lead prosecutors are truly concerned about ending violence and exploitation, then their focus on one intermediary advertising Web site, among dozens of other sex ad venues, could be considered criminally shortsighted. There’s a tremendous amount the attorneys general could do to actually curb the suffering of people within the criminal and legal systems in which they have power.”
Word. Like what? Gira gives several good examples. “People involved in the sex trade, whether by choice, coercion or circumstance, all still face criminal records after a prostitution conviction – even people who have been trafficked” and suggests that the attorneys general push to adopt “legislation allowing trafficking survivors to vacate prostitution-related sentences, removing these convictions from their criminal records.” She also points out that “people involved in the sex trade still face still discrimination, harassment and violence from the people charged with helping them.” Perhaps Blumenthal might one day work to combat this mistreatment of women and children- the kind that comes at the hands of government officials- as stringently as he does other kinds.
5) Censuring Craigslist won’t help women, and could actually hurt them, even and especially victims of trafficking.
The “feminist” take on sex work is something that has a lot of implications, complications, and variations. I don’t claim to have “the one right feminist way to help women and victims of trafficking.” But I’m firmly of the camp that agency and consent matter, and I tend to agree with smart women like Danah Boyd, a longtime activist and victim of violence herself who wrote a pretty spot-on article on the Huffington Post called “How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers and Other Abusive Scumbags” in which she explains why the debate around Craigslist adult services has “centered on the wrong axis”. She makes a compelling case for the idea that Craigslist, rather than a modern-day “digital pimp,” actually serves (errr, served) as a kind of “public perch from which law enforcement can [could] watch without being seen”. I recommend reading the whole article, as it articulates pretty thoughtfully how this most recent Craigslist censor does more harm than good for women and girls.
I appreciate the sentiment of those who seek to exercise compassion and empathy towards women and children, and who view violence against women as a serious problem worth time and effort. But I don’t think censoring the Craigslist adult section is the way to solve that problem. Those who are truly invested in preserving and protecting the health and rights of women and children- including women and children themselves- must find more far-reaching, and sometimes less “sexy” solutions to this overwhelmingly unacceptable problem. It’s only then that we’ll make more than symbolic or shallow progress in the fight against violence and coercion of women and children.