Just a day after the Senate passed a highly controversial anti-sex trafficking bill, Craigslist shut down its personals section, including its forums for dating, friendship, casual encounters. The much loved Missed Connections section has been moved to "Community."
Today, when you go to the personals, there's a note:
"US Congress just passed HR 1865, 'FOSTA'," it reads, "seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully. Any tool or service can be misused. We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day. To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!"
FOSTA, as well as the Senate version of the bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), passed by an overwhelming majority and is now headed to Donald Trump's desk. In theory, the bill, which revises Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is designed to crack down on internet sex trafficking, but in reality, sex workers say that it will make their jobs less safe by giving them one less way to vet potential clients.
This isn't the first time that Craigslist has removed sections, says Chelsea Reynolds, a professor at California State University who wrote her dissertation on the media portrayal of Craigslist. In 2009, Craigslist dumped their "erotic services" section after pressure from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who called it "nothing more than an Internet brothel." Craigslist later rebirthed "erotic services" as "adult services," but that section was removed in 2011 in response to research pushed by a nonprofit called the Women’s Funding Network, which claimed that because of Craigslist, "the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially," as Deborah Richardson, the chief program officer of the Women’s Funding Network, testified before Congress in September of 2010. The data, which was widely picked up by the media, turned out to be false, as the Village Voice later uncovered. By that time, however, it was too late for Craigslist's adult service providers.
In reality, the vast majority of people who use Craigslist personals aren't doing anything illegal, Reynolds says. While the media tends to push stories about sex trafficking victims , when Reynolds looked at the data, she found that "Most people on the site are just exploring their sexuality. These bills get pushed over moralistic and paternalistic concerns about young girls' welfare, but we need to remember that there are many, many people who use these sections responsibly. There are also many, many people who enter sex work willingly, and these laws really hurt people like that."
Mistress Matisse, a Seattle-area sex worker, agrees. "It's going to be a lot more dangerous," she says. "And this is government censorship. It's the government telling you want you can and can't discuss online. No one wants children to be trafficked, but it does not happen as much as they say it happens and shutting down personals is not going to make it go away."
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Missed Connections was dead, when in reality it was just moved. The author has been sentenced to read Seattle "Rants & Raves" for a week. She regrets the error.