I distinctly remember a time, a few years ago in 2007, when craigslist became a point of focus at meetings and events throughout the anti-trafficking movement. Sitting in conferences or at task force meetings, it became a frequent occurrence for a presenter from law enforcement or the victims services field to talk about how victims of human trafficking were increasingly being advertised in the Erotic Services section of the website. I also heard this directly from the victims of human trafficking that Polaris Project was serving at the time. I sat with our clients as they described the step-by-step process of how their traffickers took advantage of the free advertising being offered on craigslist. Some advocates in the anti-trafficking movement even went as far to say that the Erotic Services section of craigslist was used by traffickers as their go-to “marketing wing.”
One day that year, I spent some time clicking through craigslist to see how bad things had become. What I did not realize was how many individual cities had their own craigslist site, and how each city’s site had its own Erotic Services section. At the time, after clicking through each state and then drilling down to the individual city pages, I counted around 350 distinct Erotic Services sections.
In Washington, DC at the time, we were seeing around 500 ads a day in the Erotic Services section. But how many ads were there on a single day nationwide?
With some dedicated time and focus, it’s not very difficult to pick a given day, click through all individual Erotic Services postings for that day, and tally up the ads for every craigslist city. In fact, that is exactly what we did one day at Polaris Project in spring 2007. We randomly selected the date of February 7, 2007. On that day we counted 16,174 individual Erotic Services ads. That’s quite a significant amount, and many of us at Polaris were shocked to see the total.
In 2009, we picked back up the task and decided to count the nationwide ads every few months or so. The section has since been renamed “Adult Services” instead of “Erotic Services,” but little has changed in the basic purpose of the postings under the revised name. A few of our counts from 2009 are below.
These are some serious numbers, and they stay fairly consistent. Some people will say that there may be some repeat ads for individuals who post multiple times per day. Granted – this may account for some duplication. But even if we assumed a conservative average of 10,000 unique Adult Services ads per day nationwide, that’s around 3,650,000 ads in a single year! This then brings us to the topic of “cost per ad.” It is notable that since we started doing these counts in 2007, craigslist now charges a fee for each ad in the Adult Services section. If you click on “POST” in the “Services” category of any craigslist site, it will direct you to a page to “choose the category” of your posting out of a total of twenty. All of them are free to post except for Therapeutic Services and Adult Services. For each of these categories, there is a parenthetical disclaimer that says “($10 per ad, $5 to repost. Ads reviewed daily 9am-9pm PT. No edits.)”
So, it’s $10 dollars per ad for the conservatively estimated 3,650,000 Adult Services ads per year nationwide on craigslist. I hope you do the math.
In conclusion, I think it is important to recognize the sheer volume of these ads. 10,000 ads per day is a lot. Plus, craigslist is not the only website where ads like these are prevalent. There is also Eros, Backpage, Sip Sap, and others.
Is every single person in every single ad a victim of human trafficking? I am not making that claim. However, based on our direct experiences serving trafficking victims and working with partner organizations in the field, we have learned how human traffickers are infiltrating these types of Erotic and Adult Services sections in large volumes. Many of the women’s faces in these ads are the very faces of human trafficking victims that exist in our midst in the United States. It is clear that traffickers are still using sites like craigslist as their go-to advertising source.