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09.27.10

The Woman Who Beat Craigslist

Underage girls who say they were sold for sex on the site were behind the battle to shutter its adult-services section. Michelle Goldberg reports on the inside story of their role—and the remarkable woman who led the fight.

Ever since Craigslist shut down the adult-services section on its American sites, there’s been a lot of talk about independent sex workers who’ve lost a valuable tool of their trade. Melissa Petro, a New York elementary school teacher, was suspended from her job Monday because of a Huffington Post piece she wrote about her Craigslist-enabled dabbling in prostitution. “For all the ‘victims’ of the ‘adult services’ section of Craigslist.org, I would venture there are a considerable number of individuals like myself—free thinking, entrepreneurial human beings with choices and responsibilities—whose real-life experiences, not to mention sources of income, are being stifled by our so-called advocates,” she wrote. The same day on Jezebel, an anonymous dominatrix published a piece that began, sarcastically, “Now that Craigslist has removed their Adult Services, we can assume that all the ‘exploited’ women of the world can breathe safely.”

Not everyone has been quite so dismissive of “exploited” “victims.” Still, there’s a pretty widespread assumption that Craigslist’s critics were at best misguided, at worst prudish hysterics. “Clearly, the only thing that the closure of CL’s Adult Services has achieved is that it’s moved the sex trade to a couple of much more dangerous, much less transparent, locations,” opined BNET’s Jim Edwards.

In fact, it’s not so clear at all. Malika Saada Saar, the founder of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, played a crucial role in pressuring Craigslist to shutter its adult-services section. She didn’t do it out of priggishness or ignorance. She did it because, while working in the juvenile justice system, she kept meeting girls who’d been sold for sex on Craigslist, and she came to realize that it played an enormous role in American sex trafficking. “Craigslist was the go-to place,” she says. “We heard this from providers of services for girls at the margins across the country.”

About three years ago, The Rebecca Project started researching the situation of girls in the criminal justice system throughout the U.S. Soon, she says, she realized that “so many of the girls in the juvenile justice system were there only because of issues of sexual victimization.” Some of them had been arrested in prostitution busts. Others had been arrested for running away from home to escape sexual abuse. Some, traumatized by a sexual assault, missed school and were arrested for truancy. “We started to really focus on the issue of girls being in the industry, the phenomenon of these girls who were usually runaways or throwaways being tricked by a pimp or kidnapped by a pimp and then sold,” says Saar. “All of them had the shared experience of being bought and sold over Craigslist.”

“We started to really focus on the issue of girls being in the industry… All of them had the shared experience of being bought and sold over Craigslist.”

Saar tried to get Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s attention. In May, The Rebecca Project bought a half-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, Newmark’s hometown paper, in which two trafficking victims addressed him personally. One, identifying herself as AK, described how, after getting involved with an older man who she thought was her boyfriend, she “was sold for sex by the hour at truck stops and cheap motels, 10 hours with 10 different men every night.” The other, MC, wrote, “I was first forced into prostitution when I was 11 years old by a 28-year-old man…The man who trafficked me sold many girls my age, his house was called ‘Daddy Day Care.’ All day, me and other girls sat with our laptops, posting pictures and answering ads on Craigslist, he made $1,500 a night selling my body, dragging me to Los Angeles, Houston, Little Rock—and one trip to Las Vegas in the trunk of a car.”

They pleaded with Newmark to shut down the section: “New traffickers are putting up ads every day, because they know it’s less risky and more profitable to sell girls on Craigslist than to deal drugs,” they wrote.

The ease with which trafficking is conducted on Craigslist is at the heart of the problem. No one is under any illusions that shutting down the adult-services section will eliminate prostitution. But it will make things harder for pimps and johns. “A big part of the problem with Craigslist, we believe it actually increased the number of women being put into prostitution,” says Ken Franzblau, director of the anti-trafficking program at the women’s rights NGO Equality Now. Franzblau previously directed anti-trafficking efforts at the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, where most of the domestic trafficking cases he saw involved Craigslist. “Nothing else rivals it,” he says. Certainly, some men will go elsewhere, but perhaps not all. “An awful lot of casual purchasers of sex are not going to know where to find it anymore and are just not going to bother,” Franzblau says.

Craigslist, of course, disagrees with this assessment. The company did not respond to a request for comment, but CEO Jim Buckmaster has argued that Craigslist is actually “one of the few bright spots and success stories in the critical fight against trafficking and child exploitation.” In an oddly stilted, off-key response to AK and MC, he first seemed to call into question their stories: “Would you or the advocacy groups who placed the ads please let us know where the police reports were filed? We have been unable thus far to identify police reports matching the crimes you describe.” Then he wrote, “In November 2008, we issued a joint statement with 40 attorneys general and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, describing an array of measures to prevent misuse of Craigslist. In May 2009, we went beyond those measures and implemented manual screening of each adult-services ad. Based on the time period mentioned in your newspaper ads, it appears the events you describe may have occurred before manual screening was implemented.”

Yet even after manual screening, there were plenty of Craigslist ads with code words for underage girls. On Craigslist sites outside the U.S. where the adult sections haven’t been shuttered, they’re still easy to find. As I write this, a quick look at Toronto’s Craigslist reveals ads for a “34D School Girl” a “New Girl!!!! yOunG TIGHT curvy HORNY!!” and “Yummy!!! GIRL FOR YOU TO DEFLOWER.”

Unable to persuade Craigslist, Saar and her allies in other anti-trafficking organization enlisted government support. She and AK met with Attorney General Eric Holder, and this month, she worked with the House Judiciary Committee to organize hearings on domestic sex trafficking. A week and a half before the hearings, Craigslist succumbed to pressure and closed its adult-services section on its U.S. sites. But Craigslist officials continued to argue that they were part of the solution, not the problem. Testifying before the House committee, Craigslist’s William Clinton Powell said, “Those who formerly posted adult-services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues. It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there.”

Saar remains unmoved by the arguments that such ads will simply migrate further underground. “It’s very bizarre,” she says. “It’s almost like saying it’s better for a child to be raped on our street, because at least we can identify the rapist, instead of around the corner.” Besides, the very fact that underage prostitution was so much in the open served, in some ways, to normalize it. “It is significant,” says Saar, “that it is less convenient, less legitimate, less accessible and normative to buy a girl for sex than it is to purchase a couch.”

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.