Craigslist has yielded to pressure from a multistate attorney general task force and is supposed to be cleaning up its “red light district.” This part of Craigslist was previously titled “erotic services” and was well known as a place where sexual services could be purchased. Naturally, those posting services had to be somewhat circumspect and generally used abbreviations (“bj” for “blow job”, for example) and some other “commodity” in place of money (“skittles” instead of dollars, for example). So, a prostitute might list that she will provide a bj for 50 skittles. Of course, this did not really fool anyone-it merely allowed people to willingly turn a blind eye towards what was really going on. The same sort of thing is done when people advertise many “escort” and “massage” services.
So, how is Craigslist going to clean up what might be called the best little whorehouse on the internet? Step one of the plan is to replace “erotic services” with the “adult services.” Of course, “adult” seems almost worse than “erotic.” After all, the euphemism for a pornographic movie is “adult film“-which can be bought in an adult bookstore. Obviously, changing the name does not really change the reality. So, on to the more robust steps.
Advertisements posted in the “adult services” section must be from legal adult service providers. Naturally, these never have any connection to selling sexual services, so everything will be fine. Of course, this does help cover Craiglists’ butt legally. Most importantly, each ad is also supposed to undergo a manual review, presumably making sure that no one is trading “bjs” for “skittles.” Each ad will also cost $10, thus detering whores and gigolos who can’t scrape together ten skittles.
While it could be argued that the folks at craigslist are not responsible for what the people who post ads really offer (like sex for money), they certainly seem to have an obligation to keep their listings clear of services that are clearly illegal. After all, knowingly helping to enable criminal activity certainly seems something that would also be illegal. Since many of the ads in Craigslist were rather blatant, they cannot use the defense of plausible ignorance of what was being offered.
There is also the moral issue, which is distinct from the legal issue. On one hand, prostitution is often regarded as immoral. Some argue this point on religious grounds or because they have a general opposition to sex. Other people argue that it is immoral because it is oppressive, harmful and degrading. Assuming that prostitution is immoral, then it would be wrong of the folks at Craigslist to knowingly assist people in such immoral activities. While they might not know the content of specific ads, they certainly do know the sort of stuff that was posted. As such, they would be tainted a bit with the immorality of these activities.
On the other hand, a free market ethics would endorse people selling whatever it is they wish to sell to customers who wish to purchase it. So, if we let the market decide, then prostitution would be acceptable. Of course, such unlimited free market approaches would be a path towards madness and evil, so we would probably want to limit it a bit. For example, perhaps prostitution would be acceptable if the prostitutes are not coerced and are renting out their bodies of their own free will. In any case, the free market seems to have a significant demand for sexual services.
One last question is a practical one: will the changes work? Assuming that the folks at Craigslist do what they say they will do, then the answer would be “yes, mostly.” The manual screenings will catch any obvious attempts to sell sex illegally and probably many that are not so obvious. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect Craigslist’s system to work perfectly. It is also unreasonable to think that this will have a significant, lasting impact on prostitution. While Craigslist did make it easier, I am confident that prostitutes and customers will find other ways to hook up. In fact, I would not be surprised if some clever person came up with a new listing service (“skittleslist” perhaps?) to provide a new place to hang that red light.