In 2010, Craigslist shut down their "adult services" listing section to tamp down on sex work postings amid allegations that rampant trafficking took place on the site. Critics at the time feared that sex trafficking wouldn't end once Craigslist enacted the shut-down—it would just move somewhere else.
Their fears, it seems, were founded: Not only did sex work ads pop up on Craigslist in other forums, but another listings website, Backpage.com, started to corner the market. A 2012 report found that 70 percent of prostitution ads came from the site. So authorities turned their attention there, and last year, more than 1000 pimps and johns were arrested during a months-long prostitution sting that targeted ads placed on Backpage.com.
While independent, adult sex workers also list on the site, 71 percent of child trafficking cases reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children come from Backpage. The site recently came under pressure to shut down, and federal authorities are still monitoring the site to catch traffickers and pimps. But a new study by criminologists from Michigan State University, led by Mary Finn, suggests that this increased police scrutiny on Backpage has just made these sellers of sex harder to detect.
"Police have used targeted enforcement in trying to address the sale of sex when it occurs in a physical place. We saw parallels from that type of space just being transferred to the internet," Finn explained over the phone. "There's been research that suggests that that kind of targeted enforcement can either lead to displacement—meaning that crime moves to another geographical location—or there could be a diffusion effect, in which less crime occurs in that area and the surrounding areas. We wanted to see if that same idea applied in the online world."
Her study, which interviewed 100 pimps who actively list on Backpage about how they use the site and the internet in general to manage prostitutes, suggests that these measures to curtail and criminalize sex work on the site are only virtually displacing pimps, not stopping their activity, which is only driving sex work further out of sight.
According to the interviews, these pimps have become savvier about their listings following the crackdown. "We refer to it as 'hiding in plain sight on the page,'" Finn said. "They would just place their ads in a different section, along with legitimate business. Backpage has ads for escorts and massage—there are these types of professional customer services that are advertised on the site. The pimps would simply place their ads within those lists of those types of services." Then, she said, they would just put in specific key words to convey to the buyer what the ad was really for.
"None of these ads say sex. But they certainly imply that there may be more than just a date," she said, adding that pimps will try to minimize their legal liabilty in their postings. "The pimps all say that they're just selling someone the opportunity to meet someone else—and what they do in the context of that meeting is their business."
Finn said that some pimps have also stopped using actual photographs of the girls they are advertising once they realized police were lurking on the site. One pimp said in an interview that he would "find a website and find females that look similar" to the girls he had and use their picture instead.
It's like finding a needle in a haystack.
This in itself is a huge setback for the authorities. "The police, specifically when they're looking for those who are sex trafficked, or those who are children, they look at the images in the listing. They look to see if the person in the image looks exceptionally young, or if they're being kept somewhere. If they have reports of missing individuals this is a way to begin to do an investigation," Finn said.
Pimps have also started going back to Craigslist and responding to people who post that they're seeking romantic encounters to recruit potential clients. And according to the study, they're moving into dating websites. "A popular one among the gay community is the app called Jack'd," one pimp explained. "…It's supposed to be a dating app. It's anything but that. Most people go on there for sex. So that's another way that I can generate business… I have everything on there. Prices. What I'm about. What I will do. What I will not do."
So if police efforts to catch pimps are only dispersing them and making them harder to find, what can be done?
According to Finn, criminalizing sites like Backpage is futile. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack. [Sex work] is the oldest profession, and it's continuing to flourish," she said. "We enact [anti-prostitution] laws because we think we're helping vulnerable people, but, for those individuals who are involved in the sale of sex, criminalizing it just drives it further underground. This can prevent individuals from seeking assistance, and it's also a public health issue."
"I think we could come up with a different approach to manage the sale of sex, because it's certainly happening," she added. "We can't walk away from that reality. You would still, obviously, criminalize someone who exploited a minor or forcing another adult into this work. But we could make it healthier and safer for consenting adults by reexamining the wisdom of criminalizing sex work."