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Is Craigslist Responsible for Underage Sex Trafficking?

Craigslist has been under fire for years now over the "adult services" section of the website, but advocates contend the site is still involved in advertising young girls for sex, whether intentionally or not.

Last week it was hit once again by anti-trafficking advocates calling for the site to shut down the section permanently. The adult services section is used to advertise prostitution and therefore essentially allows for trafficking of young girls, however many firewalls they construct in an attempt to stop it from occurring. Craigslist CEO James Buckmaster has responded to anti-trafficking advocates angry assertions, defending the site on its blog with a list of actions Craigslist has taken and continues to take in an effort to reduce its role in child trafficking through the adult services section.

Last week's call was the latest in a multi-year battle over Craigslist's seemingly slow response to implications of the role ads on Craigslist may played in a series of violent crimes. The site was targeted last year after terrifying crimes involving people who made contact through the site came to light.  The most famous of these involved accused murderer Phllip Markoff, known as the "Craigslist Killer," who committed suicide this week while in jail awaiting trial for murdering a "masseuse" he met through the adult services section.

The web site has said they're doing more than most other publications to address illegal prostitution of minors.'s Amanda Kloeber disputes this:

"Major national newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune stopped advertising for adult services because so many ended up being fronts for illegal commercial sex operations, including sex trafficking. Other online classified sites like have also gone erotic services-free."

In 2008, reports the New York Times, the company closed the erotic services section and instead renamed the section " adult services," requiring that postings be reviewed by employees "who will look for indications of activity that is illegal or violates the site’s guidelines." It began charging for the adult services ads, requiring credit card payment and a valid phone number.  From a CNN news report last week:

In 2008, under pressure from state prosecutors, the website raised the fees for posting adult services ads. In 2009, it started donating portions of the money generated by adult ads to charity. Craigslist also began to manually screen all ads and said it would refer any suspected underage girls to law enforcement.

Most recently, the site requires anyone using the adult services section to report suspicious activity through a tipline run by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They also "prominently feature" anti-trafficking and exploitation resources on the site, are creating awareness about trafficking by working with the National Human Trafficking Hotline and "meet regularly" with law enforcement to monitor the issue. 

But is this enough?

It's hard to argue that there's any place for even the slightest allowance of a margin of error. Why allow adult services advertising if you know girls are being raped, beaten and forced into prostitution on your dime? According to Malika Saada Saar, President of the Rebecca Project, an anti-trafficking organization, "girl slavery" in the U.S. is an emerging and horrifying reality:

An estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. According to the Department of Justice, the average age of a prostituted girl in the U.S. is 12-14 years. These sexually exploited girls are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and even tattooed like cattle by their pimps.

Sixty-three percent of girls in detention are there arising from prostitution charges though very few men who buy sex with minors end up in jail. Saar argues that the ease and privacy of the internet is one reason for the rise in sex trafficking of young girls. It's a twisted and puzzling reality if you don't consider how much money is at stake for Craigslist. When you do, it's hard to see how this isn't about keeping the dollars flowing, actual cost be damned.

Craigslist is responsible for a multi-million dollar adult services market, $36 million per year, to be exact, earning Craigslist  one-third of its total revenue each year.  The site also claims to be the "largest single advertiser of commercial sex in the world." According to Kloeber:

"...In the U.S. alone, a search on Craigslist is one of the easiest ways to find a woman or child who is being forced into the sex industry against her will. Then relative anonymity of posting allows pimps to sell sex trafficking victims with minimum risk of exposure to law enforcement."

Craigslist is not alone, though. Publications around the country continue to accept advertising from "adult-oriented" advertisers essentially selling sex in print and online. Wired magazine even published an article last year, after Craigslist changed its erotic services section, claiming the site's revamped policy would "save the journalism industry":

After the site announced last month under pressure that it would no longer publish erotic ads, sales of erotic ads in local alternative weekly newspapers have soared, according to the Washington City Paper.

The paper reports its own sales of adult ads was up 38 percent in the first week of May as criticism against Craigslist was heating up, compared to the same time last year. Minneapolis’ City Pages says its adult ad sales have almost doubled. And SF Weekly in San Francisco had 160 adult ads the week before Craigslist’s policy went into affect but clocked in with 910 ads last week.

Craigslist's decision to change the name of the site, charge more for advertising and push a promotional campaign to polish its somewhat tarnished image may be falling short, though. Much of what CEO Buckmaster details as his company's way of dealing with the problem seems more like sticking a finger in the hole of a dam. From 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."

