Tuesday, January 18, 2011

From Online to Underground: On Craigslist's Erotic Services, Human Trafficking and Sex Work

[This article of mine is being published in our local independent press this week. I just thought I'd post it here too.]

On the week-end of December 18-19, 2010, the “erotic services” section of the Canadian Craigslist sites were taken down. This measure came after the Federal Government, along with the Attorneys General from five provinces (including Ontario) lobbied abreast anti-human trafficking groups to have Craigslist remove its “erotic services” section, as it had done in the U.S. in September 2010. The underlying rationale for removing the “erotic services” listings is that these classifieds were being exploited to coerce women and children into sex trade.

Whether the removal of the “erotic services” actually hurts or helps the cause of anti-human trafficking is subject to questioning. Craigslist has a history of having cooperated with law enforcement services to track illegal human trafficking, particularly under-aged sex trade. In the U.S., Craigslist had closed the “erotic services” listings back in May 2009, to run them under the rubric of “adult services.” One of the innovative aspects of the “adult services” listings was that each classified post costed 10 U.S. dollars, making each traceable to a credit card owner. Moreover, the website had imposed more stringent rules regarding the types of ads that could be posted and each listing was individually screened before it appeared on the list. 

In “Manual Screening Matters,” an article published on the Craigslist blog on August 18, 2010, Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, claimed that the company “is committed to being socially responsible, and when it comes to adult services ads, that includes aggressively combating violent crime and human rights violation, including human trafficking and the exploitation of minors.” He further explained that since May 2009, Craigslist had implemented a manual screening of adult services ads whereby “before being posted each individual ad [was] reviewed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the US, trained to enforce Craigslist’s posting guidelines, which, [were] stricter than those typically used by yellow pages, newspapers or any other company that we [at Craigslist] are aware of.” On numerous occasions, Craigslist’s authorities have cooperated with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in screening calls for child prostitution, and have consequently reviewed, removed and tracked suspicious ads.

Craigslist has been the centre of a few sex scams and scandals: in August 2009, Philip Markoff, popularly known as the “Craigslist killer,” murdered Julissa Brisman in a hotel-room in Boston, Massachussets. Markoff had met Brisman through a Craigslist classified. In Brampton, Ontario, Imani Nakpangi was convicted in 2008 for selling two teenagers aged 14 and 15 for sex services on Craigslist. Nakpangi was the first human trafficker to be convicted in Canada. However, it remains unclear whether removing the “erotic services” listings of Craigslist will in any way contribute to the eradication of human trafficking and child prostitution. Closing down such a central and large-scale service for erotic services of different sorts will only drive sex trade to more dangerous, less transparent and less visible locations. Unlike the services of Craigslist, the new locations may not have the same degree of accountability to the posters of the ads, and the latter may not even be traced back to their origins.

The Internet has rendered sex work safer in many ways. To start with, sex workers are not obliged to be roaming the streets for clients. The web has also made it easier and safer for sex workers to screen and track their clients: many sex workers demand that new clients provide referrals from existing clients and/or references from other sex workers. According to Nadia (name changed for the purpose of confidentiality), who has done numerous years of sex work off Craigslist in Peterborough, Ontario, “Craigslist goes far out of their way to ensure every poster is an adult. When ads were posted online, there were IP addresses, email accounts and telephone numbers to trace individuals . . . This development is going to hurt the case of sex workers in Ontario. We are now pushed to either pay huge fees for paper ads, return to the streets or continue to use Craigslist in covert ways.” For Nadia, the biggest anxiety is to be forced to go back to working on the streets, where competition is fiercer and where unpleasant and undesirable encounters are more frequent.

On the other hand, in a statement to the Canadian Press, Canadian Federal Justice Minister, Rob Nicholson, expressed his satisfaction that Craigslist’s listings were removed, for, such advertisements could “facilitate serious criminal offences, such as living on the avails of child prostitution and trafficking in persons.” These thoughts were also echoed by Benjamin Perrin, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at University of British Columbia and author of Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking. Perrin is a leading anti-human trafficking activist in Canada. Having initiated a national campaign called “End Modern Day Slavery,” he had been in the front line in making appeals to the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan to urge Craigslist to shut down its “erotic services” section.

According to Perrin, Craigslist was the most popular website used for human trafficking in Canada. However, some of the key findings of his research also demonstrate that most of the victims of foreign sex trafficking that occur in Canada can also be found in massage parlours, strip clubs and escort agencies. One cannot help but ask whether removing Craigslist “erotic services” listings really helped in eradicating human trafficking or did it instead only drive illegal sex trade underground, disguised under the thin veil of massage parlours and bath-houses? If from April, 2007, to April, 2009, only about thirty people have been charged with human trafficking in Canada, and only five have been convicted to date, will closing down Craigslist’s “erotic listings” really ensure better law enforcement? Will this move create further dismantling of human trafficking and actually increase the number charges and convictions?

There are other questions yet to be answered regarding further action across the web: while Perrin claims that “Canadian women and girls as young as 13 [can be] recruited by sex traffickers” through Facebook and MySpace, it remains to be determined what will be done about these other sites. Indeed, the web is full of other “adult listing” sites, escort agency links, personal ads, which cannot be as easily monitored and controlled as was Craigslist’s “erotic services.”

In many ways, the anti-Craigslist campaign was symptomatic of a backlash against recent developments aiming at decriminalizing sex work and related activities. For Nadia, this is an attempt at taking away the work of many, work that they need to make a living: “with the human rights challenge in the Court system, we are now entering a period where the laws regulating our experiences and legal livelihood will be in the hands of politicians.” Concerns regarding exploitation of “women and children” seem to mask a larger attempt of eradicating sex work per se. In representing sex workers as coerced women and children, the anti-prostitution lobby leaves out a diverse industry that includes consenting adult men, women and transgendered persons. 

1 comment:

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