CraigsList Sex Ad Ban Backfires: Isn't It Time to Legalize Online Prostitution?

Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 7:03 PM EDT

As predicted, the shuttering of Craigslist's "Adult Services" section has triggered a migration of the ads for prostitutes that used to be displayed there to other sites, including Village Voice Media's The move, demanded by anti-human trafficking groups, actually hurts the cause they're pursuing because unlike CL, BackPage and sites like it such as AdultSearch (owned by Las Vegas-based ADT Media) don't cooperate with law enforcement the way CL used to.

Children are definitely being traded for sex on BackPage; this man was convicted of doing so in Twin Cities, Minn., four days ago. VVM was also sued in civil court by a former child prostitute who claims she was traded by her pimp on Backpage.

CL's director of law enforcement relations William Clinton Powell told Congress that the company cooperated with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to screen calls for child prostitutes, manually reviewed suspicious ads, and provided law enforcement hotlines next to its ads. Powell said:

To our knowledge, no other venue has adopted these best practices, and in fact very few venus have adopted more than one of these measures ... Even our critics grudgingly admit that we made giant strides, and that Craigslist has been virtually alone among the many advertising venues carrying adult ads in vigorously combating exploitation and trafficking.

Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues. It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there.

Clearly, the only thing that the closure of CL's Adult Services has achieved is that it's moved the sex trade to a couple of much more dangerous, much less transparent, locations. ADT is actually advertising to prostitutes in hopes they'll move their former CL business to AdultSearch.

Given that the cure is worse than the disease, is there a business solution? Yes, but Congress won't like it: Legalize the sale of sex on the internet, and allow law enforcement to tax, monitor and control it.

If you put aside your personal morals and approach this from a problem-solving perspective, i.e. by asking "what's the most practical way to reduce the largest number of unwilling victims of the sex trade?" then the web offers a great solution. The web has done for sex work what it's done for everything else by making it easier and safer (girls no longer need to walk the streets), more aggregated, searchable and trackable. If advertising paid sex online were legal and monitored -- and it remained illegal to sell sex offline -- then almost the entire trade would end up on sites like CL, Backpage and AdultSearch.

Hookers could ditch their abusive pimps or have somewhere to report them, safe in the knowledge that their online ads were legal. And police would have an easy way to sift through suspects looking for minors and coerced women.

(Given the state of the economy, the extra taxes wouldn't hurt either.)


Image: "Brooklyn," who charges $80 for 15 minutes, according to Backpage (link NSFW).