The go-to portal for online classified ads and local discussion boards, Craigslist has been criticized for years for selling ad space to sex-peddlers and prostitution rings. Law enforcement officials and watchdog groups say that the site is frequently used by human sex traffickers and pimps to find clients for women and children who have been coerced into the sex industry.
On Sept. 4, Craigslist removed its Adult Services section in response to a letter from attorneys general in 17 states urging the website to crack down on prostitution ads.
But it doesn't look like the sex traffickers had to move far. Other sections of the Craigslist site are still overrun with ads for "sensual massage parlors" - many of which have been identified as brothels by law enforcement officials or sex industry websites.
In the Therapeutic Services section of the Washington, D.C. site, hundreds of ads boasting titles like "Sweet Beautiful Asian masseuses" and featuring photos of attractive, scantily-attired women have been posted since Sept. 4.
Some of these businesses are being monitored by law enforcement officials for engaging in prostitution, such as the Rt. 1 Therapy massage parlor in Woodbridge, Va. The massage business was raided by police on Aug. 13 in regards to an ongoing prostitution investigation and the owners were charged with "keeping a bawdy place." Less than a month later, and just two days after Craigslist removed the Adult Services section, Rt. 1 Therapy was still posting ads in the site's Therapeutic Services section, touting its "Talented and Delightful Asian Staff."
Jade Tree Therapy, another Woodbridge, Va.-based massage parlor that has been investigated for prostitution, posted a Craigslist ad on Sept. 7 offering a military discount for service members. And Jasmine Therapy, located in Washington, D.C., has also been pinpointed by police as a brothel and continues to post ads in the Therapeutic Services section.
Dozens of other massage parlors advertising on Craigslist, like Papaya Therapy in Falls Church, Va., Pine Tree Spa in Fairfax, Va., and Peach Therapy in Annandale, Va., have placed other ads on or been reviewed on sex escort websites like "LocalEscortPages.com" and "USASexGuide.com."
According to the Polaris Project, an organization that aids victims of forced prostitution, U.S. massage parlors are common fronts for the foreign sex trafficking industry.
"Sex trafficking cases of foreign national women and children brought into the U.S. are known to occur in a wide variety of locations in the commercial sex industry, such as massage parlors," the Polaris Project reported.
And the organization noted that Craigslist ads have long been linked to sex trafficking. "Polaris Project has directly witnessed a rampant misuse of [C]raigslist by pimps and traffickers," said the group. "Many of the victims that we have served can point to the [C]raigslist posting that a trafficker once used to market their bodies against their will."
In an open letter to Craigslist owner Craig Newmark that was printed as an advertisement in the Washington Post in August, two anonymous women who said they were coerced into the prostitution industry at a young age, pleaded with the website to crack down on the sex ads.
"All day, me and other girls sat with our laptops, pasting pictures and answering ads on Craigslist, he made $1,500 a night selling my body, dragging me to Los Angeles, Houston, Little Rock - and on one trip to Las Vegas in the trunk of a car," wrote a woman named MC, who said she was forced into prostitution at 11 years old.
The second woman, identified as AK, wrote that her pimp "put my picture on Craigslist, and I was sold for sex by the hour at truck stops and cheap motels, 10 hours with 10 different men every night. This became my life...Men answered the Craigslist advertisements and paid to rape me. The $30,000 he pocketed each month was facilitated by Craigslist 300 times."
Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has shrugged off criticism of the sex industry ads on his site for years, saying they were protected under "freedom of speech." The Adult Services section was reportedly a major money-maker for the website, bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year.
However, the pressure on Craigslist to remove the prostitution ads reached a fever-pitch in mid-August, after a medical student accused of murdering a woman he met on the erotic services section of Craigslist committed suicide in prison.
The open letter from the former forced-prostitutes in the Washington Post also prompted a public outcry against the website. Craigslist finally responded by taking down the Adult Services section and putting a "Censored" bar in its place. Some have said the word "Censored" was used by Craigslist to make a political statement about the alleged infringement on its free speech rights.
And while politicians have praised Craigslist for removing the problematic section, some acknowledge that there is still more work to be done before the site is prostitution-free. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said on Aug. 7 that the termination of the Adult Services section is an "important step" in combating online sex trafficking, but it is "not the end game."
Craigslist isn't the only mainstream website that has been used to advertise prostitution. YouTube has also been criticized for allowing video ads for escort services on its site, according to "BlueTube," a 2009 Special Report by the Culture and Media Institute.