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Craigslist Shutdown of Adult Services: It’s About Human Rights

By Malika Saada Saar

Yesterday, a spokesperson from craigslist testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on domestic trafficking. Craigslist shut down its lucrative adult services section, placing a huge banner reading “censored” on what was considered by anti-trafficking organizations as the go-to site for child prostitution and sex trafficking. This action should be hailed as a step towards protecting children but instead the conversation about the site’s shutdown has been about the first amendment and “hookers”. What is getting lost is who these girls being bought off craigslist really are.

Sadly, these girls are among the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children who are sold for sex by pimp-captors every year in the United States, according to the Department of Justice. And, astonishingly, the average age of a prostituted girl in the US is 12-14 years.

Suspend disbelief for just a moment while you imagine your seventh grade child, niece or sister, sold for sex. If you live in a city, imagine that happening within one square mile from where you are right now. New York, Ohio, Georgia, Oregon and California have among the highest rates of trafficked teens.

Young girls are the new commodities that traffickers and gangs are selling. As incomprehensible as it seems, today trafficking in girls brings in more profits and spells less prison time than dealing crack. The U.S. government annually spends 300 times more money to fight drug trafficking than it does to fight human trafficking. The criminal penalties for trafficking cocaine, for example, are 20 times greater than the criminal penalties levied against those who buy and sell girls.

The girls, many of whom have run away from abusive family situations or foster care placements, are lured, tricked, or coerced by pimps, who often promise them love and safety. And sometimes, these are girls who are just snatched off the streets by the pimps, leaving heart-broken parents to search through the Internet and walk the “tracks” to find their daughters. Like sexually exploited and trafficked girls in Thailand or India, prostituted girls in the U.S. are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and even tattooed like cattle by their pimps.

Which gets us back to craigslist. If you want to know the greatest connector of those children to, by some estimates, thousands of “johns” in America, look no further than the best-known online trading post: craigslist. While most people use the site to buy and sell stuff-- cars, clothes and musical instruments-- the most active areas of the site were used to buy sex, often with very young girls. Law enforcement across the U.S. identified craigslist as the number one platform for the buying and selling of sex with children and young women.

According to a brief filed by Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart in his legal action against craigslist, an FBI investigation found that more than 2,800 child prostitution ads were posted on craigslist in 2008 alone.

That’s why it was so critical to take down what became the “Walmart” of child prostitution and sex trafficking on line. It is now less convenient, easy, and normative to sell girls on line.

We can obfuscate the dirty little secret in America that girls are being sold for sex on a legitimate website like craigslist, and on streets. We can make ourselves feel comfortable by talking about the girls who are prostituted in India and Thailand as victims of sex trafficking, but cast aside the girls sold off of craigslist as “hookers” or just bad girls. We can neatly gloss over the ugly business of commercial sexual exploitation that disfigures the lives of poor and undereducated girls, who are usually Black or Brown, as just being about escort services, or the choice work of some sexually free-thinking graduate students. And we can talk about the first amendment rather than the human rights issue of American children being bought and sold for sex.

Or, we can start asking the very difficult question of why in 21st century America, any girl is for sale?


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Malika Saada-Saar was one of the featured speakers at the Women and Power: Our Time to Lead Conference held at Omega Institute, September 24-26, 2010.

To order audio CDs from this event or to purchase recordings from past Women & Power conferences, please order online at www.eomega.org/omega/mediaworks, call 845.266.4444, ext. 317 or email [email protected].

Feminist.com's Archive of Features from the
Women & Power: Our Time to Lead Conference

Malika Saada Saar, MEd, JD, is the founder and executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national legal and policy organization that advocates for justice, dignity, and reform for vulnerable families. The Rebecca Project has worked to reform policies and practices to raise children in healthy, safe, and strong communities, and to render vulnerable mothers and their children—and all families—free from sexual and physical violence, trauma, and addiction.

The Rebecca Project for Human Rights’ achievements have been recognized by the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for Changing World Award. Saada Saar and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights were also selected by Redbook magazine for the Mothers and Shakers Award.

Saada Saar is also the founder of Crossing the River, a written and spoken word workshop for mothers in recovery from substance abuse and violence, and founder and former executive director of Family Rights and Dignity, a civil rights project for low income and homeless families in California. She also served on the Obama presidential campaign’s women policy committee.

Saada Saar and the Rebecca Project have been featured in Politico, Essence magazine, the Washington Post,, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Redbook, and on the Tavis Smiley Show and Good Morning America. Saada Saar is also a contributor to Politico, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast.

For more information visit www.rebeccaproject.org.

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