Throwing Out the Enslaved Girl With the Bathwater

By Elizabeth Palmberg 09-08-2010

So far, Craigslist isn't explaining its dramatic decision last weekend to replace with the word "censored" its entire "adult services" section, a listing which activists and state attorneys general had protested as rife with the pimping of girls and women -- some of them under 18 or otherwise trafficked. Some backstory to the Craigslist publicity wars comes from a virtually unreported skirmish Sojourners has been researching for the last several weeks: Craigslist attorneys' threats this summer of legal action against grassroots anti-trafficking activists who conducted a study about adolescent girls being sold for sex on Craigslist. ("Selling Our Children" author Letitia Campbell is out of the country on a previously scheduled trip, so I started following the story).

Michael Clyde, a lawyer for Craiglist, was willing to spend a liberal amount of time in recent weeks responding to Sojourners' requests for information. He showed much less interest in discussion with the Georgia activists, who told me that their attorney, Stephen Hill, had requested a meeting with Craigslist after their cease-and-desist letter, and been rejected. (Clyde denied that any request had taken place -- "I don't know what they're talking about").

Here's the thing about this dispute: In one narrow area, Craislist actually has a point. But it's throwing out the enslaved 15-year-old girl with the bathwater.

For one of the ten statements in the anti-trafficking activists' study -- "Craigslist is by far the most efficient medium for advertising sex with young females; ads on this site received 3 times as many responses compared to identical ads placed on other sites" -- Craigslist actually has some valid critique. Unlike the rest of the study findings, that statement that was based on a small pilot project, and the Craigslist-vs-other-websites comparison had some flaws I'll discuss in a later blog. And I think it was a mistake for the coalition to highlight this particular point in its initial press release.

But the main point is not the comparison between different websites, but the comparison between the selling of 15-year-olds via the web, versus not. And according to advocates who work with children enslaved and trafficked for sex, the internet is contributing to a boom in children being preyed on in this horrific manner. The vast majority of the study provides useful, well-grounded information about sex purchasers, information which can help advocates.

Just to be clear, the study is not saying that people are posting or answering Craigslist ads that say "rent a 15-year-old's body for sex." As Clyde emphasized in my discussion with him, such ads would have been weeded out by their "adult services" screening process, which included an actual human looking at ads before they are cleared for display. (This process was instituted last year in response to complaints by 40 states' attorneys general).

Nor is the study saying that most of the men who buy sex with women under 18 know that they are doing this:

Advertisements featuring adolescents are rarely labeled in text as such. Instead, advertisement creators rely on pictures of the females and young text descriptors to convey her approximate age to prospective customers.

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