When Chelsea Reynolds was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, she and her friends would read Craigslist personal ads together, specifically the casual encounters section. They’d scroll through explicit posts submitted by anonymous users, many of whom were displaying grainy nude photos and soliciting no-strings-attached sex.
That incognito world, complete with its own erotic lingo (“str8,” “BBW,” “dom,” “BB,” etc.), has given Reynolds a virtual window into the intimate lives of strangers.
“Most of my friends are queer,” said Reynolds, who also identifies as queer. “We were amazed at how many straight-identifying men and women were seeking same-sex hookups on the site’s sex forums.”
This phenomenon inspired Reynolds to conduct an analysis of hundreds of Craigslist personal ads. While completing her master’s degree, she published a 2015 academic article titled “I Am Super Straight and I Prefer You Be Too.” Reynolds studied media coverage of Craigslist casual encounters ads for her 2017 doctoral dissertation, and found several patterns: About 50 percent of the news stories focused on sex crimes or sex work, and an additional 20 percent covered law-enforcement efforts related to the site’s personal ads.
The overwhelmingly negative coverage did not seem to jibe with what she had discovered in her review of hundreds of Craigslist personal ads, posted from 2005 to 2016 in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. “My research shows that most Craigslist sex forum users were normal people seeking to explore their sexual desires with strangers online,” she said. Reynolds defined the majority of these users as “sexual outsiders” — “LGBTQ people, non-monogamous people, and kink and fetish communities who aren’t a leading target market for the milquetoast dating sites.” She also emphasized that “statistically very few” of Craigslist’s users are victims of sex trafficking.
Even so, news stories of murders, rape and, most recently, fathers trying to sell their children for sex have only increased the sketchy reputation of the site’s personal ads. “For the last decade, the press has labeled Craigslist as a hotbed for prostitution, using the website as a scapegoat for the U.S. sex-trafficking trade,” Reynolds said. “Whether intentionally or not, mainstream journalists catalyzed a moral crusade.”
That “crusade” culminated this past Friday in Craigslist’s deletion of all of its personal ads, save for missed connections. This comes in response to a controversial new bill — a fusion of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) that the Senate voted 97-2 to pass last week. President Trump is expected to sign the bill when it reaches his desk. The bill will amend the “Good Samaritan” clause in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from liability of content posted by its users. Without it, it’s likely that the social-networking-driven nature of the Internet as we know it today would not exist.
This is not the first time Craigslist listings have come under scrutiny in relation to sex trafficking. In 2010, the site shut down its section for erotic services after it faced pressure from state attorneys general — a move that may have endangered sex workers.
There is little precedent, however, for the knee-jerk removal of the personals section last week — what to many of the site’s LGBT users might have felt like waking up to discover Tinder had simply vanished off their phones overnight.
The SESTA-FOSTA bill diffusely raises concerns for consensual sex workers. This legislation purports to stem the rising tide of online sex trafficking, even as groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union claim it will, in fact, “harm the very people it is intended to protect.” And free-speech advocates view the amendment to Section 230 as an “unambiguous chilling of free speech,” according to the Center for Democracy & Technology.
But for the majority of LGBT people who have used Craigslist for decades, the deletion of the personals section amounts to the shuttering of yet another queer space — one that provided a free and accessible cyber haven for many wishing to explore their sexuality and gender.
“People would look at the ads and be shocked by how sexual they were,” said syndicated advice columnist Dan Savage, who also hosts a popular podcast, “Savage Love.” “It facilitated human connections that were not always exploitative or dehumanizing — I know people who are in 10- and 15-year relationships that began on Craigslist, that began with a hookup.”
When I asked Savage what impact losing services such as Craigslist personal ads could have on the queer community at large, he paused and said, “It’s just hard to put into words.”
For a generation that came of age with the Internet, Craigslist and its contemporaries were queer spaces where people could “tiptoe out of the closet” without having to risk outing themselves, Savage said. “Apps and Craigslist turned everyone’s apartments, if they wished, into a bathhouse — cruising moved online.”
Craigslist was, of course, not the first such “bathhouse of the Internet,” as Salon so dubbed AOL in 1999. PlanetOut co-founder Tom Rielly told Salon then that “people thought a third of all their rooms were gay.” And at the time, AOL had some 16,000 chat rooms — one reason so many users nicknamed it “GayOL.” Before online chat and gay-specific social networks (such as Gay.com and Manhunt.net), in the 1980s there were Usenet newsgroups (the earliest known example was called “soc.motss,” short for “members of the same sex”).
And even before the Internet began connecting LGBT people in novel ways, personal ads had played a significant but little-known role in the history of queer romance: Personal ads allowed same-sex couples to meet covertly while avoiding criminal punishments that could, in some cases, end in death. Gay ads would appear in printed newspapers and magazines from the 18th century onward, one notable example being Gai Pied, once the most widely read gay magazine in France — founded by journalist Jean Le Bitoux and named by philosopher Michel Foucault. Gai Pied published personal ads from 1979 until 1991.
In his 2009 book “Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column,” Harry Cocks, a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, showed how personals ads in the 20th century were a precursor to today’s mobile dating apps. And much in the same way as queer people once posted print personal ads out of sheer necessity, the LGBT community was also an early adopter of online dating. Queer people used a variety of such websites at a time when there was a strong stigma associated with finding romantic partners on the Internet. Today the majority of same-sex couples meet online.
But Savage is concerned that this new legislation could “imperil the way we date now,” especially when the SESTA-FOSTA bill hasn’t even been signed into law and already seems to confirm the fears of many who opposed it. He deems the bill a “classic shoot-yourself-in-the-foot sex panic.”
“What’s going to happen when sex workers move to OkCupid or Christian Mingle or FarmersOnly?” he asked. “Anybody can go anywhere on the Internet and put up a personal ad on a million different apps and sites. And so, are they all going to shut down? Is this the end of Internet personals?”
The fact that Craigslist personals are dying at time when the American public is becoming less tolerant of LGBT people worries Brandon Robinson, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of gender and sexuality at the University of California at Riverside. Robinson, who uses gender-neutral “they” pronouns, has studied how queer people’s lives are often shaped by the Internet. “There are still very real consequences — such as loss of family ties and employment discrimination — toward people with same-sex desires and attractions, especially if these desires and attractions are known,” Robinson told me.
While there are a wide variety of LGBT-focused dating apps, Robinson said it was the open-to-anyone-with-an-email-address accessibility and total anonymity of Craigslist that made it so appealing — and distinct.
“Anonymous networking tools are still important for a variety of different people who want to explore and/or enact their same-sex desires, as these desires are still stigmatized,” they told me, adding that despite the blemishes, Internet personals do have many positives such as helping queer people “find each other or just not feel alone in the world.”
Robinson and the other people I interviewed for this article fear that the most marginalized queer people — such as sex workers and those in more rural areas — will be most harmed and isolated by the deletion of Craigslist personals. Robinson also believes these Craigslist users will be the least inclined to try the more mainstream dating apps, most of which require users to use their first names and connect to their social media accounts.
Reynolds underscored these concerns. “There will always be a market for trafficked girls, and closing Craigslist’s sex forums will only make it more difficult for law enforcement officials to observe, identify and apprehend sex criminals operating in the U.S.,” she said. “Craigslist is an essential resource for the queer community, and it seems that lawful Craigslist users are being punished for traffickers’ crimes.”