New Study Says The Removal Of Craigslist Erotic Services Pages May Be Linked To An Increase In Murdered Females
from the for-the-good-of-the-many-or-whatever? dept
Under the guise of targeting sex traffickers, FOSTA has both done damage to Section 230 protections and sex workers’ literal lives. The law has yet to result in any credible, sustained damage to human trafficking, but that hasn’t stopped the bill’s supporters from trotting out debunked numbers anytime they need a soundbite.
There will likely be no studies performed by the government to determine FOSTA’s actual impact on sex trafficking, but plenty of academics are offering evidence that pushing sex work further underground is endangering the lives of sex workers. This is just the icing on the stupid, life-threatening cake as multiple law enforcement agencies — including the DOJ itself — pointed out passing FOSTA would make it more difficult to hunt down traffickers.
A study released in 2017 showed the introduction of erotic services section on Craiglist tracked with a 17% drop in female homicides across many major cities. Craigslist spent a few years being publicly vilified by public officials — mainly states attorneys general — before dumping its erotic services section (ERS). This didn’t stop sex work or trafficking, but it did shift the focus away from Craiglist as everyone affected found other services to use.
A newly-released study [PDF] (via Sophie Cull) shows there’s been a corresponding increase in female homicides since the point Craigslist dumped ERS. Online services — enabled by Section 230 — helped sex workers stay safe by reducing or eliminating a few of the more dangerous variables.
In the context of prostitution, online clearinghouses have the potential to improve safety by redirecting exchange through the clearinghouse and replacing more risky outdoor face-to-face transactions and/or other intermediaries (e.g., pimps) with indoor, direct transactions (Bass, 2015a,b). Matching online through the clearinghouse enables both sides of the market to discern the quality of the match ex ante, through such activities as informal screening, circulated black and white lists, and online reviews (Cunningham and Kendall, 2011b; Grant, 2009). This may provide the ability for sex workers to identify and screen out violent clients, law enforcement, and scammers.
The wholly expected happens when you take these safeguards away by eliminating online services, like Craigslist did in 2010.
[W]e find evidence that ERS significantly reduced female homicide rates by as much as 10-17 percent. We do not find evidence that this was a more general reduction in homicide, as ERS is unrelated to male murder, females killed by an intimate partner, or manslaughters. This strengthens our assessment that ERS-driven changes in sex markets were the primary driver of the reduction in female murders.
The study pulls from a number of data sets (including the FBI’s annual crime reports), but notes there are still some limitations that prevent this from being an exact determination. For one, most homicide reports don’t note whether the person killed was a sex worker. For another, the data lags because homicide reports date from the time the body was found, rather than the time the person was actually killed. From this underreported and laggy data, some inferences can be drawn, even if it’s impossible to say for certain what percentage of female homicides involved sex workers. If anything, the buggy data may point to an even greater reduction in violence against sex workers via the introduction of online marketplaces.
Are these magnitudes plausible? It is difficult to answer this question given that the true incidence of prostitution homicides is unknown. Most datasets do not record whether a female victim of a homicide was a sex worker, and those that do suffer from severe underascertainment biases built into the data collection methods. To our knowledge there is only one study that has attempted to estimate the incidence of prostitution homicide as a share of female homicides (Brewer et al., 2006). The authors concluded that 2.7 percent of all female homicides are prostitution deaths by clients. But this study has significant limitations. It is based on select data only from Chicago, St. Louis, Washington state, North Carolina, the SHR, 33 urban counties for one cross-section, and Colorado Springs. The issue of underascertainment bias would conceivably hold, and maybe moreso, for this select sample. Thus we interpret their estimates to be, at best, a lower bound. Our estimate of a 10 percent reduction in female homicides does suggest, though, that ERS created an overwhelmingly safe environment for female sex workers — perhaps the safest in history.
This is not to suggest government officials and lawmakers pushing laws like FOSTA don’t care about people’s lives. But I’m not sure what counterargument they can provide for legislation that not only results in increased harm to (mostly) women, but also undercuts the immunity that has allowed the internet to thrive. I guess the old adage is being spun to read “It’s better for dozens of sex workers to die than for third-party service providers to go free.”