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Addressing Craigslist’s “trafficking problem”

Date: June 26, 2010

This past week, someone from a national organization working to end violence against women contacted me and asked for my view about addressing the problem of sex trafficking on Craigslist. The inquiry is related to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s planned protest at the headquarters of Craigslist, which is calling for Craigslist to prohibit classified ads for adult services. Below is an excerpt from my response.

*****

I think I already wrote my basic thoughts about this topic in the previous email, but here are some details:

1. Craigslist is not the problem. It appears to be doing whatever it can do to fight trafficking on its site, such as

– requiring confirmation by phone before an ad is posted–this ensures that whoever posted the ad can be tracked down if needed
– requiring payment by credit card, which provides further mechanism to track down
– manually reviewing every single ad that is posted for signs of trafficking or child sexual exploitation
– providing a directory of agencies to report suspected trafficking to
– cooperating with the law enforcement, providing them with tools and information needed for conducting investigations

2. There are many alternatives to Craigslist where sex workers and their pimps/managers/traffickers can advertise. Because Craigslist is a company that does business with the general public, it is in their best interest to work with non-profit organizations and law enforcement to combat trafficking in order to protect its public image. Operators of websites that specifically cater to the sex industry do not have the same incentive.

3. Adult service ads are a big part of Craigslist’s bottom line, as they are to alternative weeklies and other traditional media. But they do not necessarily depend on human trafficking. There is no evidence that human trafficking is a substantial problem at Craigslist, or any more of a problem than in any other media outlets (and Craigslist does more to address the problem of trafficking than any other classified services).

4. Many women use Craigslist to advertise their services because it is a relatively safe and cheap way to do so without a pimp, management, or large start-up cost (e.g. advertising in alternative newspapers). Cracking down on Craigslist harms many of these women by taking away opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and autonomy.

5. I did a LexisNexis research for reports about trafficking on Craigslist, and I found that vast majority of examples involved minors being recruited into prostitution. I’m trying to figure out how these pimps got caught, because that might give us an idea about how to identify sexual exploitation of minors, but there isn’t enough information in most newspaper articles.

That said, some incidences were uncovered because the ads hinted at trafficking (e.g. an ad offering “sex slave” for sale–which should never have passed Craigslist’s manual review and should have been reported immediately); while some others appear to have been intervened because the girl pictured in the ad looked too young.

I think that we should work with Craigslist to improve mechanisms to identify ads that share characteristics similar to other ads that have been identified as involving child sexual exploitation or trafficking. Craigslist is a technology company, and I’m sure that they can do better in this regard, utilising data mining technologies to distinguish between a woman posting an ad for herself or someone posting an ad on her behalf with her consent, versus someone forcing her to work. (Other industries such as banking and airlines use similar technologies to identify potentially fraudulent financial transactions or suspected terrorist activities.)

6. I also would like Craigslist to cooperate with projects such as Portland Bad Date Line, with which I am tangentially involved. Portland Bad Date Line collects reports about “bad dates,” that are johns who act violently or abusively, or announcing being HIV+ after insisting on and having unprotected sex, or pimps who chase the women in an effort to get the women to work for them, etc. and distribute this information to women (and others) working in the sex industry so that they can take further precautions.

Craigslist could post this sort of information for each region prominently in adult services section, which would provide information women can use to be safer while working, while at the same time warning potential “bad dates” that their information would be shared if they act out. Craigslist should also post information for women seeking help more prominently, although it is questionable whether or not women who are trafficked would actually see the site.

Let’s get Craigslist involved. I have other ideas that I want to bring up with Craigslist if we can get their ears.

7. I feel that what I’ve written above makes sense, and it is the rational and sensible approach to addressing the problem of trafficking. But I do not feel that many U.S.-based “anti-trafficking” groups are serious: they are simply using it as a cover to attack prostitution and the sex industry, and have little regard for how their actions might impact the people they are claiming to protect.

Case in point: the campaign to “end the demand” is absurd. Economics 101 suggests that if the demand for sexual services were to decrease, it would push the price of such services down. But supply is downwardly inelastic, since many women work in the sex industry because they do not have other viable economic opportunities, and the price has to go down quite a bit before another option–such as working as janitors and maids–become more viable compared to prostitution. That is, supply will not go down as much as demand does, and the end result is that more workers would be competing for fewer johns. It would not only mean less income for the women and their families, but it would also force women to make more risky choices–such as having unprotected sex.

Further, not all johns are equally predatory or unsafe to the women. Campaign to “end the demand” would mostly drive away johns who are risk-averse (i.e. those who do not like to take risks), while it would not affect thrill-seeking, risk-insensitive johns. But these thrill-seeking, risk-insensitive types are the ones that present more health and physical risks to those working in the sex industry. In other words, such campaign directly and indirectly harm the women working in the sex industry.

