Craigslist, Sex Work, and The End of “Innocence?:” Why Our Efforts to Address Sex Work Are Misguided

Joanna Chiu

The FBI’s “Operation Innocence Lost” and the removal of Craigslist’s erotic services section are misguided, dangerous attempts at making the sex industry safer.  

Last summer, a sex worker from San Francisco called a client she found through Craigslist and they made plans to meet in the best hotel of a small Southern town. Shortly after they stepped into the hotel room, police stormed in to join the FBI agent who had posed as the client, and arrested the sex worker as part of a nation-wide sting which targeted venues such as “truck stops, motels and the Internet,” according to an FBI report on Operation Innocence Lost. Operation Innocence Lost focuses on rescuing children forced into sex work, but has arrested hundreds of consensual adult sex workers since its inception in 2003.

“They kept me in the hotel room and tried to interrogate me for more than three hours, but I refused to talk to them,” recalls the sex worker. A year later, after spending approximately $5000 on bail and legal fees, she continues to work as an escort, although she is traumatized from her arrest: 

“Now I feel paranoid and jumpy in ways that might be too extreme. I still have nightmares where FBI and police are chasing me. I just wanted to run and hide and be somewhere safe. I’m generally easygoing, but my emotions have been all over the place.”   

While the FBI’s Operation Innocence Lost is supposed to focus on the exploitation of minors, according to attorney Sienna Baskin from Urban Justice, “in the process [it] arrests hundreds of consensual adult sex workers.” Urban Justice’s Melissa Broudo has noted various trends in arrests over the last few years, including police conducting “sweeps” during which they arrest numerous women at a time at stroll districts; false arrests of gay men and transgender women; busts of dungeons; and individuals being arrested for selling sexual services over the Internet.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

In terms of trends, police often go to sex workers’ stroll districts to arrest many [sex workers] at once in a van. There’s been many false arrests of transgender women, and I certainly have met some people who have been arrested for selling sexual services over the Internet.

The stories of consensual adult sex workers, like the aforementioned woman from San Francisco, who was 39 years old and planning on exiting sex work to start her own business at the time of her arrest, are missing from the mainstream media coverage and leads to a low level of public awareness about the consequences of police and FBI “anti-trafficking” and “child rescue” activities.

On September 4, 2010, when Craigslist shut down its “erotic services” category, sex workers suddenly lost access to the most popular online venue for sexual services advertising in the US. Craigslist had given in to the pressure, which had been intensifying since 2008, from seventeen attorneys general—including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Beau Biden of Delaware—and several non-profit groups. The attorneys general and non-profit groups claimed that Craigslist was unable to adequately monitor for child exploitation and sex trafficking activities.

Although the shutdown of Craigslist’s “erotic services” is not in and of itself criminalization of sex workers, sex workers and their allies claim that it is another of a string of recent law enforcement actions that further marginalizes adult sex workers while failing to effectively fight child exploitation and trafficking.

Sex workers organizations such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Desiree Alliance have been trying to raise awareness about how neither Operation Innocence Lost’s prosecution of sex workers nor the removal of mainstream advertising outlets like Craigslist will actually protect sex workers. In fact, they argue, it further compromises the ability of law enforcement to fight trafficking and child exploitation. 

According to Dr. Michael Goodyear, professor of medicine and feminist ethics at Dalhousie University, “Shutting down the Craigslist ads will only force sexual services advertising to move elsewhere…[to] places such as Backpage.com.” Craigslist was the only online sexual services advertising venue that worked with police to monitor its “erotic services” section. Now that the section no longer exists, “it is harder for law enforcement to monitor criminal activities,” says Goodyear.

Additionally, says sexologist Dr. Larry Falls:

“When the industry is forced to go underground, it is harder for sex workers to continue to work independently and avoid pimps and organized crime.”

Sex workers and their allies are also publicly criticizing the motives of the attorneys general and non-profit groups that pressured Craigslist to shut down “erotic services.”  When Norma Ramos, director of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women, declared that “prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession—it’s the world’s oldest oppression” on the Alyona Show, Stacey Swimme, sex worker and founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, responded:

“Prostitution today is a way that men and women and people of all genders are making a living. It is a real issue that we need to talk about.”

Swimme added that debates about the morality of prostitution and censorship distract from the more pressing questions: “What is happening right now to the people who are no longer able to advertise on Craigslist? Where are they now and what are they doing?”   

