In 2014, Monroe was a trafficking victim in California. She found her clients by advertising on SFRedbook, the free online erotic services website. One day, she logged into the site and discovered that federal authorities had taken it down.
Law enforcement hoped that closing the site would reduce trafficking, but it didn’t help Monroe. When she told her pimp SFRedbook was gone, he shrugged. Then he told her that she would just have to work outdoors from then on.
“When they closed down Redbook, they pushed me to the street,” Monroe told ThinkProgress. “We had a set limit we had to make a day, which was more people, cheaper dates, and if you didn’t bring that home, it was ugly.” Monroe, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, had been working through Redbook in hotel rooms almost without incident, but working outdoors was much less safe.
“I got raped and robbed a couple of times,” she said. “You’re in people’s cars, which means nobody can hear you if you get robbed or beaten up.”
Sex workers have long argued that cheap online erotic services advertising platforms make their jobs much safer. Law enforcement officials like Sheriff Tom Dart of Chicago, however, insist that sites like Craigslist and Backpage increase trafficking and endanger women. Federal and state officials have relentlessly harassed businesses that provide online erotic ads, forcing first Craigslist and then Backpage to close or severely curtail their listings.
Despite all the law enforcement resources expended, empirical research on the dangers or benefits of erotic services ads has been sparse. But a new study provides strong evidence that when law enforcement closes down sites like Craigslist or Redbook, women die.
The September 2017 study, authored by West Virginia University and Baylor University economics and information systems experts, analyzes rates of female homicides in various cities before and after Craigslist opened an erotic services section on its website. The authors found a shocking 17 percent decrease in homicides with female victims after Craigslist erotic services were introduced.
The data does not provide a single clear explanation as to why female homicide rates drop so steeply, Scott Cunningham, one of the paper’s authors, told ThinkProgress. It’s possible, for example, that when Craigslist opens erotic services ads, some women in abusive domestic situations decide to become sex workers, move out, and so escape violent homicide at the hands of their spouses or boyfriends.
The most likely explanation, though, Cunningham says, is that sex workers simply make up a huge percentage of female homicide victims. When sex workers are safer, female homicide rates drop significantly.
Cunningham and the paper’s other authors, Gregory DeAngelo and John Tripp, analyzed online escort review sites in order to try document the movement of sex workers to indoor locations. They found that after Craigslist introduced erotic services pages, client reviewers mentioned lower prices and lower satisfaction — a sign that lower-priced street workers were moving indoors and receiving reviews for the first time.
Once sex workers move indoors, they are much safer for a number of reasons, Cunningham said. When you’re indoors, “you can screen your clients more efficiently. When you’re soliciting a client on the street, there is no real screening opportunity. The sex worker just has to make the split second decision. She relies on very limited and complete information about the client’s identity and purposes. Whereas when a sex worker solicits indoors through digital means, she has Google, she has a lot of correspondence, she can ask a lot of questions. It’s not perfect screening, but it’s better.”
There’s some evidence that other crimes are decreased by online advertising as well. Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the peer sex worker advocacy organization Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) Sacramento, pointed to a study conducted by the organization in 2015. Researchers interviewed 44 sex workers on the street and, of those workers, 18 percent said they had moved outdoors following the closing of SFRedbook.
“Of that 18 percent, almost every one of them had been raped since they’d been out there,” DiAngelo told ThinkProgress. “We had been asking them ‘have you been raped?’ but there was a point where I wanted to say, ‘Have you been raped yet?’ because it was just that prevalent.”
DiAngelo also believes that easy access to online ads makes trafficking less likely, rather than more likely. On the street, women are visible; it’s easy for pimps and traffickers to find them. Online, DiAngelo says, “women can run their own business and predators don’t have immediate access to them.”
Maxine Doogan, founder of the California-based Erotic Service Providers Union, added that online ad providers like Craigslist and Backpage also improve safety because they provide access to steadier work and more affluent clients. Shutting down the sites “makes people desperate for money,” she told ThinkProgress.
One worker she knew had been forced to give up her apartment, and had to rely on a man for housing. “Restricting access to free advertising, it makes you have to rely on these unscrupulous people,” Doogan said.
In theory, closing down advertising is supposed to reduce exploitation of women. In practice, when resources are taken away from people living on the edge of poverty, they have fewer options and are less able to protect themselves.
For all these reasons access to the Internet can transform the experience of sex work. Young women who have been able to screen clients using sites like Craigslist, “almost feel like this is a safe job because they have these tools,” DiAngelo said.
Sex workers report that free online advertising makes them safer. There is now data showing that erotic services ads significantly decrease female homicide rates. So, will law enforcement back down and allow these sites to operate again?
Cunningham is not optimistic. “I don’t see a lot of policy change. Based on 10 years of research on my part, I think that the constraint on policy is that a significant majority of Americans simply find prostitution so repugnant that they don’t want to think about it,” he said.
Monroe is no longer working on the street. While the police were more interested in arresting her than helping her, she connected with SWOP Sacramento. The organization helped her leave her pimp. She has two daughters and is currently working at the post office. But she still vividly remembers how much less safe she became when Redbook shut down. The approach to sex work, Monroe argued, should be more like the approach to heroin addiction.
“They tried everything they could to stop the heroin epidemic, but they couldn’t,” she said. “So why not pass out clean needles?”