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Prostitution on CraigsList: the US and Singapore

August 31, 2010

Posted on August 31, 2010 on <a href="http://open.salon.com/blog/amandabrooks/2010/08/30/prostitution_on_craigslist_the_us_and_singapore by Amanda Brooks, reposted here with permission.

Imagine my amazement when I discovered that CraigsList removed the Erotic Services section from CL Singapore due to the hysteria currently brewing in the US over its Adult Services section. How does accusations of child trafficking in one country affect adult sex workers in another country on the other side of the globe?

The US is well-known for criminalizing prostitution nationwide (the exception being the 30ish legal brothels in Nevada — not much of an exception). While prostitution itself is criminalized at the local and state levels, there are plenty of federal laws regarding prostitution: when the arrangements cross state lines, when a minor is involved, when money crosses state lines and a few variations on these themes. Though there are huge problems resulting from the criminalization of prostitution in the US, everyone seems to believe those problems can be solved by more arrests. Let me know when you think that’s working, m’kay?

Singapore has a more tolerant view of prostitution. It has a licensed red-light district (Geylang and a street in Chinatown) and local hotspots known for easy pickings if you’re looking for a sex worker. To be honest, the entire island is a prostitution hotspot. The predominant Chinese culture and the other Asian cultures in Singapore all have a history of tolerated prostitution. It’s ingrained in male Asian culture. Singapore is not really a sex-tourism destination because it’s considered way too expensive. The vast majority of the business is supported by locals, not tourists. (Which is why the vast majority of the business occurs in non-tourist areas.)

Singapore/US relations got a bit strained earlier this year when the US put Singapore the on Tier 2 Watch List in its 2010 Trafficking in Persons report. Apparently Singapore wasn’t prosecuting enough people for sex trafficking to make the US happy. Singapore made its reply to the US. My feeling is that if trafficking does occur, it’s most likely to be in the domestic labor and construction sectors, more so than sex trafficking.

Understand that the US TIP report is created by the US, using US standards. These standards don’t apply to every culture. For instance, Singapore doesn’t have the teen runaway and homeless problem of the US. Runaway teens are regularly victims of sexual exploitation in the US. A three-tier, one-size-fits-all approach to judging trafficking based on one country’s issues is an illogical approach when applied to the entire world. If you want your stomach completely turned by the TIP report, read what happened to adult sex workers in Cambodia in 2008 after the US gave Cambodia a Tier 2 ranking.

A Short History of CraigsList Erotic Services in the US

For the past several years, sex workers who advertised on CraigsList get arrested by the dozens. The big reason is that they’re obvious targets and low-hanging fruit for cops who discover the Intertubes (there are other reasons as well). Or rather, the public slowly discovered that sex work exists online and made a big stink about it. Wholesale arrests of consenting adult sex workers wasn’t good enough (I remember one sweep that busted 70+ sex workers in one night). The anti-traffickers/”save the children” fanatics waded in. Despite zero evidence, they began braying that CraigsList gave a forum for sex traffickers. Arrests stepped up. And yes, sometimes minors (those under 18) were arrested as well, giving rise to the idea that CraigsList was seething with sex traffickers. If it was indeed a place where sex traffickers post ads, then it was situated as the ideal honeypot to find and arrest pimps. (For the record, sex trafficking existed before the Intertubes and CraigsList. The digital trail of the Internet makes it easier to catch criminals of all kinds, including pimps.)

Instead, it was the ideal target for a crusade. Few real victims were ever found, much less rescued. Even fewer sex traffickers/pimps were arrested. But thousands of consenting adult women and a few hundred adult clients were arrested and their lives ruined by the anti-trafficking hysteria brewing. CraigsList implemented a phone-verification system for posting in the Erotic Services section. That wasn’t enough. Grandstanding political figures threatened to sue CraigsList. CraigsList felt incredible political and social pressure to do something. So, to the animosity of all sex workers, it capitulated and agreed to start charging money to place an ad in its newly-created Adult Services category. Credit cards and verified phone numbers were now required, and a team of people personally vetted each and every ad submitted. All the collected info could be turned over to the authorities at any moment upon request.

Adult sex workers who relied on the site to make a living had no choice but to comply. Ironically, rip-off agencies had no problem getting their ads approved and posted, yet independent sex workers who didn’t want to give their real information to various Attorney Generals couldn’t get past the new guidelines with anonymous, prepaid credit cards. CraigsList wanted real information to target pimps, endangering the fabric of the lives of consenting adult sex workers who have been targeted from the very beginning.

CraigsList and the Adult Services section moved forward. Adult sex workers had to find new ways to advertise online because those new to online advertising discovered it was not only more lucrative but safer than working offline. CraigsList collected money from the ads, vowing to give all the funds collected from the Adult Services section to charity. Anti-trafficking hawks watched closely. One year after the Adult Services section was created, it was announced that CraigsList made $36million off that section of the site alone. All of it from the US, by the way. No other country has an Adult Services section – but we’ll get to that.