Other non-profit groups at the forefront of the movement to shut down Craigslist “erotic services” advertisements included the Polaris Project and the Rebecca Project. Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Rebecca Project, an organization that works directly with child victims, claims that her organization is not anti-sex work. This suggests that there is a range of positions on prostitution within the non-profit groups who collectively called on Craigslist to shut down “erotic services.”

When asked if she would support consensual adult sex workers’ use of Craigslist, Saar said, “Sure.” But because Saar believes that Craigslist failed to effectively monitor its content, she was a strong supporter of the removal of sexual services advertisements on Craigslist.

After the initial criticisms and legal threats from attorneys general and non-profit groups in 2008, Craigslist staff began to manually monitor and require phone verification for each post on “erotic services,” charging users $10 for each post and $5 for each re-post and notifying police about suspicious activities. But Saar and others saw this as inadequate.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the sex trafficking of minors on September 15, Elizabeth McDougall, a lawyer for Craigslist, said that “Craigslist fears that its utility to help combat child exploitation has been grossly diminished,” pointing out that traffic to Backpage.com (which does not monitor postings for abusers) has spiked sharply this month. McDougall, however, did not address the difficulties of effectively monitoring a website that facilitates billions of interactions each month in the US.

Even sex workers’ advocates who oppose the shutdown of “erotic services” do not argue that Craigslist’s monitoring was working effectively. But instead of removing sexual services advertisements on Craigslist, sex workers’ rights advocates favor decriminalization of sex work, arguing that decriminalization would empower sex workers to collaborate with police and report abuse.

“When prostitution is not a crime,” says the arrested sex worker from San Francisco:

then things that are crimes would be more apparent. It would make the whole industry safer, so when [trafficking or child abuse] does happen, people would not be afraid to speak out about it…with the way the laws are now, sex workers are afraid to report incidents to the police.

The current reality in the US, according to Urban Justice attorney Melissa Broudo, is that “when sex workers experience or witness rape or abuse, most sex workers do not feel empowered to report to the police. Even when they do, they are not given the same respect as other people who report the same crimes.”

“From a legal perspective,” Broudo continues:

“the reason we support decriminalization as attorneys and service providers is that it would allow sex workers to come forward when their rights are infringed upon…and become critical allies with law enforcement to fight trafficking and child exploitation.”  

Although it was imperfect, the decriminalization of prostitution in New Zealand by the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act made sex work safer by making it easier for the government to enforce the use of condoms, monitor workplaces and prosecute those who hired minors. The probability of the US acting as a pioneer along with New Zealand to give sex workers more rights and protections seems unlikely.

In a public statement on September 7, four non-profit groups, including The Rebecca Project, called on Craigslist to shut down its “erotic services” pages worldwide—even in countries such as Canada and France where prostitution is legal.

“While this is a good first step in the US, there are still more than 250 other Craigslist ‘erotic’ pages around the world where children and young women are still being sold for sex through Craigslist,” the statement said.

In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) held a news conference on September 7, 2010, where Sergeant Marie-Claude Arsenault announced that the RCMP is working to bring US measures of controlling Craigslist postings to Canada. The RCMP’s rhetoric did not focus on the urgency of fighting trafficking and child exploitation, such as has been the case in the US. Instead, Sgt. Arsenault expressed an interest in making it harder for consensual adult sex workers to conduct their work: “Not having that service will definitely be an obvious disincentive and it will just make buying sex and finding those kind of activities just a little bit harder.” 

On September 28, the tide changed for Canadian sex workers when an Ontario judge struck down key provisions of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, but back in the US, sex workers continue to lack many basic rights and protections, such as the right to a safe work environment. FBI agents and police officers are able to intimidate and arrest sex workers because decriminalization of sex work is an issue that lacks widespread support in the US.

American sex workers and their allies, however, believe they are making advances in fighting stigma and increasing public support for the decriminalization of sex work.  

“Perhaps there is more public support than we think,” says attorney Melissa Broudo, citing a recent moderated debate on Economist.com, which found that readers ‘voted overwhelmingly in favor…[that] prostitution should be legal.’ “It’s just an issue that isn’t often brought up in mainstream public discourse.“  

The sex worker from San Francisco is also optimistic about public support for sex workers’ rights:  

“Just as in the queer rights movement, as more sex workers come together to tell their stories, and the public becomes more exposed to sex work, then maybe we will end up being more accepted, and people will realize that something is wrong in their society when sex workers have to live in silence and fear.”

