Now that Craigslist has removed their Adult Services, we can assume that all the "exploited" women of the world can breathe safely. But what about all the women who happily and voluntarily advertised their erotic services on Craiglist?
As a practicing sex worker — a professional dominatrix — my early career, and many others, was made possible by the multi-purpose website. Craigslist's Erotic Services boards are where we found our first jobs in the business, responding to ads posted by commercial houses looking for new staff, and later, tried out as a free place to advertise our services once we left the houses and took charge of our business as independent providers. Naturally, we're a little sad to see it go.
Not that the end of "Adult Services" affects anyone who really has an actual career in the industry. An established professional wouldn't be caught slumming on Craigslist. For us, the only value of Craigslist was a good laugh over tacky pictures and creative spelling. Most of the posters on CL — buyers and sellers — made a point of saying that they weren't interested in professional services anyway, despite the fact that they were usually posting in the section expressly designated for "pay-for-play."
So, fine. We have our sites to go to. There are dedicated erotic service websites such as Eros (NSFW), where our work isn't put on par with buying a sofa or getting a cheap apartment share. For pro-dommes in particular, CL sucked. Most of the guys wanted more than just domination — and such "extras" are deeply frowned upon in the pro-domme community — or were clueless about what BDSM even meant.
Clients, at least those who regularly see professionals, dismiss the site too. While a few say that they browsed the site, most were adamant that they would never seriously consider it for an erotic encounter. Said Howie,* a fetishist who frequently sessions with pro-dommes, "The only scenario where it would've made at least a little sense to use [Craigslist] would be if someone lived away from an urban area, where other more traditional and reliable sources would not have had any local BDSM listings."
Really, the women most affected by the shuttering of Adult Services are all the "non-pros" — college students and young women freelancing in the sex trade for extra money. "It was the safest, easiest way for an independent woman to earn a little extra cash doing something she already enjoyed — without the risks or rigmarole that can go along with being a 'pro,'" explained Vita,* a 30-something, Ivy-leaguer who used CL between, and sometimes during, the low-paying "real jobs" her MFA afforded her.
Despite the fact that the Attorneys General claim the site was a source of "misery" for "women and children victimized by these ads," I couldn't find anyone who actually used CL's Adult Services and agreed. The greatest threat to sex workers is when they don't have the ability to screen or have a say in the clients they see. This is particularly true for those who work for agencies whose bottom line is money. As independents, while the money can be very important, when it comes to instincts, you put your safety first.
Of all the sex workers — professionals and freelancers — we talked to, none of them said they ever felt personally threatened or unsafe from a Craigslist encounter. "I didn't take a lot of precautions," admits Michelle,* a 24-year-old woman who relied on Craigslist as her sole source of income for eight or nine months so she could finish her senior year of college. "I never told anybody what I was doing when I was doing it. For the most part I'd meet all my clients outside in public before meeting them in private." But, she adds, "I never felt abused by anyone. In fact, the only time it seemed that way, I felt empowered to leave because ‘Hey, I answered YOUR ad. YOU needed this.' I couldn't do that if I worked for an agency."
While a woman might decide that standing on a street corner, waiting to be propositioned for sex was too risky, answering an online ad from someone offering 150 roses for a blow job at a nearby hotel might not be such a bad thing. The beauty of Adult Services, compared to other listing sites such as Backpage or CityVibe, was that a provider was in total control over how much information she wanted to share. The anonymous email feature and automatic expiration specific to CL ads meant that posters could communicate with prospective clients without giving away information that would make them vulnerable to stalking — or allow their temporary choice to haunt them on the Internet for eternity. When the free Erotic Services category became the paid "Adult Services" listing last year, it also added another layer of protection in the form of a paper trail that law enforcement could follow in the rare cases when something bad did happen.
Melissa Gira Grant, who has written about Craigslist for Valleywag and Slate and is also a former sex-trade worker, asserts, "Craigslist wasn't the end-all be-all of internet prostitution, but it introduced a framework for selling sex or sexual services that could give freelancers (or non-pros) a great deal of power they wouldn't have on the street, or in a strip club or massage parlor. A service that allows a sex trade worker to take control of his or her own business by deciding when to work, who to accept as a client, and how much to charge for that labor is a valuable tool in giving people power over the conditions of their labor."
What's most troublesome about Craigslist's decision to remove the Adult Services is that they weren't legally compelled to do so, they were bullied into it. After the introduction of post screening in "Adult Services," most suspect ads were rejected and the community itself was, by most accounts, rather vigilant in flagging ads for removal that were inappropriate. Legitimate advertisers would even complain about hypersensitive watchdogs who'd flag EVERY ad on general principle. "If you don't like it, you don't need to legislate it," Michelle said. "There was a very responsible community of women and men who relied on the site for money who are being closely affected by its removal. I took the position of ‘This is where I work and I want to be sure no one's doing anything bad here.' I flagged ads I thought were suspicious and I know I wasn't the only one doing that."
And going forward, shutting down other dedicated-provider sites will have just as limited effect on protecting women, children, or anyone being victimized in the sex industry. Most of us, however, weren't forced into sex work by anything more nefarious than economic demands and an open mind. For many, it was a simply a desirable choice in a free market.
Image via Shutterstock/TEA.