The World Wide Web’s most infamous red light district, and its array of virtual window girls and purposefully miZspellD cuuum onZ, is being shuttered. After relentless pressure by a team of state attorneys general — not to mention the recent high-profile case of the “Craigslist Killer,” who allegedly used the site to lure a woman to her death — the classified service is eliminating its erotic services section across all U.S. sites within one week. Its replacement will be an “adult” area, where ads cost $10 a pop and are strictly screened for illegal services. Until now, the site’s been the go-to advertising channel for agencies that promote sex workers, and independent prostitutes, especially those in the lower tiers. The question that has to be asked is: Where will these women find johns?
“The streets,” says Robyn Few, co-director of San Francisco’s Sex Worker Outreach Project. “The Internet took a lot of sex workers off the street and created the entrepreneurial age of sex work. Now, it’ll drive them right back to where they came from.” This is a terrifying possibility for many providers: Screening clients from behind a computer screen is inherently safer than working the corner. It also allows workers to negotiate the “what, when, where and how much” of the transaction without having to rush to avoid being spotted by cops.
Mariko Passion, who calls herself an “educated whore, urban geisha,” predicts that some sex workers will take to the streets, but she doesn’t expect a mass exodus. “Sex workers are smart” and will turn to alternative free online services like Backpage and Redbook — but those don’t command even a fraction of Craigslist’s audience size, not to mention diversity. Scores of sites offer adult services classifieds, but posting on many of them, like Eros Guide, costs a pretty penny. In a number of ways, Craigslist was able to lessen the class divide found in nearly every other shadowy corner of the sex trade.
Passion, who lives in Los Angeles, advertises her services on Craigslist and through agencies that also advertise for her on Craigslist. (Anything to reach a larger audience and compete for attention.) At $85, advertising in the L.A. Weekly is prohibitively expensive, so she’s partnered with two agencies that spam the erotic services section with ads featuring stock images of sexy girls. When a client calls, the agency refers them to whomever is on-call and available — no matter whether the girl in the original photo has drastically different measurements, hair or even skin color — and later takes a cut of the profits. As it is, she says, “you don’t have control over how many calls you take and they throw you into dangerous situations.” Agencies just might become increasingly reckless as they become more desperate for business.
Workers are rattled by this seismic shift in the landscape, but there isn’t a consensus on whether Craigslist — or, more specifically, founder Craig Newmark — is the good guy (for resisting for so long) or the bad guy (for ultimately buckling). Passion sneers that the company has simply “caved once again,” while Tracy Quan, former sex worker-turned-Salon columnist and author of “Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl,” is more sympathetic. “My heart goes out to the people at CL who are being harassed by these cynical public officials. The Craigslist witch hunt isn’t fueled by concern for the safety of sex workers,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The way I see it, a cynical AG is exploiting the death of a working woman to enhance his career. It’s a cheap, easy way to add some sex to your political CV without taking any of the risks associated with selling erotic services.” On a similar note, Fews says that she doesn’t blame Newmark for giving up the fight — after all, the ”Craigslist Killer” coverage has “got to be weighing heavily” on him.
Of course, there’s the irony: The campaign against the erotic services section was buoyed by those frightening tabloid headlines — but, if workers are forced from the virtual to the literal street corner, it’ll only expose them to more danger.