|Sex Files||Nov 1 2008|
Did Craigslist aid and abet prostitution, or was the website victimized by working girls?
Is Craigslist the new millenium’s red light district? Eight prostitutes were arrested in NYC last month for using the online site to solicit johns, bringing the year’s total of busted women to more than 70. In Chicago 60 women were netted. In Seattle a sting using undercover police officers nabbed 71 men, including a bank officer and a surgeon. And in Jacksonville, Fla., in August police arrested 33 men.
Nassau County, NY, assistant chief of detectives Richard McGuire put it bluntly: “Craigslist has become the high-tech 42nd Street, where much of the solicitation takes place now. Technology has worked its way into every profession, including the oldest.” Lt. Eric Sano, of the Seattle PD, describes a complex subculture exposed by his department’s sting operation, in which men are referred to as “hobbyists” and prostitutes are “providers”. There are even online review “sites where men rate their experiences and describe a woman’s looks and the sex acts she’s willing to perform, Sano said.
While law enforcement officials accuse Craigslist of enabling prostitution, company president Jim Buckmaster points out that 24 staff members cannot monitor 20 million listings per month. They count on users to flag objectionable ads. But cops ask how many users who navigate their way into the “erotic services” section of Craiglist are likely to flag ads. It’s a bit like asking a gambler to report his bookie.
Under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 the ads are legal and several websites—including Craigslist—have withstood legal challenges. “You hold the speaker liable, not the soapbox,” explains Kurt B. Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Mr. Buckmaster agrees, saying that Craigslist is no different from magazines that carry sex-oriented ads. But law enforcement officials say Craigslist’s scope and format are especially useful to the sex industry. With listings for approximately 450 cities around the world, the website counts 25 million users and 8 billion page views a month. Online traffic ranker Alexa calculates Craigslist is currently the thirty-seventh most visited website in the world.
Craig Newmark, above, who founded Craigslist in San Francisco in 1995, has his own take on the matter. “We are a democracy,” he explains, “and we find we can trust our community. We would prefer that [police] go after violent criminals or crooked congressmen.” Many agree with Newmark that prostitution is a minor or even victimless crime, but Lt. Sano doesn’t see it that way: “No young girl grows up dreaming of doing this. It is easy money …but these women are being exploited and it’s degrading. You should hear what some of these guys have asked our detectives to do—it’s disgusting.”