Here, the intentional conflation of trafficking and prostitution by the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement constitutes a real problem: trafficking involves force, deception, or threats, which should be immediately intervened and victims rescued; advocating for the women working in the sex industry requires a much more nuanced and multi-faceted approach (such as creating viable economic opportunities and promoting economic and social justice). The campaigns to “end the demand” or to shut down Craigslist’s adult services section are most likely ineffective at actually addressing the issue of trafficking, and extremely harmful to the women who are working in the sex industry. And yet, by conflating the two, the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement hijacks the discourse surrounding the sex industry, making it difficult for those of us working to advocate for women who are working in it.

Another example of irrationality: reports after reports claim that the average age of entry into prostitution is around age 13, usually citing Department of Justice or FBI as the source. If average is 13, that would suggest that there are equal number of 6-year olds and 20-year olds entering prostitution (assuming normal distribution), and that is obviously untrue. It is shocking to encounter someone who had become involved in prostitution at age 13 or younger, but this is definitely an exception, not the norm.

The “statistics” actually comes from a survey of minors who had an encounter with social services, and as such does not include any adults. If you only study minors who are in prostitution, of course the average age of entry is below 18–but it has nothing to do with the average age of entry in general. Consider this: if you only studied people who died as a minor, the average age of death would be something like 13–but that doesn’t mean that the average life expectancy is 13.

So is 13 the typical age of entry for those who became involved in prostitution as a minor? The answer is no. Because the research cuts off at age 18, someone who started at 13 has five times more chance to be included in the study compared to someone who barely started at 17, making the early starters five times more represented in the study. I don’t have access to the original data sets to figure out the actual average, but I suspect that it is closer to 17–and this is only the average for those who were involved as a minor.

The truth is that none of us know the actual average age of entry, but I feel that the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement is cynically publicising the demonstrably false claim (“the average age of entry is 13”) in order to equate prostitution with trafficking of minors, distorting the public perception of the issue and harming many women who are impacted by the anti-prostitution measures they promote.

I would also add a historical observation: in the past, the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement have come and gone along with the anti-immigration sentiment in the nation, as exemplified by the “white slavery” panic that coincided with the historical period between Chinese Exclusion Act and Alien and Sedition Acts. The “white slavery” panic did not improve lives of women (including many immigrant women) who were working in the sex industry, but instead functioned as a springboard for repressive policies that target marginalized communities. I fear that the current “anti-trafficking” fervour, coinciding perfectly with the heightened anti-immigration sentiment, is moving along the similar trajectory, and I hope that we can redirect the movement so that it can actually offer safety and freedom for victims without causing harms on others.

How I am excited to receive merit-based scholarship to attend a diverse conference. Not.

Date: May 27, 2010

Several months ago, I sent in an application for “diversity scholarship” to attend this year’s Desiree Alliance conference for activists, scholars, and social workers involved in advocating for sex workers. The conference will take place in Las Vegas late July.

Since I have recently become unemployed, and my grass-roots organizing in the sex worker’s rights movement does not bring me any income, I cannot afford to attend the conference without the scholarship. I estimated that I’d need about $400 for lodging and transportation, plus there is this $150-250 registration fee that the conference expects participants to pay.

I was prepared to spend perhaps $200 of my own money, and use frequent flier miles to get me there, but needed the scholarship to pay for the rest–or at least have the registration fee waived. I told them: “If I do not receive any scholarship, I will not attend the conference. If the registration is waived, there is a small chance I might be able to attend, depending on what deals I find on travel and lodging, and also on whether or not I can use my friend’s frequent flier miles.”

The scholarship application was in depth: it asked about my race/sexuality/disability/etc., communities that I come from, my relationship to sex work and sex worker community, and references. Some of what I wrote in the application was deeply personal, because I felt that they’d had to know me to understand why I would benefit the conference with my participation.

I wasn’t upset that Desiree Alliance did not award me the scholarship to help me with the travel and lodging expenses. But I was offended by the cheerful tone of the email that informed me that I did not make the cut.

The Desiree Alliance Diversity Scholarship Selection Committee has reviewed your application. We are awarding you a Merit Scholarship, which is a partial scholarship for registration to attend the Desiree Alliance Conference, “Working Sex: Power, Practice, and Politics.” In Las Vegas from July 25-30 2010. We appreciate your interest in this conference!

We will be providing you with a partial registration scholarship of $100 of the $250 registration fee. We hope that you will be able to secure the remaining resources to attend!

In other words: not only did they not offer me any scholarship, they didn’t even waive the registration. They are basically just giving me the early registration discount which I would have received if I had just registered several months ago instead of responding to invasive questions in hope that they would at least waive my registration.