Commentary Violence

With Sex Workers Too, Rape Is Still Rape

Kate DAdamo

As we talk about the importance of consent in the public discourse, upholding the right to say what is and isn’t violence must take precedence over our own discomfort about someone else's choices.

In the last several months, there have been a number of rape allegations involving sex workers in the news. Most recently, a number of sex workers accused porn star James Deen of rape. Several websites have since dropped Deen, including Kink.com. Also, Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver is facing 34 counts of rape, kidnapping, and attempted murder (among others) against his ex-girlfriend and porn star Christy Mack, which reportedly left her with 18 broken bones and a ruptured liver, and her friend, Corey Thomas.

Every time these stories make headlines, though, they are accompanied by another conversation: Whether because someone engages in sex work, they lose their right to consent and cannot be raped.

The conflation of sex work and rape, and the assumption that all sex work can be framed in a single, narrow description contribute to the denial of consent for those who trade sex, even if the phrasing sounds different.

These arguments are being put forward not just by Twitter trolls or men’s rights activists; they are also being brought in the courts and in the media. Part of the legal defense for War Machine has been that Mack’s porn career displayed her “desire” for “activities that were outside of the norm”—presumably including rape. And just a few months ago Mary Mitchell, who sits on the editorial board of the Chicago-Sun Times, claimed that when a sex worker was raped it should have been prosecuted as “theft of services” (the same charge as jumping a subway turnstile).

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Further, many conversations about sex work held by feminist and anti-trafficking organizations are about denying consent to those in the sex industry. Groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women or the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, base their work in this area on deeply flawed claims that all sex work is violence or criminalization is about protecting women from exchanging sex for money.

To be sure, when it comes to sex trafficking, there is no debate it is inherently violent. But to conflate sex trafficking with sex work creates very real harms for those who do report rape.

For sex workers, trading sex is a constellation of experiences that move through the range of choice, circumstance, and coercion. The complexity and nuance of sex work can span a variety of experiences that can change from year to year, month to month, and session to session. Some people trading sex do experience violence, and that experience often informs how a person feels about sex work. To have a single blanket assumption that says that every act of trading sex for resources is an act of violence is not just ideology parading as information; it undermines the dignity of anyone trading sex by not allowing them to define their own experience.

Ultimately, views like this are a step backward for everyone who demands the ability to declare their own boundaries and physical autonomy. And statements pushing this notion need to stop.

Engaging in the sex trade does not remove the ability for a person to determine what is and is not rape. They do not lose the ability to declare boundaries while engaging in sexual activities or to define their own experience when victimized. Further, this logic undermines the very core of consent, because it is grounded in the understanding that a person’s right to self-determination about their body and experience is less important than an outside person’s view of their circumstances.

For example, if a person is involved in kink or BDSM, consent still has a role to play in that experience, even if the sexual activities may look to someone else like violence. Just the same, when a person is in the sex trade they are allowed to determine their own physical boundaries—and decide what is and is not an experience of violence. Anything that undermines self-determination ultimately harms the hard-fought battle won by feminism, reproductive rights, and gender equality advocates over consent and control over one’s own body.

“Having sex for money doesn’t make me less aware of my boundaries—it makes me hyper-aware of them,” New York-based sex worker Vivienne told Rewire in an interview. “I know better than anyone else what it feels like when my consent is violated. Even when I didn’t want to see a client but I had to because of bills, that doesn’t change. Eviction is not consensual. What [work] I do to prevent that was.”

And yet, some feminists argue that the lack of other employment options invalidates the ability of a person to make the decision to trade sex. While for many, trading sex can be an act of survival, nowhere else in society do we take “lack of other options” as a reason to no longer allow a person’s decision, nor would we make it harder for them to access that option. For those seeking an abortion, for example, advocates would never use that person’s financial circumstance as a reason to decrease their ability to terminate the pregnancy. Rather, advocates fight for reproductive health care to be easy to access, under the safest conditions possible, and without stigma.

This assumption that consent rules don’t apply to sex workers can have far-reaching consequences. In 2007 Pennsylvania Judge Teresa Carr Deni ruled that a woman who was gang-raped at gunpoint by a client was not raped but instead declared it, “theft of services.” In a later interview, Judge Carr claimed that calling the incident rape “minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped.”

