In 19th-century London, a serial killer preyed on women who used the local streets and pubs to meet their customers. In the Internet age, we’ve gone from “Jack the Ripper” to “The Craigslist Killer.”
Philip Markoff’s arrest for murder, kidnapping, and robbery has put Craigslist in the spotlight, but it may be the wrong spotlight. People have gotten killed doing sex work for a long time, but let’s not sensationalize. Many jobs are dangerous, and the risk of being killed working through Craigslist, though terrifying, is thankfully rare. Online, sex workers deal with the industry’s standard risks of being arrested or cheated—or running short of work when you need the cash. “A lot of people are failing to listen to their instincts and their intuition because now it’s all about making the money and making it quickly,” says Lisa, an independent escort who advertises on Eros Guide, an adult Web site.
“If one of your regular clients isn’t around because of some recession drama, you might revisit Craigslist. People are using it when they need a quick financial fix.”
I know firsthand about hasty decisions. As a novice sex worker, I picked up my customers in the hotel bars of central London. A terrifying session, during which I thought I might be killed, made me appreciate that I needed to work for a madam—not just to upgrade my image, but to have a professional network to protect me.
But many young women still go the solo route, and though that’s always been an option, Craigslist has made it easier than ever to work when you’re in a financial pinch. Melissa Gira Grant, a reporter and former escort who covers the Internet sex industry, put her finger on an ambivalence that seems widespread. Even professional escorts who might not use Craigslist routinely will sometimes resort to it. “Nobody admits that they advertise on Craigslist, but everybody has at some point, no matter how upscale the rest of their marketing might be,” says Melissa. “If one of your regular clients isn’t around because of some recession drama, you might revisit Craigslist. People are using it when they need a quick financial fix.”
Lisa, for her part, prefers “cream of the crop” clients—men “who have more to lose, who are hesitant or cautious about meeting me”—and she is willing to wait the weeks or longer that it takes to screen them. But that is a luxury not all can afford. And, as Melissa says, “you’re more likely to make snap decisions using Craigslist, which increases your chance of being robbed or abused.”
Sex workers who do work solo try to at least maintain an informal communication network for safety purposes. Aaron Lawrence, a retired escort, quickly spread the word about a customer who assaulted him while he was working alone during the industry’s online transition period. “I can’t remember whether I met him online because half of my business still came from print ads in gay weeklies,” says Aaron of the violent customer. “I couldn’t breathe and I was choking.” When incidents like this occur, blacklisting is standard practice. Aaron warned other escorts about the client, but didn’t report him to the police: “He was a professional hockey player and I didn’t want to end up in the tabloids or be arrested myself.” But having a network of sex workers doesn’t always shield you from violent, abusive, or financially unreliable customers. There’s false security in thinking that a man who rips off a Craigslist escort won’t also target an escort on a high-end Web site.
In any case, Craigslist is no more to blame for a homicidal attack on a working woman than is the Marriott hotel where Julissa Brisman was killed, or the BlackBerry her accused killer probably would have used to establish contact with her. Questions arise about whether Markoff’s alleged violence is linked to a gambling problem—he was arrested while en route to Foxwoods in Connecticut—but it would be impolitic and irrational to call him “the Foxwoods Killer.” Why are we applying a different logic to Craigslist?
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal scored some cheap political points this week, using Brisman’s death to revive a campaign against Craigslist that got him a lot of airtime last November. Exploiting the public’s naïvete about the Internet—with some gratuitous fear-mongering about child prostitution thrown in—he proposed a new crackdown on erotic ads. Melissa isn’t surprised by these tactics. “Blumenthal thinks all social-networking sites are full of child predators,” she says, “even though it’s been shown that online bullying by other children is the biggest risk. My question since November has been, ‘What public office does this guy have his sights on?’ A lot of people are hearing about Craigslist for the first time.” She continues, “They’re being told this is a dangerous place. If anything, Craigslist led us back to Markoff’s identity because they were able to connect the IP address with his home address.”
In other words, anything done through a computer can help track down a suspect afterward. Jack the Ripper is still incognito after more than a century, while Markoff was arrested in less than a month.
At best, though, Craigslist’s reputation in the business is mixed. “It’s more accessible to the masses than a chat room,” says Aaron, but it’s often described as “the No. 1 way to meet an undercover police officer.” Many escorts find the typical Craigslist guy “gross” or “sleazy”—looking for a half-hour of instant gratification rather than an ongoing business relationship. Diane, now a public-school teacher, told me about some of the types she encountered in her five-month stint as a Craigslist escort: “Once, a guy gave me the ‘I don’t have it’ routine. I marched him down to his bank and got paid.”
Melissa points out that there are ways to make any encounter safer: “Just because it’s Craigslist doesn’t mean you can’t ask him to meet you in public first. There will always be another Craigslist customer—it’s a revolving door.” Diane describes another strategy: “I thought it was safer to pretend I’d never done it before, and I asked for pictures,” she said. “Having his picture on my computer, he’s making a sacrifice as much as I am, and it’s almost like it disempowers the dude.”
One flaw in Diane’s system is that she became too concerned with “whether or not they were attractive.” Experienced prostitutes rarely allow a man’s looks to affect their business decisions. If Diane had seen Markoff’s picture? “I totally would have taken that job,” she says. “On the Craigslist scale of good-looking, he was all right.” On the other hand, a violent predator might not comply. “I don’t think someone with something to hide would send a picture.”
Lisa worries about the temptation to ignore preset rules: “You should err on the side of being cautious, even if it means turning down something lucrative. Before technology, it was all relationship-based, it was about who you knew. If you were a courtesan in Venice or Florence, everybody in the town knew the courtesan and her family. It’s very different now.” And, in some respects, more dangerous. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis is urging sex workers to come forward if they were robbed after using Craigslist. His message—“we want to help you”—sounds more responsible than the Connecticut attorney general’s prohibitionist grandstanding. But I know, from my own experience, how a working prostitute can put a bad experience in the past and move on. Talking to the police is often risky, and we know that doing so can’t bring Julissa Brisman back to life.
Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.