Now that CraigsList has these millions, they try to do what they promised and give the money to charities. Several charities make a big public stink about handing back the “tainted” money. As a sex worker – fuck you very much for thinking the money I physically earn to pay for things is “tainted.” But that’s another issue for another day.

So what can CraigsList do? I was not a fan that they crumbled in the face of bellowing from old feminists who were never sex workers. Yet now that CraigsList has done what everyone in power told them to do, these people turn around and call CraigsList a pimp. Guess we should’ve seen that one coming. I feel sorry for CraigsList now. (There was a silly little CraigsList protest a couple months ago, I covered it here and here.)

Since this wasn’t enough, the anti-traffickers paid thousands of dollars (maybe from some charity they’re associated with?) to have ads placed in the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle featuring two sex-trafficking victims pleading with Jim Buckmaster to remove the Adult Services section because their pimps used CraigsList to exploit them (apparently before the new guidelines were in place). One of the victims was forced to work at a truck stop – I hope that truck stop is shut down and every trucking company whose trucks passed through there is investigated for contributing to her exploitation. If CraigsList is guilty, so is the truck stop.

I’m not being flip but CraigsList is a website. Those responsible for the pain of these girls are the men who physically did it to them. Are those men in jail? Apparently not. Presumably because they’re a lot harder to catch than Jim Buckmaster. The people responsible for sex trafficking are sex traffickers. Not hotels, not websites, not fast food outlets. Sex traffickers are responsible for sex trafficking victims.

CraigsList Worldwide

Now that we’re all up to date on the drama of CraigsList in the US, take a quick look around to every other country that isn’t the US. CraigsList’s Erotic Services are going strong.

Either the US is the only country in the world where teens are sexually trafficked via CraigsList or other countries don’t have strident, moralistic anti-traffickers terrorizing the adult sex worker populace like the US does. Additionally, prostitution is legal or decriminalized in many of the countries where CraigsList has listings. Anti-traffickers can’t get a foothold to complain in situations like that – thank god.

It’s important to keep in mind that CraigsList is simply a website. In other countries, one can post an Erotic Services ad with just an email address – the way it used to be in the US. Why? Because it’s a website filled with user-generated content. It’s not a nanny and it’s not a sex trafficker. Neither is it an “online brothel.” You know why? Because it’s a bloody website. If CraigsList is an online brothel, then newspapers that run escort or “massage” classifieds are print brothels. Same concept, right? Do I need to explain the difference between a brothel and advertising?

CraigsList is a website.

CraigsList in Singapore

Singapore’s English tabloid published a two-page spread about the evils of CraigsList this weekend. (The full text here, along with some amusing commentary from the peanut gallery.) Singapore was moved and alarmed by the ads in the US of the two teen trafficking victims. Then it suddenly realized that CraigsList was in Singapore too! Oh no! There’s prostitution online in Singapore – where you have to know where to look for it (as opposed to the usual Singaporean method of bumping into sex workers at the local open-air cafes or hanging outside Hotel 81s).

Within three days of that article I noticed the Erotic Services section gone from CraigsList Singapore.

I’m guessing that CraigsList ran afoul of Singapore’s censors after the newspaper article. “Face” is a Chinese concept but in this case I don’t think there needs to be much translation.

What makes me so angry, why I’m writing this post, is that prostitution is semi-legal in Singapore. Selling time as a social escort is completely legal. And yet the crusading anti-traffickers of the US have managed to reach across an ocean and change the local scene of an industry they know nothing about, have not visited, do not live in, do not work in, and have zero evidence of wrongdoing. Their crusade is far more anti-prostitution than it is “save the children” because again and again, it is consenting adult sex workers who pay for the zealots’ beliefs. Granted, this is not the reason why the section was pulled – I and everyone else in Singapore recognizes this. But these anti-trafficking terrorists still have managed to affect a situation they know nothing about and aren’t even involved in.

Have their efforts saved one child in the US or Singapore? Did those half-page newspaper ads save a life? I doubt it. Instead, I expect some arrests in Singapore and lots of arrests in the US because of this. Adult lives ruined with a police record and all the ripple effects from having a sex-related police record. No children saved.

Supporting CraigsList

I’m a sex worker and I support CraigsList in their fight against censorship and hysteria. I’m not saying I think CraigsList is perfect but I am finally, completely angry at what’s going on. This shit has gotten way out of control. Rein it in. Focus.

If you want to fight sex trafficking, go find sex traffickers and put them away. Be my guest. I don’t know a single sex worker who will stop you from doing that.

Harassing, arresting and otherwise getting in the way of consenting adult sex workers is not fighting sex trafficking. Arresting consenting adult sex workers isn’t going to stop a sex trafficker. It just removes a little competition from the local scene. Anyone who tries to say otherwise is lying.

Anti-trafficking = anti-prostitution. It has nothing to do with actually saving those who need help.

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