Police to prostitutes: Craigslist is dangerous!

Sex workers haven't left the Web site, so officials attempt to scare them away

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published May 22, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

It's become clear that pressuring Craigslist into replacing "erotic services" with a stricter "adult" section has just amounted to a dimming of the flashing lights and a renaming of its virtual red light district. Now, it looks like some officials are turning to prostitutes themselves in an attempt at scaring them away from the classified site.

As promised, Craigslist has unveiled its pricier, human-monitored "adult" section, but what was thought to be a strict crackdown appears to be more of a gentle wrist slap. A quick browse of the new R-rated playground makes it clear to any person capable of comprehending heavy-handed sexual innuendo that the services being offered are much the same, only the photos and language are tamer and there are more winking euphemisms than ever before. It's an "I told you so" lobbed directly at Craigslist's chief antagonizer, whom the site sued this week for his repeated legal threats, South Carolina attorney general Henry McMaster. As Craigslist has always said, it can't be held responsible for what takes place between two adults who meet up through the site.

Now, Washington, D.C., police appear to be trying to diminish the online supply of sex workers through the following forehead-slapping public service announcement: Selling sex online is dangerous! Which is to say, they're telling sex workers what they already know all too well. The Washington Post reports: "In recent interviews, nearly a dozen women who posted ads on Craigslist said that they know the risks involved. But police said many women engage in online prostitution because they fail to appreciate the dangers." That's a surprisingly naive assumption for police to make: A prostitute can "appreciate" the dangers of her job and still feel compelled to do it, for any number of reasons. For the past couple months, I've been interviewing sex workers for a story I'm working on for Salon and the majority were aware of the dangers, some were downright terrified, but they do it anyway.

It isn't that I don't appreciate attempts to educate sex workers about the risks they face -- both online and on the streets -- but I'm far more impressed by attempts at actually protecting them, rather than reminding them that their line of work is dangerous. (It's like the absurdly ineffective abstinence-only approach to preventing teen pregnancy.) Then again, maybe I was just soured against this supposed awareness-raising by the following quote about a woman attacked by "a man who responded to her Craigslist ad": Detective Allyson Hamlin tells the Post, "She was college-educated, smart, good-looking. We're dealing with people you wouldn't necessarily think would be involved in this. It's not the same category as hookers on the street."

How disarmingly honest and revealing. We don't care much about what happens to "hookers on the street," do we? An educated and pretty woman, the type who is supposed to be immune to the lure of sex work, is another story. I have to wonder whether that isn't a large part of why Craigslist is being so aggressively targeted.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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