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Thoughts on Craigslist, 'adult services' ads and convenient targets

Craigslist got an old-fashioned Congressional grilling Thursday at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on child sex trafficking -- the expected sequel to months of contentious debate over the classified-ads site's shuttered "adult services" section.


As Cecilia Kang's story in today's paper recaps, the latest chapter of this mess started a week ago when Craigslist -- after months of escalating pressure over its adult content -- removed that section from its site. It did not explain the move, though its placement of a "censored" label over the spot once occupied by "adult services" suggested its views.

The arguments over Craigslist's former acceptance of ads in this category -- unlike the bulk of its free ads, they sold for $10 apiece -- before and after have followed the same patterns.

(Disclaimer: I've used Craigslist to sell things, but I never looked at that category when it was around. I am told that the objectively legal content of the adult-services section included things such as performances by strippers. The less-than-legal content was... use your imagination.)

Craigslist and its defenders note that the San Francisco firm had lawyers screen every ad for illegal content -- and by requiring a credit-card payment, it denied advertisers the easy anonymity provided to other Craigslist users. It also cooperated regularly and promptly with law enforcement.

You can read Craigslist's own defense in posts on its blog and in the prepared Congressional testimony of William Powell, its director of customer service and law enforcement relations.

Microsoft social-media researcher Danah Boyd offered a more compelling version of that view last week, arguing that it was far easier for law enforcement officials to bust the "scumbags" -- her term -- exploiting women on a site like Craigslist. Now, that trade will move to less-ordered, more-anonymous spaces (possibly including Craigslist's own personals sections) that police can't patrol as effectively.

There's also this: U.S. law doesn't hold Web sites liable for content posted by their users, a point Wired's Ryan Singel made well Wednesday.

The argument against Craiglist is a more black-and-white affair: Prostitution is illegal, Craigslist enabled it, and the only ethical response for Craigslist is to get out of that market entirely. And although other sites share the blame, Craigslist -- the biggest classified-ads site in the world -- has to go first.

In this view, Craigslist doesn't get extra credit for operating the rough equivalent of a police department's sting operation on the streets; that is a job for law enforcement, not a for-profit company. Further, opponents of sex trafficking raise an excellent point when they ask (PDF) why Craigslist hasn't imposed comparable restrictions in other countries, where it doesn't bother with the "adult" euphemism, instead bluntly labeling those categories of services "erotic."

Craigslist's managers ought to answer that question, and many others. But until yesterday's hearing, the company hadn't said a peep about this issue. I don't do PR, but I don't see how not communicating anything amounts to an effective communications strategy. Then again, Craigslist has a history of failing to talk to its own users.

So Craigslist makes a convenient target. But if it's bad for Craigslist to make a buck off people's interest in paying for sex, it's no better for other companies to do the same, even if those other firms hire PR agencies. I trust that all of the politicians who have lined up to denounce Craigslist will be just as aggressive on other companies that have accepted adult or erotic ads now that Craigslist has announced that its adult-services listings are gone for good.

Here, I must note that my employer's history is not spotless. The Post has run ads for local massage parlors that apparently offer a variety of (ahem) value-added services. This is no secret; Gene Weingarten had some sport with the topic in a 2001 column recounting his visit to one such establishment to have a crick in his neck worked out. In 2006, the paper's ombudsman at the time, Deborah Howell, demanded that the paper stop running these ads.

The number of these ads appears to have diminished in recent years, though the fact that local law enforcement shut down the massage parlors in question may have had something to do with that. The Post's PR department declined to comment.

I also have to note that for years, Craigslist has been dismantling the classified-ads business of The Post and other newspapers. But if there's a conspiracy among newspapers to punish Craigslist, nobody bothered to enlist me. No one here has told or asked me to blog about the site's adult-services controversy (that story broke on the Friday night that I was returning from a trip). Meanwhile, Post staffers not only routinely use Craiglist, some of us even link to our own Craigslist ads in posts on our intranet's for-sale message board. As the Facebook saying goes: It's complicated.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 16, 2010; 10:52 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Policy and politics , The business we have chosen  
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What this article, and most of the other articles written on this topic, overlook is the critical fact that there are many adult services that are NOT illegal (laws vary by jurisdiction). Stripping is not illegal, lap dances are not illegal, nude massages are not illegal. By going after Craigslist, these politicians have shut down a legitimate form of sexual expression and a legitimate form of business between individuals, simply because they are unwilling to do what it really takes to shut down trafficking.

