There are a bunch of unhappy hookers out on Aurora Avenue, and it's all Craig Newmark's fault.
So you'd think, anyway, from reading news stories about Craigslist's recent policy changes and the angry responses on sex workers' blogs. Craigslist now requires phone verification and a five-dollar fee, payable by credit card, to post ads in the "Erotic Services" section. Some sex workers are loudly protesting this move, calling the fee and the loss of anonymity unfair.
I wouldn't call it unfair. It's unfortunate, certainly. But the decision actually represents a compromise. Forty states' attorneys pressured Craigslist to eliminate all Erotic Services ads. CEO Jim Buckmaster agreed some ads were "crossing the line" and agreed to curb—but not ban—such postings. Craigslist says the fee will go to charity, and that creating a paper trail will help fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors as well as help "curtail illegal activity."
I doubt it'll cut down much on people trafficking in children and unwilling women. Trafficking is organized crime—you think traffickers can't get stolen phones and credit cards? It may discourage minors from attempting to sell sex by themselves, which is good. But it's mainly a token concession to the moral-outrage types and an attempt to staunch the never-ending flow of bad press about Craigslist prostitution stings. Does it create more hoops for advertisers to jump through? Yes. But the hoops aren't many nor high, so it's no life-ruiner for most women who choose to do sex work.
However, women like Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, think differently. Doogan says Craigslist provided a place where sex workers could anonymously and safely connect with clients for free. "They always end up further pushing into poverty the class of workers who don't have access to those tools of capitalism," she says. "Back to the streets—that's what's going to happen."
But as far as safety goes, clients from Craigslist are no less likely to assault women than any others, and hardly a week goes by without a Craigslist advertiser getting busted.
And I'm skeptical about the assertion—which I've heard from several other women—that Craigslist's new policy will drive sex workers who've been getting clients online "back to the streets." It certainly doesn't have to. The Erotic Services section was a bit like Napster, pre-2001. The law caught up with Napster, but people still swap files online. Sex workers can still get clients online too. Yes, Craigslist was free, and now it won't be. But it's five dollars—not exactly exorbitant. Don't want to use a credit card with your legal name? Go elsewhere. The Stranger takes money orders for adult ads, or you can walk in and pay cash. Eros-Guide.com, a popular online escort directory, also takes money orders.
"But Matisse, what if a woman is so poor that she doesn't have five dollars, a phone, or a credit card, and she has to post an ad right now?" Yes, we can construct a scenario where Craigslist is a mustache-twirling villain, evicting the helpless hooker out into the snow on Christmas Eve. But the vast majority of sex workers aren't victims: If sex-work activists want people to view sex work as a morally and socially neutral option, then continually suggesting that women fall into it as a last-ditch survival mechanism is counterproductive. It's more useful to fight poverty itself than it is to fight the policies of an organization that's trying to strike a balance between the law and a lot of different users. I have compassion for this hypothetical woman, but if she's that desperate, selling sex on Craigslist is not the answer to her problems—it's likely to make things worse, since desperate women are at higher risk to get hurt or arrested. The money Craigslist collects from those of us who can afford it should go toward creating other options for women like this.
Look at it this way, professional ladies: If you had a client who got out of hand, you'd make more rules to keep him in line. And you'd probably raise the price: the asshole tax, I've heard it called. Sex workers bitching about Craigslist's policies is like a rambunctious client bitching about being reined in. How about if we don't be assholes about it?