One night last week, I was mugged on the street. Although I took a blow to the throat and I had my bag, my laptop, and some other personal affects stolen, I was also very lucky. You see, I was mugged right underneath a street lamp, and since the corner I was standing on was very brightly lit, after the muggers grabbed my bag they bolted to the shadows as fast as they could.

While it was a rattling experience, it also highlighted a principle I intuitively already knew: criminals hate light. They don’t want to be seen, and light makes what they do more visible. In other words, it makes their activity more transparent.

Transparency is, briefly, the combination of accessibility and accountability. Accessibility is the characteristic of some bit of knowledge being available to all interested parties; having access to information. Accountability is the capability for an action to be traced to its actor; knowing who did what, and when.

For obvious reasons, accountability is a horrible thing for criminals but it should, at least in theory, be a great thing for law enforcement, activists, good Samaritans, and anyone else who wants to strengthen civil society. One way to better understand this is to look at accountability’s opposite: scapegoating.

In M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie, scapegoating is explained:

A predominant characteristic…of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at any one who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection.

So what does transparency have to do with activism? To answer that question, let me tell you a short story about Craigslist.

A Short History of Craigslist

In 2007, Craigslist is arguably the most popular classifieds service in the world, but there is no “Adult Services” section. Instead, an “Erotic Services” category that has existed for well over 5 years offers users the opportunity to post classifieds for free. The zero-dollar price tag undercuts similar erotic services classifieds being sold by mainstream newspapers and other online businesses by, well, infinity.

In March of 2009, a man by the name of Phillip Markoff kills a masseuse advertising on Craigslist, and is quickly apprehended thanks to digital sleuthing in cooperation with Craigslist. However, Markoff is dubbed “The Craigslist Killer” by the media and Craigslist’s CEO along with its founder, Craig Newmark, become political whipping boys.

Two months later, in May, under pressure from certain feminist and human rights advocacy groups, as well as numerous attorneys general, Craigslist replaces the Erotic Services section with “Adult Services” and begins charging for the ads. It is believed that creating a paper trail with transactions through the website will further aid police in quickly identifying any criminal activity by users of the website. Sure enough, it does, and in April of 2010 the police win a major bust against the Gambino mafia family after they posted ads on Craigslist’s Adult Services section offering sex with underage girls.

Despite Craigslist’s cooperation in this and other investigations, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and others issued a subpoena to Craigslist in May of 2010, only 1 month after the Gambino family bust, alleging that the company was facilitating and profiting off child “sex trafficking” and slavery. Over the next few months, so-called “anti-trafficking” groups, like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women led by Norma Ramos, along with anti-prostitution groups, like Prostitution Research and Education led by Melissa Farley, grow increasingly loud, staging protests outside Craigslist’s San Francisco offices.

In September of 2010—that’s this month—Craigslist removes the “Adult Services” section entirely under pressure from these same groups, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, and 16 other attorneys general, 13 of whom, including Blumenthal, are up for reelection this year. (No, that’s not a coincidence.)

How “anti-trafficking” is often code for “pro-censorship”

Here’s the thing: the overly-hyped “sex trafficking” scare is possibly the largest, most evil, and most well-orchestrated myth of the abolitionist “feminist” movement. The propaganda spewing from groups like The Rebecca Project is unmistakable. Their wildly inflated numbers would be laughable if they weren’t so mindlessly regurgitated as facts by the mainstream media.

According to The Rebecca Project’s executive director, Malika Saada Saar, “An estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.” Critical thinkers like Dr. Marty Klein call this out for what it is:

“At risk!” Not in any way harmed, just vulnerable! The technical word for this is “nonsense.”

Make no mistake: the scare tactics used by groups like The Rebecca Project are deliberately designed to manipulate public policy by disguising a moral crusade to prohibit voluntary prostitution—sex work—as though it were a grassroots effort to combat sex trafficking. And they’re not even being coy about it.

At an international gathering of anti-porn activists in Cambridge in May, 2010, a “National Planning Meeting to Eliminate Demand for Commercial Sex” was sponsored by the Embrey Family Foundation and the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Starting at the very first sentences of the very first paragraph on the very first page of the PDF report, the trafficking boogeyman is trotted out:

Most public and private resources dedicated to human trafficking in the past decade have been crisis oriented, understandably geared toward rescuing and rehabilitating victims and, to some extent, prosecuting the perpetrators. However, policymakers, academics, and activists increasingly recognize that the endless supply of victims won’t abate unless we combat the demand for trafficking.

Then on page 4, in a prominent pull-quote, lauded anti-prostitution activist, Guardian journalist, and feminist media fear-merchant Julie Bindel says:

We decided we wouldn’t make a distinction between women who are coerced and [women] who choose. If you try to make that distinction, you will get nowhere when focusing on demand.

Their agenda could not be more clear: it’s not about sex trafficking, it’s about prohibiting prostitution. This, despite the US State Department’s unambiguous exclusion of voluntary prostitution as a form of trafficking:

Prostitution by willing adults is not human trafficking regardless of whether it is legalized, decriminalized, or criminalized.