Posted by: winterene | September 16, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Let's not fool ourselves here, the folks that placed and responded to these ads on craigslist aren't going to evaporate overnight. And this is from one who met his wife via CL.

Posted by: JetCityOrange | September 16, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Upfront: this reader believes that prostitution ought to be legal. That being said, there are several vectors that shape the situation of prostitution in 2010.

A global culture with fast communication and relatively fast transportation combined with dramatic economic inequalities between regions and nations has created economic incentives for women fr/ poor entities to travel to privileged entities and wind up in prostitution.

Well-organized criminal syndicates using rapid communications have facilitated this economy-based movement and used their tools of intimidation to keep many of these cross-border prostitutes in defacto slavery. This occurs even in countries w/ reasonably well-regulated legal prostitution, such as the Netherlands & Germany. It's much worse in the US.

So my acceptance of legalized prostitution is up against the reality of the lives of the effectually enslaved prostitutes.

The hierarchy of CL is a bastion of free thinking and some sort of libertarianism. (Caveat; this reader believes that most libertarians are part hypocrite, especially in a nation like the US where government protection is all that stands between ordinary citizens & a large population of well-armed sociopaths.) They resolutely refuse to acknowledge the dilemma between their lack of enthusiasm for the prostitution laws, their income fr/ prostitution, & the sorry lot of a large number of prostitutes.

It is a dilemma, but they have enough $ to bear up under the stress it might create and attempt a solution.

One other problem of contemporary prostitution is that easier sexual mores' mean that a large part of the business of prostitution is catering to customers with bizarre sexual tastes. This contributes to the bad working conditions in prostitution.

Posted by: featheredge99 | September 16, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I find it ironic that everyone (including the 26 State Attorney Generals) has been making so much noise about Craigslist profiting from the Adult Services ads. Craigslist only started charging for Adult Service ads when they created the category as part of a deal with those same State Attorney Generals a couple years ago. Before that, the ads were free, just like the majority of Craigslist ads.

Basically, what it comes down to, is that its an election year, and some elected officials have decided to Make An Example of a private company that is engaged in legal commerce (the CDA is the binding legal authority here) in order to show how Tough On Crime they are.

Posted by: washpost86 | September 16, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

"Disclaimer: I've used Craigslist to sell things, but I never looked at that category when it was around."

Oh come now Rob. You are among friends. I admit to looking but never "purchased" anything there.

Posted by: RickJohnson621 | September 16, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Honestly, I haven't. I have visited NSFW sites--strictly for research purposes!--but Craigslist's adult category was not among them. And I felt kind of dumb when I had to ask around to see what I'd missed there.

Yes, I realize no one will believe me in this. [shrugs]

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | September 16, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

We're all prostitutes. What do you think giving your body eight hours a day to an employer is?

Posted by: ObamasPastor-GodDamnAmerica | September 16, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

My one relevant thought about Craigslist adult ads is, that I always had the impression it was entrepreneurial single women- women who were pimp-less- that mostly used Craigslist to advertise. I'm personally too shy to call one... but a single man ought to have the right to find a willing sex partner, even if she charges a fee. I'm not sure that private contractor sex-workers are so immoral. A few countries permit The World's Oldest Profession to flourish licensed and inspected, and it doesn't seem to hurt them, except for the fact that Puritan countries like ours force randy men into sexual tourism, and it gets crowded sometimes. If you take away the motive for sex slavery by legalizing prostitution, what's the harm in individually licensed entepreneurs? Someone rational please answer me here.

