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The De-Platforming of Sex Workers on the Craigslist Personals and Adult Services Sections

Craigslist was a very important site for sex workers, especially survival sex workers. Advertising was free; the personals section and adult services section were both used to connect with clients and potential clients without a lot of barriers. In April of 2018, SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act)/FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) was signed into law, essentially leaving Craigslist with little choice but to shut the sections down. The day after the bill was signed, Craigslist decided to shutdown its personals section and put this message on their website:

"US Congress just passed HR 1865, 'FOSTA'," it reads, "seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully. Any tool or service can be misused. We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day. To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!"

SESTA/FOSTA essentially amended the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which had made websites and website operators immune from the conduct of third parties on their site. Now with the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, website operators and owners can be held legally liable for any facilitation of illegal activity using their site. SESTA/FOSTA was evidence of a new wave of change in American policy on trafficking in which all prostitution is regarded as exploitation, whether or not that person ended up in erotic labor via means of force, fraud and coercion.

SESTA/FOSTA was the result of pressure from organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the evangelical Exodus Cry, which had begun putting enormous pressure on American policymakers to shut down these online adult venues. One of the problems with escorting sites right now is that the majority cost a pretty penny to advertise. There needs to be somewhere that is accessible for survival sex workers, who might not have $200 for an ad on one of the more “upscale” platforms. The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking are obviously not the only problem with the Craigslist shutdown, but the further isolation and alienation of survival sex workers from low-barrier sex work that is a much safer alternative to street-based work.

Even those who initially supported the passage of SESTA/FOSTA and shutdown of the Craigslist personals and adult services sections now express regret. Even Law enforcement has said that shutting down the sections ended up making their work much harder, because when one website closes down, those with access scatter to tons of other websites. Unfortunately, this strategy has since become the norm with the enormous external pressure from nonprofits on American policymakers to “do something” about the scourge of sex trafficking.

Craigslists’ adult services section was shut down in 2010 and their personals section in 2018. After the adult services sections’ shutdown in 2010, much of the adult industry work ads moved to the personals section. To use or advertise on the erotic services or personals was free and all it required was an internet connection and a laptop or smart phone. This resulted in many more outdoor sex workers - especially those who had to previously rely on 100% outdoor work - could now move to a kind of hybrid indoor/outdoor work. Many sex workers with the advent of adult services and personals were able to get hotel or motel rooms for a day and see multiple clients out of the relative safety of a motel room, as opposed to the streets.

The real tragedy of the Craigslist closing is that making it safer was something that could have been accomplished. They could have chosen to keep adult services and the personals up but add further verifications and protections to ensure it was difficult for any minors to use or for anyone to force someone else onto the site. To do that though, in America at least, is highly controversial because many would look at it as validating the existenmce of sex work. Even “encouraging” sex work. America has a puritanical problem with sex and sexual shame and it doesn’t help sex trafficking victims any. Taking the boot-on-the neck approach to prostitution has gotten us no closer to keeping sex industry workers and sex trafficking victims any safer.

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