Craigslist "Johns" and Impulse Exploitation

By Elizabeth Palmberg 9-09-2010

As debate rages on about Craigslist"s recent decision to delete its "adult services" section, some clues about their perspective can be found in their response to the Georgia Demand Study, in which activists did demand-side research into commercial sexual exploitation. To get their information, they put fake ads on Craigslist (and, in a small pilot project, several other websites) and then, in telephone conversations with those who responded, asked a variety of questions about age, location, etc. (They ended the conversation by saying that the girl they'd had in mind was not available after all, leaving respondents unaware they had participated in a study). This method provided essential demand-side information to go with the supply-side information which Georgia's grassroots advocates had been using to great effect for the last several years (as described in Selling Our Children, in the August 2010 issue of Sojourners).

But Craigslist's cease-and-desist letter to the activists specifically warned them not to do future demand-side research on Craigslist -- i.e. not to violate Craigslist's "terms of use" by temporarily posing as someone they were not. "We do that for anyone we find has been posting false advertising," Craigslist's attorney Michael Clyde told me.

I tried to explain to him I didn't think most of our readers would be too upset about activists --who witness firsthand, and are trying to prevent, the exploitation and enslavement of girls as young as 14 or 15 -- briefly misleading people who might be those girls' potential purchasers. (As I described in my previous blog, many of those johns would be willfully ignorant of the girl's age, rather than intentionally pedophiliac.)

What I wish I'd told Clyde is that I think the study might have done the unwitting participants a favor. Of the 218 respondents who completed interviews, perhaps a few -- when they were not connected by the survey company to an actual girl or woman whom they could pay for sex -- actually took a minute to consider whether they really wanted to buy sex from a stranger at all, let alone one who may be trafficked, addicted, abused, or otherwise exploited.

I'm no expert on prostitution, but it seems reasonable to assume that many decisions to purchase sex may be impulse buys. (Sure, I know, many will say that availability has no effect on people's buying decisions -- but I don't think the people who design supermarket checkout displays would agree). While some johns will probably go to any length to find commercial sex, others may be affected by easy availability.

This is why the Craigslist adult-services question matters. Craigslist's attorney Clyde objected strongly to the Georgia Demand Study's conclusion that "Craigslist is by far the most efficient medium for advertising sex with young females." As I mentioned in an earlier post, he has a point; this conclusion, unlike the rest of the study, is based on a small sample size. What's more, Clyde argued that the other website Craigslist was compared to had a smaller "completed survey" tally because it had a more "sophisticated" clientèle that was less likely to answer nosy questions about their age and whether this was their first time buying sex. (I even pointed out to Clyde another reason why this part of the study might be flawed: If the other site was as raunchy as he said, then the survey's ad, which was designed to run on Craigslist also, might garner less response than its more explicit neighbors.) So let's say Craigslist is not the most efficient way of selling trafficked girls.

It's still efficient enough to be the documented medium through which many enslaved young teenagers were sold. And this is not because Craigslist is morally depraved compared to other websites; it's just because Craigslist is one of the most efficient ways to sell anything. It turns up on search results, and people know it from buying furniture or finding a roommate. (I've avoided naming the sex-marketing website the Georgia Demand Study compared Craigslist to, specifically to avoid helping publicize it).

(By the way, Craigslist's attorney made no effort to deny that its adult services section advertised prostitution. To be fair, I didn't bother to ask -- but I did consider it some acknowledgment of the obvious when he describes anti-trafficking advocates as "always mixing up prostitution with the sale of underage girls for sex." This is a mixup which, as the Georgia Demand Study describes, would be more accurately attributed to johns than advocates).

The individual scrutiny Craigslist employees gave every "adult services" ad, starting last year after complaints from 40 states' attorneys general, helped deter some of the most obvious sales of underage girls. Will Craigslist's current actions be a step forward? Will they keep the "adult services" listings offline -- and, if so, will they take effective action to prevent commercial sexual exploitation from moving to other parts of Craigslist such as the personals ads?

It's nice that Clyde was generous with his time in talking to Sojourners, but it would be preferable if Craigslist were actively pursuing dialogue with the advocates, such as those behind the Georgia Demand Study, who work with and for those enslaved children -- dialogue that is not limited to cease-and-desist letters.

portrait-elizabeth-palmbergElizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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