Can advertising be trafficking? Is Craigslist like Wal-Mart? Is freedom involved?

Running a website with erotic advertisements as sex trafficking: the mind boggles at how anything connected to the sex industry can now be given the scary label trafficking.

In the USA, where Craigslist is headquartered, the website’s advertisements for paid sex are causing a furore amongst moral entrepreneurs who want the ads stopped on the grounds that ‘child sex trafficking’ is going on. Craigslist and the sex trade shows a cnn reporter attempting to make the owner of Craigslist himself personally responsible, pointing at ads, challenging him to explain. Some of this resembles scapegoating, the desire to find a single responsible villain for a Great Social Evil, implying that stopping this advertising would be a significant battle against it.

The fear fueling this campaign is captured in one NGO’s statement that An estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. This figure is not even an irresponsibly extrapolated number of victims, which we are now used to, but an estimate of how many might be vulnerable. The cnn reporter describes the torso-photo in one ad as young-looking. Such imaginings are not the basis for policy! And note that where there would have been a distinction in terms not long ago (commercial sexual exploitation v trafficking), now there is not. Everything becomes trafficking.

The argument against stopping all commercial sex ads centres on freedom of expression/information, a key principle in human rights law. This principle takes in written, oral and print media, including the Internet, and covers not only the content but the means of expression. Of course there are situations meant to override this freedom, nowadays usually called Hate Speech, the Harm Principle and the Offence Principle. One could certainly make a strong argument that sex ads are harmful if one could prove that all those running them were criminals forcing other people to perform sex acts against their will. To do that would require real evidence, not panicky guesses about young victims. Not scare tactics.

Another aspect of this crusade is about something else: the ‘accusation’ that Craigslist is like Wal-Mart. This appears to be hostility both to big profits and a comparison with Wal-Mart’s unadorned, high-volume, warehouse-like style. Or perhaps it refers more to Wal-Mart’s legendary lack of social consciousness, poor community relations, environmental disinterest, use of badly paid foreign labour and so on. The problem is: Wal-Mart is also enormously popular. Would a personalised boutique style make Craigslist more acceptable?

Some of the ads on Craigslist might be the work of bad people. The ways they might be bad range from taking too much of the money a worker earns right through to kidnapping and slavery. But should the possibility that bad things could happen be allowed to justify shutting down all the ads, including those placed by competent adults? See Amanda Brooks on that.

Classified adverts are the subject of a similar crusade in Spain at the moment. In that case, mainstream newspapers are the accused businesses, but the issue is just the same.

8 thoughts on “Can advertising be trafficking? Is Craigslist like Wal-Mart? Is freedom involved?

  1. Marc of Frankfurt

    … a group of 17 state attorneys general said in an Aug. 24 letter to Buckmaster and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Massachusetts’ attorney general echoed that concern in a separate letter sent to the company.

    “We recognize that Craigslist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads,” the joint letter continued. “No amount of money, however, can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized.”

    The statement clearly accuses Craigslist of profiteering, but fails to mention that the company didn’t charge for the ads until pressured to do so by those same attorneys general. …

    [Craigslist clash over adult ads raises key issues
    by James Temple, Chronicle Staff Writer
    San Francisco Chronicle August 29, 2010
    Sunday, August 29, 2010]

  2. Michael Goodyear

    On the one hand the position of the Attorneys-General is logical. If an activity such as selling alcohol or now sex is illegal under State law, then surely advertising it must be considered also illegal.

    What is less logical is picking on one vendor. If there is to be a total prohibition on advertising the selling of sex it should be a level playing field. Of course that trend has already started with the addition of eBay to the list of targets. eBay have already responded by blocking access to sites.

    However none of this explains the fanaticism over calling anything to do with sexual transaction “trafficking”. What it does reveal is that trafficking has become a code word for commercial sex, and that the real agenda is furthering the aims of the prohibitionist movement of eradicating it by any means.

    All of this misses the real issues around exploitation and its relation to market forces. The AGs would do well to to heed the UNODC report on the globalisation of crime which downplays the trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation in the bigger picture, but makes the logical observation that it would have little incentive in a well run legal market. Prohibitionist keep forgetting their roots in organised crime.

  3. redpesto

    “What it does reveal is that trafficking has become a code word for commercial sex,” – I think (or fear) you may be right, if the debate in the UK about prostitution law reform was anything to go by. If the intention was to make sex with a trafficked individual a crime, there must have been a ‘whoops!’ moment when such a proposal opened the way to paying for sex with a non-trafficked person, which the ‘antis’ didn’t want either. Much more effective (from their perspective) to stretch the definition of ‘trafficked’ to imply or equate with anyone working in the sex industry.

  4. Laura Agustín

    Oh but fundamentalist feminism has for many years overtly campaigned to fuse the concept of prostitution with trafficking.That has never been hidden and is no news now – language change, reduction in linguistic diversity, is typical of some feminist campaigns. Perhaps what’s interesting is that other social figures and forces should follow such a reductionist lead.

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  6. Dave

    Thanks for an excellent and credible commentary on what seems to be an epic crusade against Craig’s List. I too have noticed an almost universal shift from the term “prostitution” to trafficking. I see it as an attempt to characterize prostitution as if all prostitutes are involuntary victims and, therefore, in need of rescue (whether they know it or not). Referring to broader category of trafficking also permits the use of much more alarming statistics.

    Wasn’t it the feminist movement that came up with the phrase, “my body, my choice”? Seems like that should include a woman’s choice to use her body to finance the pursuit of her own goals.

    Anyway, your perspective is analytical, instructive, and depressingly rare. If only there were more people like you to bring some sanity to this craziness.

  7. Pingback: Laura Agustin talks about Craig’s List « Sex Hysteria!

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