In response to requests by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and four provinces, fuelled by lobbying by groups opposed to prostitution and human trafficking, Craigslist recently removed the “Erotic Services” section of its Canadian websites. The action mirrors Craigslist’s removal of “Adult Services” from its U.S. websites following an open letter by 17 state attorneys-general lamenting its support for the “scourge of illegal prostitution.”
While illegal in most of the U.S., prostitution is legal in Canada. Communicating for the purpose of prostitution only constitutes an offence when it happens in a “public place,” such as the street or a park, not a newspaper or website.
Some Canadian politicians were concerned Craigslist “could facilitate” crimes involving child exploitation and human trafficking. Charges should be and are laid in Canada against persons who advertise for, and profit from, such exploitation. But persons can only be charged with aiding or abetting if they encourage anyone to commit an offence or do, or omit to do, anything for the purpose of aiding another to commit a crime. There is no evidence that Craigslist has such a purpose. In fact, Craigslist has a strong record of co-operating with police by providing electronic information used to track down suspected abusers.
Shutting down “Erotic Services” is counterproductive and in bad faith. Following the section’s removal, traffic to other less-monitored websites advertising sex services spiked. This scattering effect hinders investigation and prosecution of actual cases of exploitation.
Governmental intimidation of Craigslist is a heavy-handed move that will likely result in increased violence against sex workers. The Ontario Superior Court recently struck down as unconstitutional several prostitution laws, including the communication provision, on the basis that they “materially contribute to the decreased personal security” of sex workers. Online advertising is crucial to sex-worker safety because it allows for effective client screening. Many sex workers require new clients to provide referrals from existing clients, references from other sex workers, and confirmation of identity.
The anti-Craigslist campaign is part of a backlash against progressive developments toward decriminalization of prostitution-related activities. Concerns about exploitation mask the larger goal of eradicating sex work per se. In casting all sex workers as coerced women and children, the anti-prostitution lobby homogenizes a diverse industry that includes consenting adult men, women and transgendered persons.
Targeting Craigslist perpetuates a strategic narrative of saving and punishing, where vulnerable women and children are saved and parasitic pimps, johns and traffickers are punished. The impulse to punish and save lies at the heart of Western theological and colonial traditions. Viewed in this light, the conservative approach to sex work is part of a civilizing mission that reduces participants to either saved or fallen, victim or perpetrator.
This simplification denies the complexity and prevalence of transactional sex. It thereby restricts the range of social and political responses to the root causes of real vulnerabilities. Alternatively, improved immigration policies and support services for trafficked persons, empowerment of first nations communities, increased funding for drug addiction and mental-health services, and implementation of a national childcare plan are measures likely to decrease sex industry-related exploitation.
We should all be concerned when government uses its power to pressure private corporations to excessively limit legal forms of expression.
Lisa Kelly, a Trudeau scholar, and Heidi Matthews are doctoral candidates at Harvard Law School.
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