Regularly sex workers are also dehumanized by law enforcement who do not take seriously their reports of sexual assault when they do overcome the stigma and fear of arrest and report crimes. As one worker who made the decision to report her sexual assault described to Rewire in an email interview, “I reported an assault, rape, and theft by a client in Dallas, Texas in 2008, and was more or less ridiculed by the detective, and forced to pay for my own rape kit and hospital fees. On top of that, I was forced to do PTSD treatment to stay in school, which was unhelpful and expensive. The repetitive nature of the sad confessionals were so intense, I dropped out of college and became more deeply engaged in sex work than ever to pay off the debts incurred. Dallas police definitely didn’t take my assault seriously, and the institutional shaming following the incident was much more painful than the incident itself and lasted many months longer.”

This conflation of sex work and violence is being used to criminalize the sex trade, which often follows increased violence, stigma, and fewer options for those who wish to leave. Often, the assumption that all prostitution is violence or rape also is used as the reasoning for increasing laws, penalties, and policing of the sex trade.

Loitering and prostitution laws (which generally outlaw even the discussion of exchanging sex for money, while loitering laws often criminalize the appearance of someone who might exchange in prostitution) often leave people with long arrest records that make it difficult for them to get different jobs, access housing, or attend school. Laws that criminalize the “promotion of prostitution” (simply by supporting others, be it through helping someone post an ad or offering them safety tips) often criminalize peers and community members, which sex workers rely upon for safety and harm reduction strategies. The criminalization and policing of clients under anti-trafficking legislation often pushes people in the sex trade into more isolation, meaning they are cut off from their peers and outreach workers and driven to more clandestine locations. Street-based policing, be it to arrest sex workers or potential clients, means that people are more likely to need a third party to negotiate with potential clients, making them more dependent on those third parties and therefore more vulnerable to exploitation. And none of these things address the underlying issues, like poverty, which make the sex trade one of very few, and sometimes, the only option to meet basic needs. Using “all sex work is violence” as the reason for passing laws that increase violence is not just bad logic, it’s inhumane.

Sometimes others make decisions that leave us feeling uncomfortable, but they are not our decisions to make. The judgments we pass on the complex experiences of individuals only stigmatize and shame those in the sex trade.

Denying sex workers the right to determine the boundaries of their own body is an affront to the same arguments that we as feminists and activists are putting forward every day. The ability for someone to declare what is sexual assault only exists if we allow people to also determine what is not sexual assault. As we talk more about the importance of consent in the public discourse, upholding the right to say what is and isn’t violence must take precedence over our own discomfort about someone else’s choices.

Commentary Human Rights

How New York City’s Treatment of Sex Workers Continues to Harm Us

Jenna Torres

In fall of 2013, the State of New York established the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to change the way courts handled those arrested for prostitution. But I know firsthand that using this model can still cause violence to sex workers, because we don’t need treatment.

I am a native New Yorker and a product of its foster system. I’m currently a community organizer at the Red Umbrella Project, which works to build power with cis and trans women who are impacted by the criminalization of sex work in New York City.

In fall of 2013, the State of New York established the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to change the way courts handled those arrested for prostitution and loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Rather than jail time, judges offer defendants guilty pleas where, in exchange for attending multiple sessions at a “prostitution diversion program,” the defendant is granted an Adjournment in Contemplation for Dismissal, or ACD. After a probationary period, the charges are dropped, though local law enforcement retains a record of the arrest.

This system was modeled after the drug treatment courts, and it is spreading to states such as Illinois and Michigan. It aims to treat defendants as victims rather than criminals. But I know firsthand that using this model can still cause sex workers harm, because we don’t need treatment. Instead, we need meaningful engagement to give us the tools to create a better environment for ourselves on our own terms.

As a child, I was in foster care, trying to transition out on my own. I had the first of my three babies when I was 13. My foster mother would provide for my children with the money she got from the state, but not for me. I appealed to the foster agency to provide stipends for me to pay for clothing, but I was denied: The social worker that visited us felt that I had enough clothing, though most of it no longer fit me. So I began to take care of myself.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Starting at the age of 15, whenever I needed clothes, school uniforms, or school supplies, I engaged in sex work. I engaged in sex work to keep my phone on, to have a way to reach my child-care provider. I engaged in sex work to pay for basic things, like bus fare for when school was out, and for my personal care items.

In addition to being a teen mother, I was going to an alternative high school where they accept teens 16 and older who are deemed at risk or failing at “normal” high school. Passing or excelling was never actually a problem for me, but I didn’t get the grades I deserved because of my unexplained absences. No one could believe that a 16-year-old with two kids and pregnant with her third was capable of handling such a workload, so I was able to enroll in this school. There, they had a learning-to-work program. I was allowed to work 15 hours a week, making $7.25 an hour—still nothing compared to what I needed.

