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Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz

Posted: April 29, 2010 09:23 AM

Is Craigslist a Pimp?

What's Your Reaction:

Is Craigslist a pimp? You be the judge.

Having It Both Ways

The New York Times reported several days ago that Craigslist has tripled - to $36 million - revenue it receives annually from advertising for "adult" or "erotic" services. Advertising for sexual services now accounts for one-third of Craigslist's revenue.

Craigslist prohibits "ads suggesting or implying an exchange of sexual favors for money." Craigslist also prohibits "ads including pornographic images, or images suggestive of an offer of sexual favor." Lest any prostitute - or her "business manager" - believe Craigslist will not fiercely enforce these prohibitions, the website requires anyone purchasing an ad for adult services ($10 for one week, $5 to renew) to click a button signifying that they understand these prohibitions and will abide by them.

And so we must assume that the "gorgeous Latina" (with nearly exposed nipples), the "Thai Massage by Thai Boy" (with exposed nipples), the "sweet and busty flower" (once more with the nipples). and "Asian Barbie" in town "for a few days" (thankfully, no exposed nipples) pay Craigslist for adult services ads that have nothing to do with prostitution, or pornography, or fetishes involving children or ethnic fantasies.

Nonetheless, we wanted to ask. By accepting money for these advertisements, is there even the slightest possibility that Craigslist is gaining financially from prostitution and pornography, including - possibly - human trafficking, sexual enslavement, and the abuse and exploitation of children?

So ask we did, and apparently, no such possibility exists. Lest anyone doubt Craigslist's bold resolve, the website declares - on a yellow background! - and in large letters! - "Human trafficking and exploitation of minors are not tolerated - any suspected activity will be reported to law enforcement."

Case closed. And yet, and yet....

Running the Numbers

Craigslist makes money by selling advertisements for sexual services on all of its websites. Craigslist also makes money by selling advertisements for job openings in 18 US cities. Analysis of sexual services advertisements and job advertisements in 40 of the cities and regions with Craigslist websites confirm that a high percentage of Craigslist revenue may come from sexual services advertising.

As of today, the 18 cities where Craigslist charges for job postings list approximately 200,400 job advertisements. Let's assume these job listings amount to one month of revenue for this portion of the Craigslist business - roughly $6.6 million. As one might expect, the cities with the most job advertisements on Craigslist are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, and Chicago.

Now let's examine the revenue derived by Craigslist from sexual services advertising. The 40 cities and regions included in the analysis encompass only a small portion of the 700 cities and regions for which Craigslist has built classified advertising websites.

In the United States, websites for the remaining 35 cities post a total of 71,700 adult services advertisements, compared to 318,700 job advertisements. Let's assume that advertisers paid once (for one week) and then renewed three times (for three additional weeks) -- and that the advertisements posted represented one month of revenue.  On this basis, Craigslist generated $1.8 million in revenue in the most recent month from its sexual services ads in these cities. If these figures are accurate, adult services revenue represents at least 22 percent of Craigslist's total monthly revenue. These numbers leave out the other 660 locations where Craigslist publishes advertising.

Creeped Out in Canada

The story gets creepier when one breaks down the advertising totals by city. Two-thirds of the sexual services advertisements in our sample of 40 cities are published on the Craigslist websites for the five cities outside the United States, specifically Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, London, and Hong Kong. Craigslist does not charge for sexual services ads outside of the United States. Perhaps for this reason, only 20 percent of Craigslist ads in the United States with the potential for revenue generation are in the sexual services section (this is a conservative number, because we can only view ads posted in the last 7 days). In Canada, and London, however, 80 percent of the ads are in the sexual services section.

With nearly 77,000 sexual services advertisements - a larger number than in all of the 35 US cities we reviewed, the numbers for Toronto alone are particularly horrific.

Canada is a country with a significant history of commercial trafficking of girls and women - primarily from Asia - for purposes of sexual exploitation. Nearly 10 years ago, the value of foreign trafficking for prostitution in Canada exceeded $400 million. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimates that 800-1,200 persons annually are victims of human trafficking in Canada, with other estimates as high as 15,000. In 2006, The Future Group published a study on the treatment of human trafficking victims. The report stated that "Canada's record of dealing with trafficking victims is an international embarrassment."

As one skims the advertisements in the Craigslist erotic services pages for Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, one sees the same overripe language employed time and again - Asian hottie, new to Vancouver - just arrived - new to the business - new & fresh girl - 4 young hot Asian girls just new today - new 19 yrs Taiwanese school girl.... Correlation is not causation. When viewed together, however, the advertising data and the advertising language are chilling.

Love or Money

Prostitution is sex for money, not love. When it comes to sexual commerce, Craigslist cannot have it both ways. Craigslist cannot be "relatively non-commercial". Craigslist must choose whether it stands for money or for love.

Craigslist says it opposes illegal prostitution, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation of children. However, a substantial and growing part of its business depends upon advertisements for sexual services that almost certainly include prostitution, and may well sometimes involve human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. While it may not charge for erotic services advertisements in other nations, it provides an iconic platform for their dissemination.

Craigslist says it reviews sexual advertisements. However, with thousands of these ads pouring into their servers every day, it is reasonable to wonder who really is examining them. It would be good to know whether there is any advertisement - except one explicitly inviting the reader to have sex with a child or a slave - that Craigslist would not accept.

And so we ask again, is Craigslist a pimp?