—Trafficking in Persons Report, 10th Edition, page 8

It was perhaps Susie Bright who described people like Julie Bindel, Norma Ramos, and Melissa Farley best:

A casual observer may wonder … “Aren’t the Trafficking-Fighters just decent people trying to save the vulnerable and innocent?”

Uh, no.

[…T]he Hooverites who have called for the disembowelment of CL are a different breed. They do not give a rat’s ass about children’s rights, women’s victimization, or anything else. They are the same companies who sponsor “Palin-esque” candidates, Christian Lunacy funds, forced-birthers, racist smear campaigns, gay-hating crusades. What’s worse, their leaders are indifferent to their stated “issues”—they believe themselves to be a personal elite, so close to God and Money that what the “little people do” is not relevant to them.

You won’t find the anti-Porn, anti-Trafficking Activists in the domestic abuse shelter, the rape crisis hotline, the emergency room, the orphanage, the refugee camps. Heavens, no. They have no interest or knowledge of what goes on in the trenches. They are actively fighting sex workers all over the world who have articulated their needs and rights. They don’t want anyone to have any kind of sex they don’t sanction. They are FRAUDS.

At the online magazine Sex and the 405, Anaiis Flox says of Craigslist:

Over the past few days, I have noticed an increase in the number of ads that suggest a monetary exchange for sex.

This surprises absolutely nobody. Without an “Adult Services” section, the ads that used to populate that section, regardless of whether they were actually advertising legal activity or not, are now re-appearing elsewhere on Craigslist—y’know, the free sections without a paper trail. Leading anti-prostitution crusader Melissa Farley has already condemned Craigslist’s casual encounters section. Is that section next on the chopping block?

“Adult Services” classifieds are apparently the online feminist version of the Ground-Zero Mosque lunacy. Only the deluded are questioning the legality of Craigslist’s classifieds business itself because Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act is squarely on Craigslist’s side:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

This single sentence, means Craigslist isn’t generally liable for what its users do, probably…gave birth to Web 2.0 and modern social networks, and also protects Facebook, Blogspot, Flickr, and innumerable other Web sites. It lets news organizations…permit readers to post comments without prior approval by an editor, says technology industry expert Declan McCullagh.

In other words, if “Adult Services” classifieds are unacceptable in the section Craigslist was pressured to create for them, exactly where should they go? (Colbertslist?) Another online classifieds service, Backpage.com, has now been sued by the same anti-trafficking groups for the same reasons Craigslist was pursued. If Backpage.com also removes similar ads from its site, what’s to stop the very same content from reappearing on Facebook, Blogspot, Flickr, or innumerable other Web sites, and more importantly, what will the prohibitionists’ solution be?

Actually, we don’t need to guess. Malika Saada Saar, other groups like hers, and their criminally shortsighted Attorney General puppet Richard Blumenthal are already exploring revisiting Section 230:

“These prostitution ads enable human trafficking and assaults on women,” Blumenthal said […]. “Craigslist says it cannot be held legally responsible for anything on its site,” he said. “My belief is strongly … [sic] that we need to change that.”

This clearly shows that the issue of trafficking and sexual slavery is just window dressing for their real agenda: instituting content-based restrictions on anything that doesn’t meet their narrow religious or ideological view of sexual morality. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Norma Ramos, Co-Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

We at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women see prostitution as the world’s oldest oppression and we see it as being at odds with any goal of achieving equality rights for women and girls.

Ms. Ramos and many purported “anti-trafficking” groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Donna M. Hughes’ Citizens Against Trafficking, and others are in no uncertain terms actually anti-prostitution and pro-censorship lobbying groups.

Pitting free speech against human rights is a recipe for disaster

Ironically, the people best-equipped to help law enforcement combat sex trafficking are sex workers, the same people Farley and other abolitionist feminists either demonize or discredit. Last week, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) issued a press release:

Purported rights groups, such as Change.org, have ignored sex worker voices while wrongfully vilifying Craigslist as a cause of—rather than an ally in stopping—trafficking. The continued silencing of sex workers, the trend to shut down the spaces where we communicate and the disregard of our expert knowledge demonstrate clearly that these efforts are more about stomping out sex for sale in general than in protecting those who are actually abused.

They’re right. I only wish SWOP would have called Change.org propagandist Amanda Kloer out by name. It should surprise no one that it is sex workers, not these “human rights” groups, who are addressing the problem in a constructive way. And there are other forces at play here besides just the pro-censorship crusaders.

Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis notes that the mainstream media frenzy has been conspicuously silent on the fact that Craigslist is a direct competitor to their own classifieds business:

Since craigslist and the internet have existed, newspaper classified revenue has fallen by $13 billion a year. […T]he law is on craigslist’s side even if its enforcers are not and that this is a matter of free speech, which should put The Times and its journalists on craigslist’s side as well. But they’re not.

Jarvis is correct that as far as Craigslist, The Times, and other publishers are concerned, this is a free speech issue. But the question of trafficking is not a free speech issue. Trafficking is criminal coercion, which makes it distinctly different than all legal “Adult Services,” and even different from the currently-criminal activity of prostitution.

