Sex workers have argued that the removal of adult listings sections from sites like Craigslist and Backpage makes their occupation more hazardous. Now they have more than anecdotal evidence to back up their claims.
In an article published recently on Huffington Post, Alison Bass points to a new study by professors at Baylor and West Virginia universities that indicates Craigslist’s now-defunct “erotic services” section may have helped reduce the female homicide rate nationwide by 17.4 percent from 2002 to 2010, mainly by moving street prostitution inside, which allowed sex workers to more effectively screen their clients.
The study — Craigslist’s Effect on Violence Against Women — contradicts the rhetoric of anti-sex-trafficking advocates and politicians who pressured Craigslist and Backpage to close their adult-listings sections on the grounds that they facilitate sex trafficking. (Though the term is frequently conflated to encompass sex work in general, according to federal law “sex trafficking” involves either 1) minors who engage in commercial sex acts or 2) women who are induced into engaging in commercial sex acts as a result of force, fraud, or coercion.)
Craigslist closed its erotic-services listings in 2010. Backpage did likewise in early 2017, on the eve of a U.S. Senate hearing into the company’s practices. The study’s authors — two economics professors and a professor of management information systems — drew data from FBI crime reports, Craigslist’s erotic services category (making use of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine), and listings from The Erotic Review, the Yelp.com of the online sex world.
Bass, an assistant professor of journalism at West Virginia University and the author of Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, notes that the study is awaiting publication by a peer-reviewed economics journal. Though it can be read as a “working paper” on the site of one of its authors, the first page of the study warns in all-caps, “DRAFT — PLEASE DO NOT CITE OR SHARE.”
Even with such caveats, the paper’s findings are eye-opening.
It is well-known that illegal prostitution is a dangerous occupation with a high homicide rate (2.7 percent of all female homicides in the United States involve prostitutes.) Working outdoors is particularly hazardous, with street prostitutes experiencing a homicide rate over 13 times that of the general population. That’s because violent predators (including serial killers) are far more likely to prey on street walkers they can pick up in their cars than they are on indoor sex workers who have the ability to screen clients using online tools. Indeed, as the authors of this new study note, serial killers accounted for more than one-third of prostitute victims and nearly all such serial killers were clients.
The WVU and Baylor researchers found not only that female homicide rates declined nationwide by 17 percent during the time craigslist offered its free advertising services for sex workers. By analyzing thousands of client reviews posted on a popular website, The Erotic Review, they also discovered that a growing number of sex workers throughout the U.S. migrated indoors and were able to more carefully screen clients by using craigslist’s erotic review services. They conclude that this movement indoors and the more efficient use of online screening by sex workers is what led to the reduction of female homicides in the years craigslist site was operational:
“We propose four mechanisms that could explain our results. First, the introduction of ERS [Craigslist’s Erotic Services listings] may have caused outdoor street-based prostitution to transition to the safer, indoor channel…Second, the growth of the market, combined with more efficient matching may lead to repeat business with low-risk clients, thereby making the market lower risk to sellers. Third, ERS may have enabled more screening, such as the use of references when seeing new clients or background checks. And fourth, ERS may have led to greater deterrence of client violence through the creation of a digital fingerprint that made detection of criminal offenses more likely…We conclude that more efficient matching, growth in repeat business, and transitioning indoors are responsible for the decline in murders.”
Interestingly enough, the researchers also did an analysis of how many more police officers would need to be hired to reduce the female homicide rate by the same percentage that craigslist’s free service apparently did. They concluded that this would require an additional outlay of 200,832 police officers, costing the U.S. an added $20 billion per year.
“Craigslist, in other words, saved 2,150 female lives at a profoundly lower social cost,” concluded the three authors…
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