I do realize that they probably have very limited funds, and I don’t claim to be more worthy of scholarship than those who received it (if any, that is). But why did they have to be all cheerful about “awarding” partial scholarship, which in reality is no different from early registration fee? I just wish they had simply told me that, unfortunately, they were unable to fund my expenses, and then offered the reduced registration–not as a “scholarship,” but in order to compensate for the fact that I missed the opportunity to register early because of the scholarship application process.

Stop the Scapegoating of Prostitutes on the 82nd

Date: September 16, 2008

I know I’ve been neglecting this blog, but I have a good excuse this time. I’ve been working with other women from the neighbourhood to start this group: 82ndCARES Coalition.

The story starts in September 2007, when City of Portland abolished controversial Drug Free Zone and Prostitution Free Zone. These “zones” grants police the power to issue “exclusion” order for anyone who is suspected of drug- or prostitution-related activity, long before there is any criminal conviction. Because these “zones” unfairly target people based on their race, class and gender, many people have protested DFZ/PFZ for years. So it was a great news when the City finally recognized them for what they were: violation of our civil rights and liberties.

But ever since, some neighbours in the previously PFZ areas–especially along NE/SE 82nd Avenue–have complained about the increased level of street prostitution and other crimes they associate with it. It resulted in formation of several neighbourhood groups that either seek reinstatement of PFZ and/or other strategies to contain the prostitution “problem.” Some of these groups are more reasonable than others, but the whole conversation (neighbourhoods, police, city council, media) focused on solutions that center on how police can reduce prostitution and other crimes.

Tension is running high, and hostile, even hateful rhetoric has been exchanged. For example:

“The prostitutes are soooo obvious in their manner & in their dress. I have lived in the Montavilla area in the same house most of my life & I know these women are not the normal everyday citizen. The blatent strollers or those who just hang out on the Avenue has increased to the point of being very, very obvious. I am not low-class, nor is this neighborhood, but what is allowed to occur here is ghetto behavior. What the heck is going on??” – Barbara

“I don’t feel unsafe here or anything, but I agree this blatant behavior does seem ghetto-ish.” – Laura

“We need to address this as a community, now….. What do you think this is doing to the value of your property?” – Carol

“I have noted that some other communities have successfully reduced prostitution by taking pictures of the John / Hooker hook-up and publishing them in local papers. I have taken a couple of hook-up pics with my cell phone. Some communities have made posters of these pics. I would like to see a discussion of this issue. I am immediately concerned that by taking pics, picture takers might be in some jeopardy.” – Bruce

I am tired of hearing these voices repeated in the media as the voice of our neighbourhood. That is why I and other women (and people of other genders are welcome too–but so far it’s just women) have joined together to form 82ndCARES. “CARES” stands for Community Action for Resource, Education and Support for social worker types among you, and Community Action for Respect, Empowerment and Survival for activist types :-)

The fundamental belief of 82ndCARES Coalition is that we do not view prostitution on the 82nd as a law enforcement issue. We view the situation on the 82nd as a symptom of social and economic injustices in our society. The solution therefore is not more cops on the street or jail beds, but more affordable housing, more childcare, more treatment options, more education, and more just society.

Please check out our website and join our email list if you live in Portland.

Intersex people are from the Earth, and other stuff beyond patriarchy.

Date: May 6, 2008

I’m going to Eugene this Friday to present at Beyond Patriarchy conference. I was originally planning to do two workshops (one on intersex activism and another on sex worker feminisms) but due to my schedule (I’m hosting Good Asian Drivers‘ stop at In Other Words bookstore in Portland on Saturday) I can only do the latter. That said, I thought you might enjoy reading the description I wrote up for the intersex workshop:

Title: Intersex People are from the Earth

Description: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and yet they act like the Earth belongs to them. This workshop is for anyone who wish to learn about the Earth’s native species, intersex people, and their struggles.

Obviously, this is all tongue-in-cheek… Most intersex people identify and live as men or women just like most non-intersex people, so it’s not correct to assume that intersex people are somewhere between men and women… See “What is wrong with ‘Male, Female, Intersex’” at Intersex Initiative’s website.

Since I’m posting the information, here’s the description for the workshop I’m actually presenting:

Title: Class and Sex Worker Feminisms

Description: Sex industry and sex work have been sites of fierce contention within feminism. But too often, the discussions revolved around anti-prostitution feminists who depict poor and working-class women as voiceless victims (thereby silencing them), and pro-sex feminists who neglect them altogether (thereby silencing them) and focus on sex workers who are relatively better off. This discussion attempts to complicate the analysis by introducing class-conscious pro-sex feminist positions.

The workshop will be held at Century Room A, Erb Memorial Union at University of Oregon at 3:35pm on Friday.

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