Would Shutting Down Backpage Reduce Violence Against Women? (Guest Blog Post)

by guest blogger Alex Levy

Many activists assert that the proliferation of online platforms that facilitate commercial sex has led to increased rates of exploitation and violence against women. This belief has motivated a slew of wide-ranging attacks against websites on which sexual commerce occurs, including legislation (such as the recently-introduced SESTA), civil lawsuits, and sidelong strikes.

However, sex workers have long argued that access to online marketplaces improves their safety and reduces their vulnerability to abuse. A new study linking online commercial sex markets with decreased murder rates brings empirical support to this claim, suggesting that shuttering websites like Backpage might actually do more harm than good.

In their article, entitled “Craigslist’s Effect on Violence Against Women,” economists Scott Cunningham and Gregory DeAngelo and systems expert John Tripp explore correlations between the availability of online marketplaces for sexual commerce and violent crime rates. Their analysis strongly suggests that destabilizing commercial sex markets may significantly harm sex workers. In other words, efforts to reduce commercial sex by regulating intermediaries may actually increase violence commonly associated with commercial sex.

In order to explore the broader effects of online commercial sex markets, the authors looked at several events following the introduction of an “erotic services” (ERS) section to Craigslist in various cities.

First, they examined changes to numbers and characteristics of posts on The Erotic Review, a review website for sex workers. In the first 10 months after ERS was introduced in a given city, the number of reviews went up by an average of 41%, and the number of unique sex work providers reviewed increased by nearly 30%. The simplest interpretation would be that ERS prompted the commercial sex market to grow, though of course the number of reviews is not a perfect proxy for the total number of commercial sexual transactions (and causation, in any event, cannot be proved). Another change indicated by these reviews related to working conditions: after 10 months, far fewer sex workers were working through intermediaries such as pimps (12% more were operating on their own). This suggests that robust online marketplaces may reduce sex workers’ dependency on third parties, who can be violent. It may also indicate a drop in the proportion of sex trafficking victims, since human trafficking victims are almost always controlled by third parties (i.e. don’t operate independently). [asterisk: the one exception is that a minor may be a trafficking victim despite not being controlled by a pimp, since a buyer may be prosecuted as a trafficker. This is rare, at least as Federal prosecutions go.]

Next, the authors looked at cities’ female murder rates in the aftermath of the introduction of ERS. They found that ERS correlated with a roughly 17% decrease in female murders — a drop that was reflected in neither male murder rates nor in rates of females killed by acquaintances in the same period. Notably, the introduction of Craigslist without an ERS section did not predict a similar decline in murder rate. (The authors also examined rape offenses, and found a slight reduction of questionable statistical significance.) If this correlation is actually based on causation, this result suggests that the availability of ERS saved nearly 270 lives saved per year. The authors estimate that it would cost roughly $20 billion to achieve similar results through increased policing.

There are several possible explanations offered for these results. The presence of ERS may allow people who would otherwise engage in street-based sex work to move their operations to more secure locations. Online transactions create a “digital fingerprint” that decreases people’s likelihood of getting away with violent crimes. But ultimately, the greatest defense against abuse may simply be giving more options and greater security to sellers.

The article leaves important questions unanswered, among them whether the availability of ERS has any impact on sex trafficking. (As discussed above, the fact that a greater proportion of sex workers work autonomously when ERS is available may point to a decline in sex trafficking, but this is speculative.) Despite its limitations, the study should be an important wake-up call to legislators who broadly assume — without evidence — that online platforms make the world a more dangerous place. This study suggests that policies like SESTA could unintentionally cause great harm. At the very least, legislators need to take a closer look. Thousands of women’s lives may be at stake.