I don’t remember when I first discovered Craigslist, the free, community-driven classifieds website where people could find a new apartment or a free bike as easily as they could find someone to sleep with. But I remember my first “Casual Encounter,” as a freshman in college.
Not the guy ― he blurs hazily into memory as one of the many generic men I’ve summoned from the Internet over the years. What I remember is the dawning sense of power, the realization that I could order up sex, when desired, as easily and quickly as a pizza. He came to my dorm room and we rode up in the elevator together. I never even had to bother to put on shoes.
I posted and responded to many ads over the 17 years since that first casual encounter. In the “Women Seeking Men” section, where I met a long-term boyfriend. In the infamous “Missed Connections” section, where my admirer complimented my pigtails and glasses, and turned out to already have a girlfriend. But it was “Casual Encounters” more than any other section that captured my imagination. Near-immediate, easy, anonymous, it served as a playground for my not-insubstantial id.
On “Casual Encounters,” the laws of supply and demand meant a bare-bones posting could net hundreds of responses, sexual possibility flooding into my inbox so quickly that sifting and responding became its own hypnotic ritual. The ads in the section ranged from a casual hookup request, to an elaborate group sex fantasy, to niche fetish ads from, for instance, a breast enthusiast looking for an “adult nursing relationship,” or ANR. They stripped human sexuality down to its most primal truths ― money could be exchanged for sex, and drugs. I smirked at men who thought a wordless dick pic sufficient to secure a woman’s attention.
The section had its own vocabulary ― laughably transparent code words skirted descriptions of illegal activity, acronyms shorthanded sex acts that I sometimes had to Google. All manner of perversions were laid bare, all interest groups represented. Men sought women, women sought men, multiple men sought men, couples sought women and all other permutations one could calculate. It was an underbelly of sorts, but a beloved one.
Where else could a woman decide she might like to engage in some light bondage at 2 a.m. ― and actually make it happen?
Even as technology advanced and others moved on to Tinder and other apps, I remained loyal to Craigslist, preferring the anonymity of the platform as well as the democratic base of people attracted by the free, low-commitment interface. Users didn’t have to go through the hassle of creating an account, and could put as little or as much effort into finding a partner ― or partners ― as they wanted. And there was some other ephemeral quality that drew me ― Craigslist “Casual Encounters,” I felt, had heart.
Thursday, after the Senate passed the Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act, or FOSTA, Craigslist opted to shut down “Casual Encounters” and its other personals sections, explaining in a statement that keeping the sections could leave the site legally liable. The message users receive if they attempt to click on any of the personals sections reads:
The bill, intended to fight sex trafficking, received opposition from sex workers, who say it may jeopardize their safety and livelihood, and from those who fear government overreach and online censorship. And, with the shutdown of “Casual Encounters,” it’s hard not to feel that the bill could mark the end of an era of sexual freedom, a playground for lawless desire and bare human connection that felt at times dangerous, but also essential, alive.
Admittedly, my relationship with “Casual Encounters” at times dipped into the compulsive. I was capable of losing a whole day to the section, refreshing my email inbox and responding in a trancelike state. The section enabled my addictive personality, allowing me to too easily engage in behaviors that became unhealthy for me. I found myself in dangerous situations that sometimes had consequences. In my 20s, I went through extensive therapy for sexual trauma and addiction, during which I had an extensive system of passwords and blocks set up to keep me off the section. As Craigslist’s statement says, any tool or service can be misused.
Some part of me, with the announcement of the section’s demise, felt a sense of deep relief, the “good riddance” of a dessert you are trying not to eat buried unreachably in the trash. It just got a little bit harder to engage in risky behavior around anonymous sex, which for me personally may ultimately be a good thing.
And yet, something is lost. For all my love-hate emotions about “Casual Encounters,” I never stopped marveling at its simple ability to connect us. That such a free space existed for kink to flourish, for unedited human desire that was inclusive of every type of person to thrive, for consenting adults to find their complementary sexual puzzle piece, for men and women to independently and anonymously exercise their right to sexual liberty is more precious and rare in retrospect, as we look toward a digital future affected by the reach of the new sex-trafficking law.
For better or worse, the section meant something to me. For the almost two decades I’ve used it, it was there to turn my fantasies into reality at any given moment, as reliable as it was charmingly sleazy. Goodbye, “Casual Encounters,” and thanks for all the dirty emails. You’ll be missed.