CraigsList, Sex Trafficking, & The Next Moral Panic

Ladies & gentlemen, get ready for America’s new moral panic—sex trafficking!

Yes, CraigsList has bowed to pressure from law enforcement, non-profits, and CNN, and has blocked access to its “adult services” section. They’ve replaced the link with a black bar stamped “censored.” CraigsList has been pummeled with criticism for allegedly facilitating prostitution and “sex trafficking” in the U.S..

Some of the CraigsList adult classifieds are used for coyly-disguised adult prostitution—a predictable development in an age when all commerce has taken to the internet. OK, prostitution is illegal in 49 states, and so some of these ads promote an illegal activity. A tiny fraction supposedly offer paid sex with minors, which can be really illegal (although the age of consent in many states is 16 or 17, not 18—so minors there can consent to sex). And finally, some women are forced into prostitution or kept there through coercion or unscrupulous manipulation. That’s not a sex crime, that’s a terrible crime, period.

But if the 17 state attorneys general pressuring CraigsList have any real data connecting it with prostitution, teen sex, or sex trafficking, they’re keeping it a secret. Which means they don’t have any.

If those opposing prostitution would simply say “CraigsList shouldn’t run ads that facilitate prostitution because prostitution is against the law,” or because “prostitution is bad for prostitutes and/or America,” that would be honest, and even semi-reasonable.

But in America, opposing any aspect of sexual expression—from freeway billboards for strip clubs to, well, strip clubs themselves—is typically done by painting the most grisly picture possible. And so the Myth of Massive Sex Trafficking is spreading like some evil crabgrass after spring rain.

It’s another one-sided battle in America’s War On Sex.

The Myth is fueled by TV shows like the CSI franchise and the shamelessly exploitative Nancy Grace (motto: “Little Mary’s mutilation is our bread & butter”). It’s fueled by law-enforcement officials who toss around expressions like “the increasing problem of sex trafficking” without providing any statistics. It’s fueled by non-profits who take a single sensational case—e.g., the arrest of a Boston medical student charged with murdering a woman he met on CraigsList—and claim it reflects a meaningful trend (while asking for tax dollars to fight these “trends”).

Groups like Stop Child Trafficking Now throw around wildly inflated numbers of women and girls “trafficked” by simply including all prostitutes in the category. Another statistical manipulation is including women and teens who are subject to the coercion of local gangs or racketeers. Organized crime is obviously a horrible problem, but conflating it with “human trafficking” is simply a devious ploy for public sympathy.

And then we have completely bogus numbers (bound to be reprinted endlessly)—like the Rebecca Project’s “An estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.”

“At risk!” Not in any way harmed, just vulnerable! The technical word for this is “nonsense.”

The U.S. State Department’s own country-by-country report states that what little human trafficking there is into the U.S. is “primarily for labor;” out of the nine most common categories (which include agriculture and janitorial services), strip-club dancing is the only one related to sex.

The penetration of the internet into every aspect of American life has spawned a corresponding series of sex-related moral panics—not unlike the panics that resulted from the equal penetration of radio, comic books, and TV in their respective times.

Just two years ago we were hearing how MySpace was supposedly filled with predators, making it incredibly dangerous for kids. Then a sophisticated nationwide report documented that it isn’t a hotbed of danger after all. And yet we still hear about this alleged problem.

Last year the Big Child Sex Problem was sexting, with the allegation that predators somehow get hold of teens’ nude photos and then stalk them (makes no sense to me, either). Just a few months ago we started hearing about sextortion—in which evildoers use these photos to extort even more explicit photos from teens.

Of course, the goal of eliminating human trafficking is 100% worthwhile. But as with all moral crusades, there’s a temptation for action designed to make activists and the public feel safer, rather than actually accomplishing real goals. This wastes resources and simply empowers feel-gooders, hypocrites, and opportunists.

It’s comforting to identify a bogeyman—in this case CraigsList—and to focus our anxiety and anger on it. People feel especially empowered to do so under the rubric of “protecting the children.” First Amendment? Adults’ civil rights? Privacy guarantees? It’s easy to trample these under the hooves of a cavalry charge to rescue children who are “at risk.”

Both federal law and a subsequent federal court have ruled that CraigsList is acting legally. If America really wants to take care of its children, let’s take all that anti-trafficking (and anti-molesting, anti-kidnapping) money and double schoolteachers’ salaries—and make sure every kid has a hot lunch Monday through Friday.

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