As for the requirement of credit cards and valid phone numbers in order to place an "adult services" ad? In last year's article, the New York Times reports:

"...state investigators said the provision proved to be inadequate, as erotic services advertisers simply used fake credit cards or untraceable debit cards.

Mr. Blumenthal of Connecticut said last Tuesday he and representatives from four other states met with a lawyer for Craigslist in New York and demanded that the company eliminate the erotic services section of the Web site by this Wednesday.

A person familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there is tension over the issue among the various attorneys general, said Craigslist made its latest changes without fully consulting any of the state officials."

Still, Craigslist CEO James Buckmaster uses claims of enhanced advocacy for victims, greater control over postings and a potentially perceived cozier relationship with law enforcement as a way to defend the company's decision to maintain the section. Last week, Buckmaster responded in a blog post to letters written last month to Craigslist by two young women who had been sex-trafficked through the site. The letters were used in an advertisement in The Washington Post placed by The Rebeca Project in order to highlight the ways in which Craigslist is fostering the problem.

"I was first forced into prostitution when I was 11 years old by a 28-year-old man," "M.C." wrote. "I am not an exception. The man who trafficked me sold many girls my age, his house was called 'Daddy Day Care.'

"All day, me and other girls sat with our laptops, posting pictures and answering ads on Craigslist. He made $1,500 a night selling my body, dragging me to Los Angeles, Houston, Little Rock -- and one trip to Las Vegas in the trunk of a car. I am 17 now, and my childhood memories aren't of my family, going to middle school, or dancing at the prom. They are making my own arrangements on Craigslist to be sold for sex, and answering as many ads as possible for fear of beatings and ice water baths."

The two young women asked Craigslist to address the issue more thoroughly but received no response initially. After the letters and subsequent silence from Craigslist garnered a significant amount of media attention over the last few days, Buckmaster saw fit to finally respond - by asking for their police reports about the victimizations.

Shakespeare's Sister writes about the whole story in her post, Craigslist Profiting From Rape and offers a detailed transcript of a recent CNN interview about the recent turn of events. In the transcript, CNN offers information about the police reports Buckmaster asks to see (one can only assume he's asked for them to verify the veracity of these young women's stories who have now subjected themselves to public judgement over their former lives as prostitutes?), noting, "CNN has seen the police report for the so-called AK; MC is still a minor, so her records could not be released, but two sources tell us they have seen her arrest records for prostitution." As for the ways in which Craigslist is making "inroads" into stopping child sex trafficking on their site? The transcript goes on:

Lyon [the CNN reporter on the story] (in voiceover, over images of Craigslist adult services ads, with female faces blurred out, then over footage of Newmark): Sex-for-hire ads are against Craigslist's stated policy. The company says it, quote, "manually screens all adult services ads" and will reject any that look or sound like they are selling sex. We caught up with the Craig in Craigslist, Craig Newmark, at a speech he was giving in Washington, D.C., on trust. He agreed to this interview on trust on the Internet. (on camera, speaking face-to-face with Newmark): What are you guys doing to protect these girls?

(Newmark stands and stares, silently, at Lyon for seven seconds, with a smirk on his face. After seven seconds, the video cuts off and jumps to another question.)

Lyon (showing Newmark a printed Craigslist ad): You guys say in the blog that you will remove any ad that looks like the person might be suggesting they're going to offer sex. Look at this ad. It says, "Young, sexy, sweet, and bubbly." Clearly here she writes "$250 an hour." I mean, what do you think she's selling in her bra and underwear—a dinner date? And she's in her bra and underwear. What are you guys doing?

Newmark: Have you reported this to us?

Lyon: But you guys say you screen all these ads manually in your blog.

Newmark: Have you—I have never—I don't know what this is.

Lyon: But in Jim Buckmaster's blog, he says these are being screened.

It seems Craigslist is left exactly where they started - needing to defend a business decision to not simply ensure a successful business enterprise but to overwhelmingly profit off of the trafficking of young girls for sex, in this country.

Despite some efforts by Craigislist to curb child sex trafficking through the site, there is no assured way to prevent minor girls from being sold for sex on the site, short of closing the adult services section down. If that seems like a radical step to take, it is. But a radical step is what it will take to seriously impede the practice of sex trafficking in the U.S. via the internet and maybe prevent more girls like M.C. from being sold for sex online.

Image source: tastybit via flickr


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