When I lived in the U.S. last year, I appeared on Al-Jazeera to criticize the U.S. government’s repeated attacks on Backpage.com—a classified ads site that also featured postings for erotic services. In January 2017, it shut down its adult section following years of intense government pressure, including a Sheriff threatening credit card companies providing services to Backpage and Congressional hearings. While opponents of the site erroneously argued that it facilitated child sex trafficking, internet freedom groups, several libertarian organizations and some anti-trafficking advocates united with sex workers to condemn the government’s bullying of Backpage.
Defenders of the site argued that the shutdown made sex workers less safe, created a chilling effect on free expression, and undermined anti-trafficking efforts by removing Backpage as a valuable resource for law enforcement. A working paper published last month by researchers at Baylor and West Virginia universities provides new evidence that classified ad sites like Backpage do indeed play a significant role in reducing violence against women—especially female sex workers.
The paper—authored by Scott Cunningham, Gregory DeAngelo, and John Tripp—focuses on Craigslist: a similar platform to Backpage that included an ‘Adult’ ads section in the U.S. from 2002 until 2010, when it was also shut down due to mounting pressure from the government. By analyzing female homicide rates over time in U.S. cities after Craigslist introduced an ‘Erotic Services’ (ERS) section and comparing them to cities without such a section at the time, the researchers were able to estimate the effect of an ERS section on women’s safety. They found that cities that got ERS saw their female homicide trend slide afterwards, averaging out to a rate 17.4% lower than control cities over the same period.
They argue that the introduction of an ERS section was effectively random from the perspective of Craigslist: in some places ERS was added long after Craigslist launched there and in others it was included at launch, it was unpublicised, and female violence was on similar trends in ERS and non-ERS cities before launch. Thus they judge that these drops are likely down to Craigslist and not other unobserved factors.
Why might this be the case? One explanation is that adult sections of sites like Craigslist and Backpage make it easier for sex workers to find clients online while working indoors, prompting a shift from more dangerous street-based sex work to indoor alternatives. Working indoors allows sex workers to screen their clients more thoroughly, and soliciting online “may have led to greater deterrence of client violence through the creation of a digital fingerprint that made detection of criminal offenses more likely”.
Another possibility is that Craigslist’s ERS section gave sex workers a viable alternative to working with potentially violent managers. The study provides evidence to support the claim that sex workers transitioned from agency work to independent work due to the introduction of a Craigslist ERS section:
Our second dataset utilizes reviews from The Erotic Review, which is a reputation website (similar to Yelp.com), and one of the largest prostitution websites in the United States (Cunningham and Kendall, 2016). Clients use The Erotic Review to share detailed reviews of prostitutes. We use these data to measure whether a prostitute worked for an agency or independently…In the first 10 months [after ERS section introduction], the probability a prostitute was independent rose 6.5 percent, which is 12 percent of the mean. This effect persisted in the long run, as evidenced by the positive and statistically significant 10+ month coefficient.
A potential challenge to the study’s headline figure (a 17.4% reduction in female homicides) is that it seems “to exceed the number of prostitute deaths by several orders of magnitude”. However, this could be due to a significant underestimate of the share of female homicides attributable to prostitution. The data in this area is extremely sparse. The paper references a 2006 study on a small number of cities that estimates “between the years 1981 and 2002, 2.7 percent of all female homicide victims in the United States were attributed to prostitution”. This is likely to be an extremely conservative estimate; the illegality of prostitution means that at the time of data collection, U.S. law enforcement are often unaware of whether female homicide victims were sex workers.
With a misguided online porn crackdown looming in the UK, there are legitimate worries that future governments will also adopt a more American approach to websites hosting adult ads. If that happens, at least this study has provided economic evidence to support what sex workers have been arguing for years—that online platforms like Craigslist and Backpage help make women safer.