Conflating sex trafficking with prostitution is a prime example of what Dr. Marty Klein calls a phony category:

It’s a common strategy in public policy discussions—creating a category that lumps two dissimilar things together, and decrying the more serious of the two. We’re all in favor of preventing hangnails and heart attacks, aren’t we? We MUST do something about that!

Public discussions of sex suffer dramatically from this treatment. Morality groups, the media, and politicians often complain about the ‘serious problem of x & y.’ Even worse, they’ll say ‘the rate of x & y is increasing,’ without admitting how much of each is involved.

This tendency is glaringly obvious in any examination of the media’s hysterics surrounding online classifieds and sex trafficking.

The Guardian:

Thousands of ads continue to be placed each day that list charges for encounters. Many include…flags for underage prostitution.

The Chicago Tribune:

…there is growing evidence of human trafficking, child exploitation and prostitution through ads on the website.

And of course, the Attorneys General own letter:

The increasingly sharp public criticism of Craigslist’s Adult Services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution — including ads trafficking children — are rampant on it.

Sex trafficking, a subset of human trafficking, is estimated by all credible reports such as the ones by the International Labour Organization to be around 10 percent of all trafficking crimes. That means 9 times more people are trafficked for non-sexual forced labor (slavery) than for sexual purposes. And yet leaders of these so-called human rights groups have the audacity to all but flat-out deny the very existence of labor trafficking. To wit, founder of the misnamed Prostitution Education and Research organization, Melissa Farley, offers this analysis on page 176 of her book, Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress:

In order to defend prostitution as sex work, trafficking was articulated as gender-neutral, with labor trafficking and sex trafficking collapsed under the same rubric as ‘trafficking in persons.’ Otherwise it would be too evident that the ultimate harm of sex trafficking is the decidedly gendered condition in which the trafficking victim is transported into—prostitution.

So why does the media along with abolitionist feminists so consistently tie “trafficking” with sex trafficking, despite it being only one-tenth of trafficking crimes? I think, and this is disturbing, because it’s “sexy”; that is, it gets publishers like The Times page views, it offers politicians a politically expedient opportunity for grandstanding, and it gives pro-censorship crusaders like Farley a way to evade critical scrutiny. As Anaiis Flox argues:

How many of you people who are so up in arms about the exploited have marched with the Student/Farmworker Alliance? Boycotted Burger King when they refused to pay an extra penny for tomatoes so that consumers could ensure no debt peonage came at the expense of their burgers? How many know what the Coalition of Immokalee Workers does?

“No one really cares about Mexican dudes working in kitchens,” said sex educator and sex worker activist Audacia Ray in a recent interview with sexuality netcast Kink On Tap. She’s right. They don’t.

Indeed, these abolitionist feminists are so wrapped up in prohibiting prostitution that they are not only damaging the safety of sex workers but actively destroying law enforcement’s best tools to stop sex trafficking by driving the trade underground. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they are also diverting public attention and resources from the human rights abuses of 90 percent—90 percent!—of human trafficking crimes.

Danah Boyd, social media researcher and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society unequivocally condemned the anti-Craigslist crusaders:

If I believed that censoring Craigslist would achieve [justice], I’d be the first in line to watch them fall. But from the bottom of my soul and the depths of my intellect, I believe that the current efforts to censor Craigslist’s “adult services” achieves the absolute opposite. Rather than helping those who are abused, it fundamentally helps pimps, human traffickers and others who profit off of abusing others. […] Craigslist is not a pimp, but a public perch from which law enforcement can watch without being seen.

Visibility serves many important purposes in advocacy. Not only does it motivate people to act, but it also shines a spotlight on every person involved in the issue at hand. In the case of nonconsensual prostitution and human trafficking, this means that those who are engaged in these activities aren’t so deeply underground as to be invisible. They’re right there. And while they feel protected by the theoretical power of anonymity and the belief that no one can physically approach and arrest them, they’re leaving traces of all sorts that make them far easier to find than most underground criminals.

In other words, anti-prostitution activists leading the charge in attacking Craigslist are doing nothing other than scapegoating—they’re perpetrating evil. Their behavior falls squarely in the category of anti-justice.

Transparency—visibility—is the single strongest weapon against corruption. By implying that censorship is a required property for gender equality through their manipulation of public discourse about these nuanced but ultimately very simple issues, abolitionist feminists are contributing to the corruption they claim to be ending.

To quote Danah Boyd again:

Taking something that is visible and making it invisible makes a politician look good, even if it does absolutely nothing to help the victims who are harmed. It creates the illusion of safety, while signaling to pimps, traffickers, and other scumbags that their businesses are perfectly safe as long as they stay invisible.

No one is saying that a conversation about the merits or demerits of prostitution or about the much-needed efforts to stop trafficking crimes shouldn’t take place. But justice won’t be served by having one conversation instead of the two very different ones that need to be had here. And for all their specious assertions of being human rights advocates, it is the loudest anti-Craigslist voices who are turning off the proverbial lamps on our street corners and running into the shadows.

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