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How CraigsList Can Save Call Girl Ads, and Fight Sex Trafficking, All at the Same Time

The media heat over CraigsList's ads for prostitutes should expose hypocrisy on all sides; whether it will actually do much to help children being sold into sex slavery is another matter. Anti-prostitution campaigners want CL's "Adult Services" shut down but CL could become their best tool in the fight against child sex trafficking. The question is, can CL founder Craig Newmark and his management team turn this challenge into an opportunity that both saves his business and effectively fights child slavery?

First, Newmark has done himself no favors on this issue. Most of his revenues come from adult services ads; the regular classifieds are free. CL just isn't much of a business without call girls advertising their trade.

Newmark made a flimsy effort to convince prosecutors that he was cracking down on pimps by agreeing to charge more for the ads and by verifying the phone numbers of advertisers. That creates a paper trail that prosecutors can use to go after anyone selling sex on CL. The problem is that CL only has a few dozen staff -- it can't possibly be monitoring the thousands of adult ads that go up on CL every day. And Newmark just looked suspicious when he tried to persuade a federal judge to preemptively block a vice investigation of CL by the South Carolina attorney general. Either you're cooperating with law enforcement or you aren't, Mr. Newmark.

The Rebecca Project for Human Rights' campaign against CL is somewhat confusing. Its ad quotes a girl identified only as "MC" who claims she was forced into prostitution through CL when she was 11. "The man who trafficked me sold many girls my age, his house was called 'Daddy Day Care,'" MC writes. On a Rebecca Project YouTube video, however, the trafficked girl who talks about Daddy Day Care is identified as "Asia."

Sure, it could be two different girls. But according to the Rebecca Project, it's more like thousands of girls. The trouble is, law enforcement and people who research sex work have difficulty finding thousands of girls like MC and Asia. CL has complained that the Rebecca Project has not identified the police reports that were generated by the two girls in the ad. And the police aren't looking, according to CNN:

The head of Washington's Metropolitan Police anti-prostitution unit said Craigslist "never" reports suspicious ads to his department.
"It does bother us from a law enforcement perspective, because the problem is so rampant that you know to get a handle on it we need all the assistance we can get," Metropolitan police inspector Brian Bray said. "If they're notifying, I'm not sure if they're notifying the right people, because we're not getting a call."
Bray's position is insane: He's seriously suggesting that his vice detectives should sit by the phone waiting for the amateurs at CL to call them with their suspicions rather than have his own force comb the listings and set up stings. There's no way that CL should or can be the first line of law enforcement against prostitution.

To give you an idea of just how many people are selling sex on CL, check out the Manhattan listing of women seeking men under adult services, and then check out how many women are seeking men on the same neigborhood's online dating section. There are 10 times as many many more ads for hookers. In terms of the supply and demand for sex and the city, it's sobering that single women seeking a date are vastly outnumbered by single women who want to get paid for a date, at least in terms of advertising. Can they all be under the control of gangs and pimps?

No. David Henry Sterry interviewed 50 women who advertised on Craigslist for his best seller on the trade:

Mr. Sterry said he saw no evidence of abuse or coercion, saying, "Most of these women are just hard-working professionals."
Mr. Sterry, who was a rent boy as a teenager, said Craigslist had allowed prostitutes to work independently, free from organized crime. But he conceded there were some who would never accept the idea that any prostitution was voluntary. "They hold the position that anyone who trades sex for money is a slave," he said.
This is something that the Rebecca Project doesn't address in its ad: The voluntary, consenting trade of sex for money that is the routine business of CL.

It's a mistake not to address it: If CL really is "the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking," then it would be a disadvantage for law enforcement if it were shut down: The pimps would disperse to online locations unknown, regroup, and carry on. Law enforcement would have to start their surveillance from scratch. At least with CL you know where to start looking: The site has already corralled a large number of bad offenders into a single, searchable database. (That's how the FBI busted the Gambino family for trafficking underage girls, for instance.)

This suggests to me that CL, the Rebecca Project and law enforcement ought to reach the uneasy compromise that will most effectively capture the worst offenders: CL needs to allow law enforcement greater access to its adult services operations so that they can track and monitor the trade from the inside. Sure, it will require turning a blind eye to thousands of adults illegally trading dollars for sex. But it will also most quickly help law enforcement find the children that are being traded on there.

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