Posted by: whitebeard1 | September 16, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

This does nothing to stop prostitution. Now that CL is gone, people will just go to other sites like bp,, eros or those god awful "yank" magazines. In regard to exploitation, CL did an excellent job removing suspicious ads and truly tried to monitor them. Good job government.

Posted by: Goodtimeswashingtonpost | September 16, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure which post offends me the most. Every post I have read seems to be written by men. Are you married. Do you feel no shame that we live in a society that turns the other way and ignores the moral decay in our country. Do you really not care if your children for on Craigslist and saw the way both women and men are advertising themselves for sale. There are many free ad sites that do not allow adult content. support of If Craigslist has too make up revenues should be interesting to see which ads they will start charging for next.

I have a question for all who posted a comment. What if one of the ads posted belonged to your son or your daughter how would you feel then
I would sugg6

Posted by: ethansnana | September 17, 2010 3:32 AM | Report abuse

The fact is that trading sex for money is not a crime in any rational sense of the word. In California they boink for bucks on a daily basis with no worries about being arrested or persecuted. This only applies if you have sex for money in front of a camera with at least the intent to distribute it to the public. This is called the porn business. Of course if you have sex for money in private (prostitution) then you ARE a criminal. Pretty funny huh?
Not constitutional though given the supposed requirement that people get equal protection from the law. I guess we already know that equal protection only applies to some people sometimes.

Posted by: cduwel | September 17, 2010 5:32 AM | Report abuse

Constant Contact is a hugely-successful email marketing company that uses seminars to lure new customers to subscribe to its services. Read about the rather unusual content of such seminars in this article:

Posted by: freighter | September 17, 2010 8:12 AM | Report abuse

"My one relevant thought about Craigslist adult ads is, that I always had the impression it was entrepreneurial single women- women who were pimp-less- that mostly used Craigslist to advertise. ... If you take away the motive for sex slavery by legalizing prostitution, what's the harm in individually licensed entepreneurs? Someone rational please answer me here."
Whitebeard, if your assumption was incorrect, and if often ads were placed by operators who offer minors and trafficked women / girls / boys in awful conditions -- would your question change?

If the gov't doesn't have the resources to regulate in the same way the Netherlands may be able to, and so the same situations would apply (trafficked women & minors in awful conditions rather than women making a free choice), would your question change?

Thanks for considering.

Posted by: dmcqb | September 17, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Do you really think those ads have gone away?!?
Just go to the Personals.....

Just because the proverbial Oil Slick is not seen on the surface, it doesn't mean that the oil has disappeared ....

Posted by: andio76 | September 17, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Craigslist is kinda irrelevant. Someone will start a service offshore and that will be that.

Posted by: illogicbuster | September 17, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

"Yeah, let us waste taxpayers time and money to harass Craigslist and force them to close their adult section. This will immediately solve all the problems of prostitution and child trafficking in the US, then we can go back home and enjoy a great dinner. Maybe some other time, we can think about actually doing something about unemployment and the economy, or pass a bill that will actually benefit the American people. After all, we are Congress, we can do whatever, whenever the heck we please!!"

Stupid Congress, never getting their priorities right.

Posted by: davek4 | September 17, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

"I am told that the objectively legal content of the adult-services section included things such as performances by strippers. The less-than-legal content was... use your imagination"

"local massage parlors that apparently offer a variety of (ahem) value-added services"

Wait, what? What's the less-than-legal content exactly? Escort services? Prostitution? Slaves? Euthanizers? What kind of news article instructs readers to use their imaginations? I have a pretty big imagination, Pegoraro. Are you not allowed to use the word 'prostitution' or something??

Posted by: patrickbmccormick | September 17, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Check out the Tijuana, Mexico Craiglist adult services ads...

Every Craiglist hooker from San Diego simply moved their advertisements.

Posted by: JERRYB1 | September 17, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

The reality is that CL folded -- wish they hadn't.

The comment that they enabled prostitution and that prostitution was illegal and therefore they should shut down that category is a bit like saying that "People post copyrighted videos at Youtube; this is illegal; hence, Youtube should shut this down."


Posted by: evalsinca1 | September 17, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

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