Craigslist isn’t now free of sex – you just can’t pay for it
Why should sex, alone among all forms of human interaction, be thought to spawn malignant magic when money changes hands?
Originally published in the Guardian
Power corrupts. Even the high ethical standards of prostitutes would probably plunge down to near-politician levels if they wielded legal authority over their fellow citizens. Since politicos actually do, they turn the mighty power of the state not just on legitimate threats to the commonweal, but anything they find annoying or distasteful.
Which is why, if you visit the Craigslist website, you’ll find the links to their “adult services” section gone, replaced by the word “censored”. You can’t blame Craigslist for caving under pressure, not when the attorneys general of 18 different states all threatened legal action at once. Craigslist might win if it countersued on free-speech grounds, but they can’t afford the long, costly legal battles such victory would require.
“Adult” services, of course, is a euphemism for “sexual” services. Lawmakers hated Craigslist from the get-go because sex workers used it to advertise their services. Yet if you listen to politicians praise themselves now that the ads are gone, you won’t hear much talk about banning activity between consenting adults. No, politicos prefer to invoke The Children. In a statement her office released Saturday, California congresswoman Jackie Speier blamed websites such as Craigslist for child prostitution. “We can’t forget the victims, we can’t rest easy. Child sex trafficking continues and lawmakers need to fight future machinations of internet-driven sites that peddle children.”
No argument there: forcing children into prostitution is an utterly abhorrent crime. Forcing anybody into prostitution is, and when callous sociopaths turn innocent victims into sexual slaves for their own profit, it’s undeniably good when police shut down these loathsome enterprises.
Yet when attorneys general started crusading against Craigslist, it wasn’t kidnapping rapists they worried about, but adults who made money selling consensual services. In my own state of Connecticut, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (now a Senate candidate) has been on the Craigslist warpath since at least 2008. That March, his office put out a press release saying: “As a small step in response to my concerns, Craigslist now requires anyone posting a listing in the erotic services section to provide a phone number. This step, however, will hardly deter the prostitution problem on the site, and may indeed make it worse. Many of the most graphic solicitations already include a telephone number to enable prospective patrons of their services to contact them.”
But now it’s about the children. Why do so many politicos cling to the fiction that the best way to stop coerced sex acts is to criminalise consensual ones? Maybe that’s an unfair question; it’s not just lawmakers who claim this. Anytime you suggest legalised prostitution might be better than the dangerous, illegal status quo, opponents always raise the spectre of sexual slavery.
And it’s not only prostitutes whose opponents blur the line between coercion and consent; any sex-themed work inspires such dishonesty. I’ve faced it personally: in my university days I worked as a stripper and now, years later, occasionally wax nostalgic about it on websites like this. Without fail, whenever I write on the theme “Ich bin ein ex-go go dancer,” a subset of the commentariat insists I was exploited, whether I knew it or not. Contributed to the oppression of others. And what about enslaved women forced to become strippers, huh?
The protests are exponentially more heated when ex-prostitutes write to defend their trade. Too many otherwise sensible people believe sex, alone among all forms of human interaction, spawns some malignant magic whenever money changes hands. It’s still perfectly legal to search for sex on Craigslist; you just can’t exchange cash for it.
In other news from last week, prosecutors in Maricopa County, Arizona, decided there is insufficient evidence to charge prison guards over the May 2009 death of inmate Marcia Powell, who was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution when officials locked her in an outdoor cage under the 107-degree desert sun for four hours. She died in hospital later that evening. Guards deny allegations they refused her requests for water; witnesses say otherwise, and the autopsy shows Powell died of complications from heat exposure, and had no signs of hydration. Her corpse had a core temperature of 108 degrees, plus burns and blisters all over her body, which is not to say her captors did anything criminal. At least she wasn’t selling herself on some filthy street corner or sleazy website, right? Ask anyone who supports the Craigslist crackdown: they’ll tell you laws against prostitution are needed to protect women like Powell from dangerous and degrading circumstances.
How would America be different if consensual prostitution were legal? On the plus side, Marcia Powell probably wouldn’t have broiled to death. As a minus, she would have continued exchanging sex for money, and the Craigslist brouhaha is merely the latest anecdote showing how lawmakers utterly abhor people who do that. America is determined to knock out prostitution, and our legal system never pulls its punches.