One day my message was intended to be sweet and normal; I suggested starting with drinks and fun conversation to see if we had chemistry, then going back to my place to cuddle on the couch with a movie and see where that led. Another day, I described it as a rebound. In yet another, I explicitly detailed sexual activities and used very aggressive language.
Ultimately, only the "sweet and normal" was successful, even though very few posts by women had that same tone more on that later. I received about a half-dozen responses each day. Most were scams, some were men, some were prostitutes, and just one was legit. All the responses I got from real people on my first day weren't from women — they were from men.
I made it very clear in my post that I was only interested in women, but a large number of men chose to ignore that. They all offered oral sex. I responded to them politely, saying, "Just interested in women, but thanks for the offer! Have a good one. I began to suspect that no women actually used the site.
The stereotype is that women are interested in relationships, and that only men would be interested in totally casual sex, right? We know that's not true, though. In fact, I was inspired to write this article when a friend told me many of her female friends had owned up to using it. Over the next couple of days, I actually received a lot of posts from women. Or at least, they said they were women. To be honest, I doubted the veracity of the claims. It didn't take long to realize that almost all the replies I received were scams.
The situation is so severe on Craigslist Casual Encounters that posts by real women who are actually seeking hook-ups are often flagged for removal at the slightest cause for suspicion. The most common scams are "safe dating" websites.
An alleged woman will write a man saying she's interested, but that because of the Craigslist-based serial killers and rapists in the news, she needs some extra assurance that it's safe. If you follow the link she provides, the website asks you for your credit card number — y'know, so it can do a background check to make sure you're not a criminal. One individual tried to get me to buy him or her virtual currency in online games like MapleStory before agreeing to hand over contact information.
Yeah, right — moving on! What little luck I'd had so far. The week was half over and I hadn't had a single bite. I decided I would have to take the initiative, so in addition to posting my own ads, I started responding to every ad from any woman who seemed at all interesting. I cast a wide net in my searches, looking up posts by straight or bisexual women between the ages of 18 and 35 who lived anywhere in Chicagoland — a large metropolitan area that's home to close to five million females.
Most of the women wanted something very specific they couldn't find in their normal lives: Someone to help play out a particular fantasy, someone vastly older than them or someone of another race. Very few of the women who were advertising seemed to be looking for anything I would consider a "normal encounter. I typically wrote two or three paragraph replies and matched the tone of their own messages, then attached a couple of tasteful photos of myself.
I didn't get a single reply from an actual prospect this way. It turned out that most of the ads were fakes from scammers, and quite a few fell into another category all together. Prostitution is what made Craigslist controversial. There's technically another section for that — "Adult Services," formerly "Erotic Services" — but that's not the only place you'll find practitioners of the world's oldest profession.
The prostitutes of Craigslist speak in code, but it's not a difficult one to learn. They advertise "French lessons" — an odd thing to advertise under "Casual Encounters," don't you think?
Well, it's obviously a euphemism for something else. Many of the ads that weren't from scammers were from prostitutes. The ads are so obvious that it's surprising the euphemisms are effective in fending off law enforcement. Then again, maybe they are law enforcement. Amidst all those failures, I had one near-success. A woman wrote in response to my sweet "cuddling first" ad saying she was in town for only a couple of months, and that she was frustrated she couldn't find a relationship.
When she sent her pictures, she looked plain but attractive. We exchanged a couple of e-mails over the course of two hours, tossing back and forth lists of interests and the like. She made it clear that she wanted to meet up, and while she talked about starting slow, it was clear that it would indeed be a casual encounter. But when I suggested a time to meet — the last message from me before I would reveal myself and back out — there was no reply.
At least, not yet. The next day, she e-mailed me saying she was deeply apologetic and that she'd fallen asleep. She said she'd like to meet up sometime.
So yes, there are women on Craigslist. Well, at least one! You've probably guessed by now that the experiences for heterosexual men and women on Craigslist's casual encounters are quite different. I observed that for every ad a woman posts, there are at least 20 from men.
If nothing else, that imbalance ought to alter the experience. Think about the tools you use for work, and then imagine a legal change on the other side of the world could take them out of your hands. Sex workers fear that could happen in Australia if a contentious US bill becomes law.
It's aimed at making websites liable if they're used to facilitate "sex trafficking". Like every profession, sex work is increasingly online, which means it often occurs on American web platforms. Critics say the bill , which has now been sent for President Donald Trump's signature, could upend that by making it risky for American websites to host any sex work-related content even though such work is permitted in many Australian states.
Its supporters argue it will combat illegal sex trafficking, but groups that serve trafficking survivors like The Freedom Network as well as the US Department of Justice say it could push bad actors offline and make them harder to prosecute.
The impact is already being felt. In March, Reddit told users it was banning the solicitation or facilitation of "paid services involving physical sexual contact" and reportedly got rid of a number of subreddits where sex work was discussed. Australian sex workers are becoming even more cyber-savvy in response, building their own networks and encrypting emails. The sex work community uses American internet platforms to advertise, talk to clients and share safety information.
Estelle Lucas, an Australian sex worker and activist, said she uses sites like Twitter, Instagram and Gmail. These tools allow her to screen customers, as well as choose when to work and in what circumstances.
Lola Hunt, a sex worker and technologist based in Melbourne, communicates on "every social platform from Twitter to Whatsapp". They are absolutely essential," she wrote in an email. Still, the impact of the bill in Australia is still largely unknown — particularly, a lack of clarity about how it will be enforced. File-sharing site Google Drive and video chat service Skype already ban sexually explicit or nude content, and there are concerns such rules could expand or become more strongly policed if the bill becomes law.
John Scott, a law professor at the Queensland University of Technology, said there are unlikely to be immediate, significant impacts within Australia, but he's concerned the US law could hurt the industry's ability to self-regulate. Jules Kim, CEO of the Scarlet Alliance, which represents Australian sex workers, said these digital platforms are a practical tool of negotiation, as well as a tool for safety.
For those workers that are familiar with the internet, work-arounds will be inconvenient but not impossible. However, Ms Lucas said she was concerned for more vulnerable sex workers who might have less time and resources to invest in their online safety. It's not simply that client communication may be inaccessible; there are also online forums, group messages and email lists where health and safety information about bad clients is shared.
Ultimately, Ms Lucas warned the laws might not only impact sites that are explicitly focused on sex work. To prepare for the bill's potential impact, advocacy groups like SWOP NSW and the Scarlet Alliance have held information sessions, teaching locals about encryption and even cryptocurrency. On classifieds sites like Backpage, Mr Cox pointed out, you couldn't use most major credit cards to buy advertising, but new technologies like bitcoin were a solution.
An online community of sex workers is also helping to ensure everyone's technology knowledge is up-to-date. Sex workers are also turning to encrypted email services like ProtonMail, but another option is to control the platform outright.
Ms Hunt is part of a group of developers called Assembly Four. They have begun work on a new social platform called Switter, which is purpose-built for sex workers.
When approached for comment, Google pointed to a statement from its trade organisation, the Internet Association, which said it was committed to ending trafficking online. If you have inside knowledge of a topic in the news, contact the ABC. ABC teams share the story behind the story and insights into the making of digital, TV and radio content..
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