The crusade against Craigslist is knee-jerk liberalism at its worst.
I was first called a hypocrite last year for writing about the horrors of human trafficking in a newspaper that makes money off classified ads advertising sex services. It’s likely, of course, that an unknown number of trafficking victims are being forced to work in some of the spas and parlors advertised in the back pages of Philadelphia Weekly. The truth is that the thought never occurred to me when I first took the job. Then I researched trafficking for my first story on prostitution. Since then, the question looms: Is it better to have no audience or to use a platform that is likely in part provided by trafficking to speak out against it?
The second time I was called a hypocrite was a few weeks ago, when PW ran a nightlife column that chronicled a young writer’s “adventure” purchasing a handjob from a prostitute in a Chinatown brothel. The comment: “I don’t see how someone like Tara Murtha can write for a publication that will also publish this. We’re talking massive credibility hole here.”
Thing is, as irresponsible and corny as I thought the column was, PW is a platform. As an alt-weekly, the goal is to provide an outlet for voices and perspectives edged out of mainstream media. Sometimes it fails.
That said, it’s an inconvenient truth for the trafficking awareness movement that not all prostitutes are trafficked or participating against their will. It makes the whole affair of prostitution and trafficking a very difficult subject to write about.
Which brings us back to hypocrisy. I suppose I’m a hypocrite on the first charge. But you don’t need to get your paycheck from an alt-weekly for your dollars to funnel back to human trafficking.
For example, if you used any of Comcast’s services or stayed in a major hotel chain like Marriott—both of which earn significant revenue off porn—you’ve contributed to the economic supply chain that makes money off trafficked victims, since some porn is actually “performed” by trafficking victims against their will.
So we’re hypocrites, small-time mostly (though that doesn’t make it feel any better).
What does makes me feel better is shining a light on big-time hypocrites. This week, it’s the coalition of state attorneys general—our AG Tom Corbett didn’t sign—who have launched a crusade to pressure Craigslist into shutting down its Adult Services section.
On Aug. 24, 17 state attorneys general sent a letter to Craigslist brass saying: “The increasingly sharp public criticism of Craigslist’s Adult Services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution—including ads trafficking children—are rampant on it … because Craigslist cannot, or will not, adequately screen these ads, it should stop accepting them altogether.”
In response to the letter, Craigslist voluntarily censored its Adult Services section. As an expert pointed out in a recent New York Times article, “having failed to win in court and in litigation, [states’ attorneys general] have decided to revisit this in the court of public opinion … [where] they have been much more successful.”
The problem with the court of public opinions is that you can’t trust the jurors.
Behold knee-jerk liberalism at its worst. While on a political level the crusade is designed to symbolically herald that it’s time to take trafficking seriously and protect victims—and lord knows it is—on a practical level, such sweeping censorship actually makes it harder to help trafficking victims. Craigslist is no angelic company, but censoring the Adult Services section will do more harm than good for victims because it’s easier to catch criminals who use technology than those who do not. Online classifieds at least offer some clues to help identify the advertiser and purchaser via IP addresses.
Besides, Craigslist is not the only place on the Internet that posts commercial sex classifieds. There are plenty of websites like ErosGuide, CityVibe and Village Voice Media’s BackPage that post commercial sex ads.
Like what’s already happening on Craiglist, shutting down the Adult Services will only push the activity into other sections of classifieds (to the chagrin of masseuses everywhere). Trying to censor the entire Internet—good luck with that—will only push prostitution and trafficking further underground.
If you are going to police the whole Internet, why randomly overlook print, like the ads in the back of this very paper, City Paper or a host of any other alt-weeklies? Of course they are thinly veiled ads for prostitution. Ads in the back of CP recently led to the bust of an Atlantic City prostitution ring.
Because of the need for a credit card to pay for ads, politicians should be encouraging law enforcement to work with website owners to beef up the web’s built-in monitoring to increase the odds of catching criminal activity instead of showboating for a hollow political victory while forcing criminals off the grid. We want criminals on the grid, where we can see them.
If elected officials really want to help victims of trafficking, they should re-evaluate their own state’s lopsided laws that persecute prostitutes—some of which are trafficked—while turning a blind eye to the pimps and johns.
Despite the recent spike in awareness of international trafficking, federal and most state laws are still in the Stone Age when it comes to helping domestic victims of trafficking.
National laws exist that recognize foreigners brought to the United States and pimped out against their will as victims. Getting busted means getting saved—there are programs in place that grant them refugee status. But legislation concerning domestic victims of trafficking lag far behind. If an American-born trafficking victim gets busted, they don’t get saved, they get a record that makes escaping the life even more difficult.
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