Monday, May 25, 2009

Craigslist controversy reveals foolish attitudes toward sex work

My experience is that you can stop any conversation dead by trying to talk about the sex industry. People’s level of discomfort in the subject is near-universal.
So indulge me in trying to steer clear of the squeam-inducing “sex” word for a moment by pretending that this ridiculous Craigslist hullabaloo is in fact about the sale of shoes. Please don’t take it as trivializing last month’s murder of a young Boston woman, as that’s definitely not the intent. I’m just trying for an analogy that might get us past the squirm factor long enough to think straight.
OK then. At issue: The sale of shoes through the on-line listings operated by Craigslist. People have been selling shoes for years on Craigslist and nobody seemed to mind, but something tragic happened in April that has changed that. A shoe seller was killed at a Boston hotel by a shoe buyer, who first contacted her through her ad on Craigslist.
Within hours of the murder, law-and-order types were condemning the practice of selling shoes on Craigslist. Wasn’t that how the Boston murderer was able to find his victim, after all? And given that any shoe buyer is a potential murderer, isn’t it in the interests of shoe sellers everywhere if customers are prevented from finding them?
Various state justice departments soon jumped into the debate. They cranked up the heat on Craigslist, threatening the company with criminal charges for its role in the murder of the shoe seller.
Alarmed shoe sellers tried to wade into the debate, raising concerns about losing an important advertising vehicle. But nobody listened. They’d bought that line about how 98 per cent of shoe sellers only did it because they were forced to, and figured the protests were simply the cries of people too exploited and beaten down to know what they were talking about.
Within a month, a beleaguered Craigslist had agreed to scrap its free shoe-listing service throughout the U.S. It announced it would be relocating shoe sellers to a category renamed “footwear,” and would be much more selective about who advertised there. A victory over evil was declared, followed by calls for Craigslist to do the same in Canada.
Anyway, you get the point. The nuttiness of the Craigslist saga would be pretty clear to all of us if the product was anything other than sex. But it’s like we lose our ability to think rationally when sex is the subject.
Can we ever imagine a time when we would respond to the murder of, say, a real-estate agent by making it harder for real-estate salesmen to advertise? The two things have nothing to do with each other. That there are predators who find all sorts of ways to bring misery to innocent people - well, that’s a given in our world. But you’re not going to fix that by making it harder for the innocent to advertise.
Sex workers already face considerable discrimination in advertising. The sale of sex is legal in Canada, but that’s not to say the ads come cheap. Advertising outlets all take advantage of the highly stigmatized industry by charging many times the going rate if an ad is sex-work related. We can tell ourselves such premiums keep a lid on the industry by driving up costs, but it’s really just an excuse to gouge money out of a sector that can’t afford to complain.
Were we truly interested in preventing the murder of sex workers, we’d provide safer places for people to work. The young Boston woman, Julissa Brisman, wasn’t killed because she advertised in the Craigslist “erotic services” category, but because a killer was able to get her alone in a hotel room. Robert Pickton’s victims didn’t die because they worked in the sex industry, but because a killer knew exactly where to find vulnerable women working alone in the dark.
Recent studies from the United Kingdom and the U.S. estimate that almost 20 per cent of men have used commercial sex services at some point in their lives. The U.S. study found that nearly a third of single men over age 30 were regular buyers of such services. Business is brisk: Nevada’s 25 legal brothels each see an average of 40 customers a day.
Sex sells. North Americans have been despairing about that for as long as Canada and the U.S. have been countries, but it hasn’t changed a thing. That we spend even a moment blaming any of this on Craigslist is sad affirmation of that.

1 comment:

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