When I graduated from high school, things became even harder. I didn’t have the basic essentials I needed to be done with foster care and live on my own and I wasn’t able to get a job during the summer. Still, I was able to enroll in college in the fall. Meanwhile, I continued turning to the only thing I knew would make ends meet, which was sex work.

In August 2013, the day I was supposed to pick up my college schedule, I was arrested for prostitution. I never did the things the police accused me of, like agreeing to sexual acts or taking money for sexual services, but they arrested me anyway. After 23 hours in jail, I finally saw a public defender. She prompted me to take a plea, so that I could get my six sessions of “treatment” and an ACD. I was 17 years old at the time. While in holdings, I was unable to use the bathroom because of the unsanitary conditions. Shortly after being released, I was admitted to the hospital for five days because of resulting health problems.

Later, my mandate was changed to ten sessions and an immediate ACD, instead of having to wait six months after completing the sessions to have my charge cleared. The whole process almost ended my journey to college before it even began.

I had missed my final opportunity to register for classes. I went to the school—I begged and pleaded to start on time. But to get back into school, I was forced to disclose my hospital record stay, as well as my arrest papers. The students working in the administration department, which was in charge of making decisions about how flexible to be about latecomers and scheduling them, now knew I had been arrested for prostitution. I also received a very long and uncomfortable “talk” from the school board about how I got to this place, in which they asked how I could manage what I had going on while I attended school. I had to divulge very personal, embarrassing, and sensitive information in order to save my semester.

And the court-mandated sessions didn’t help me. They entailed showing up to the “diversion program” and speaking to a woman who I believed really did want to help me but just didn’t understand the situation I was facing. Oftentimes I had to lie and say that everything was fine when it really wasn’t, just so I could return as quickly as possible to sorting things out on my own, as I usually did. If I didn’t lie, it could’ve extended my sessions—more time I didn’t need to waste.  

As a teen mother, we are expected to fail and I wasn’t going to be that. I was going to be educated and financially responsible for my children. But it was impossible to do that trying to be everywhere at once.

It took me a couple of months to finish the court-mandated sessions at all, because I was trying to balance the program along with school, studies, and the life that comes with being in foster care like meetings and visits from social workers. I lived in Brooklyn, my college was in Staten Island, and my program was in Harlem. From my house, it usually took around two hours to get to school, and that travel included a bus, a train, a ferry, and a campus bus that only operated during the week. So on weekends, I could be subjected to the unreliable Staten Island MTA bus services as I tried to get to my Saturday classes. If I went to college and failed to do the programs, the police would arrest me. They would put a warrant out for me and then arrest me possibly with my kids watching or with my college peers watching. But it was physically impossible for me to get to school and try to go to my programs too. Eventually, I just had to drop out of college—the one thing could have helped me in the long run.  

The treatment program the courts provided was not a good fit for me. I didn’t need to be treated for sex work. That isn’t an illness. All the sessions did were occupy my time in ways that weren’t at all useful. I really needed that time for more important tasks. The sessions hampered my ability to create a better environment for myself and my children so I wouldn’t have to rely on sex work.   

They didn’t give me what I needed, either. They gave me options that didn’t fit my situation, suggesting that I just stop sex work and my life would be magically improved. Stopping sex work for me means not being able to make money. All the odds were stacked against me. Nobody was hiring a 18-year-old parent of three young children with a full college schedule.

It wasn’t until after I was finished with the programs and the court that the damage was really done. I had dropped out of school. I had to postpone my journey out of foster care. I was living off part-time work at Payless, still barely meeting the needs of my children and myself.

However, thanks to the Legal Aid Society, I was referred to the Red Umbrella Project for voluntary job assistance and training. The Red Umbrella Project and similar groups center people like me and our needs in a way that most programs ignore. They offer the things that we really need, like real job assistance that includes comprehensive resume writing and networking, housing resources, leadership opportunities, and health resources. My colleagues and I at the Red Umbrella Project pay attention to each member and also understand that one size doesn’t fit all models. But most importantly, we take care of each other as a community, not just as clients.

All I ever wanted to do is show everyone that teen mothers can be successful. Without an alternative, I made choices that I needed to do in order to take care of myself. It shouldn’t have taken me getting arrested and violated by the police and courts to hear my needs. There are bigger problems that needs to be addressed that aren’t, because this whole system was created without the input of the people filtering through it. Without our voices, it will continue to inflict harm and violence to us, the people that are supposedly “victims.”