In 2001, Craigslist created a separate category on its website called "erotic services" (later renamed "adult services"). In addition to posting apartments for rent or sofas for sale, this site now facilitated sex – presumably between consenting adults. And so it went for nine years, until early last month when Craigslist closed down the service amid pressure from government prosecutors and child advocates. Daily Beast columnist Michelle Goldberg explains that many using the service were in fact trafficking minors.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In 2001, Craigslist created a separate category on its website called Erotic Services, later renamed Adult Services. In addition to posting apartments for rent or sofas for sale, this site now facilitated sex, presumably between consenting adults. Of course, sex for money is prostitution, so many who solicited there used the word “roses” as a kind of code for dollars or simply offered a, quote, “massage” or “companionship”. And so it went for nine years, until early last month when Craigslist closed down the service amid pressure from government prosecutors and child advocates.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: An anti-human trafficking group calls Craigslist the Wal-Mart of the online sex trade.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Craigslist has abruptly shut down its controversial Adult Services section.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A Craigslist executive was summoned to answer for the charges of creating an invitation to trafficking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The site, many contended, was abetting not only prostitution but the trafficking of minors. Michelle Goldberg is an author and columnist for The Daily Beast. She wrote about the campaign against the Craigslist Adult Service section in The Daily Beast. Michelle, welcome back to the show.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Hi. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So your piece in The Daily Beast is called The Woman who Beat Craigslist. Who is she?
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, her name is Malika Saada Saar, and she’s the founder of a group called The Rebecca Project, which works with some of the most underprivileged and at-risk girls and young women in the country. And she was doing a project really focusing on women in the juvenile justice system. And what she found was that the vast majority of girls who were in the juvenile justice system, sexual abuse, prostitution or otherwise, played some role. Either they were busted in prostitution arrests and sent to prison, which is insane in the case of juveniles, or else they ran away from home to escape abuse and then were picked up by pimps. They missed school because of some kind of sexual abuse and were then arrested for truancy. But in each case, these girls were victims. And what she found in talking to them - and she held focus groups all over the country - is that the majority of those who had been involved in prostitution had been bought and sold on Craigslist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The majority!
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: The majority. And I heard that from other people when I was reporting this story. I heard from somebody who used to work at the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services. He said most of the domestic trafficking cases that he saw involved Craigslist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So once Malika Saada Saar made the connection between these sexually exploited girls and specifically Craigslist, she tried to get the attention of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Her organization bought a, a big ad in The San Francisco Chronicle, right?
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. And it featured letters from two girls who had been trafficked through Craigslist. One of them had hooked up with a much older man who she thought was her boyfriend, and he had trafficked her at truck stops, basically renting her out by the hour, she said sometimes ten men in a night. There was another girl who at 11 was being pimped out by a much older man who had several young girls and called himself “Daddy Day Care”. She said that they would spend all day updating their ads on Craigslist, responding to solicitations via Craigslist. Basically addressing Craig Newmark personally, these girls said, we know that you are a good guy, an idealistic guy, please do something about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happened?
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: For a company, again, that is pretty progressive and, and pretty savvy, Craigslist has been so tone deaf about this. There was a really defensive response from CEO Jim Buckmaster, in which he basically seemed to say, if these crimes happened, where are the police reports that match the circumstances that these girls described? He later said, well, we just wanted to know if Craigslist was involved, how to rectify it. But it seems obvious to me that if you thought there was even a smidgen of a chance that these stories were true, whether or not you agree with their remedies, the first thing you say is, I am so, so sorry that Craigslist had any part of, of this thing that happened to you. There was a bizarre kind of coldness and lack of remorse and empathy in most of their responses throughout this process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they also have a material argument. They say that shutting down their Adult Services will simply shift that traffic to other websites that are far less scrupulous.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Their argument, which makes sense to a degree, is that Craigslist potentially could provide a more fertile ground for law enforcement. They started last year manually reviewing all of the ads on adult services sites. And they also say we take credit card numbers so we're able to track people. Experts on the other side are saying that Craigslist has increased prostitution. Certainly, people who are determined to buy sex are going to do it but there also might be people on both ends, both the buyers’ ends and the sellers’ ends, who maybe won't do it if it’s not so easy and so available.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She didn't make much headway with Craigslist, and she enlisted the help of the government instead.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: That's right. She went to Eric Holder, who met also with one of the young women who had told her story in this advertisement. They met with Valerie Jarrett.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Valerie Jarrett, the presidential advisor.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: That's right. And they also helped organize hearings in the House of Representatives about trafficking and about the role that Craigslist plays in trafficking. And eventually Craigslist bowed to pressure, but it did it in a somewhat defiant way. It took off the Adult Services section and just replaced it with the word “Censored”.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you mentioned how defensive and defiant Craigslist was in responding to this situation, but the commentary has also been a little strange.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: What’s strange about this discussion is the way that a story about very young adolescents who were forced into prostitution and, as a result, ended up in the criminal justice system so quickly changed into a discussion about empowered professionals. This very, very small and unrepresentative elite of kind of “happy hookers,” that was who people wanted to focus on. Those people certainly make the libertarian argument more convincing and more valid, but it really allows all of us to gloss over the extent to which new technologies, as, you know, wonderful and liberating as they might be, also can assist in the victimization of very, very powerless people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michelle, thank you so much.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michelle Goldberg is an author and columnist for The Daily Beast. Her piece, The Woman Who Beat Craigslist, appears this week in The Daily Beast.