David R. Henderson  

Craigslist Reduced Female Homicide Rate by Over One Sixth

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The Best of Econlib: 2017 (con... Crime and civil liberties...
Female prostitution is both illegal in most American cities and extremely dangerous, as prostitutes face risks of violence from the environment and clients. Previous studies suggest that prostitution has the highest homicide rate of any female intensive occupation in the United States by several orders of magnitude. Policies that can efficiently minimize these hazards are therefore of prima facie importance. Between 2002 and 2010, Craigslist provided an "erotic services" section on its front page which was used almost exclusively by prostitutes to advertise illegal sex services. The company opened this service in different cities at different points in time. We use a differences-in-differences strategy to identify its causal effect on female safety and find that Craigslist erotic services reduced the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent. We also find modest evidence that erotic services reduced female rape offenses. Our analysis suggests that this reduction in female violence was the result of street prostitutes moving indoors and matching more efficiently with safer clients.
This is from Scott Cunningham, Gregory DeAngelo, and John Tripp, "Craigslist's Effect on Violence Against Women," November 2017.

What's their argument? That Craigslist allowed women to learn more about potential clients.

One thing I hadn't known:

Potterat et al. (2004) estimate that the workplace homicide rate for female prostitutes is 204 per 100,000.

That's huge. According to Aaron Wildavsky and Adam Wildavsky, "Risk and Safety," in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, it's almost double the annual number of fatalities per 100,000 for lumberjacks, which is 118. When I worked in an underground nickel mine in 1969, some of the miners, who were looking out for me, told me never to become a lumberjack.

So what did our wonderful governments do, because they "care" so much about prostitutes? Any guesses? Bueller, Bueller?

Here's what.

By the way, I learned about the Cunningham et al paper from this outstanding, and comprehensive, article, "The Best Sex Work Writing of 2017," by Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime




COMMENTS (16 to date)
Mark writes:

The internet (well, craigslist, backpage, etc.) certainly must've made customer screening much easier and reduced security costs (i.e., pimps). It's hard to see a downside to it, unless one regards prostitution as violence in and of itself (as many legislators do) and thinks reducing prostitution is worth a few (hundred, or thousand?) more homicides a year.

I would say that the government's actions against sites like backpage and craigslist and the support such actions enjoy in congress is more evidence that, if anything, bipartisan support for a policy just means the policy is likely twice as dumb as if only one side supported it.

MikeP writes:

It's hard to see a downside to it...

...unless you're a politician. In which case the downside is that, in not prohibiting morally questionable behavior, you fear you appear to be condoning it.

Joe writes:

Often I get the distinct feeling that people become very uncomfortable not with prostitutes existing, but prostitutes becoming visible, or worse, becoming visibly successful.

It's this weird official vs unofficial dynamic. We can unofficially have a lot of prostitution, but the minute it becomes obvious to people who don't usually look for it (in this case via craig's list) people want to make it invisible to themselves again, even if they seem uninterested in doing things that would actually reduce prostitution (not that I think it should be stopped).

No surprise that prostitution is only legal in far flung invisible areas in Nevada.

Appearance > reality.

I think if Craigslist had been a bit smarter about its UI in the way tumblr is, they could have avoided becoming a victim of the police. I.E make adult services difficult enough to navigate to that the the vast majority users don't even know it exists. It only takes a few extra clicks to accomplish this I think.

Kevin G writes:

Prostitution is illegal - why? Because paying for sex is sinful to both the left and the right, for different reasons.

For the left: It disrespects women by treating them and their bodies as objects to be bought and sold on the market.

For the right: It disrespects the institution of marriage & monogamy in general, it is against god's will, and/or it harms civilization itself.

Thus, the answer to "it's really dangerous" isn't "make it less illegal", it's "make it more illegal and prosecute even more those who partake in it."

And so, the only thing most people will remember from this story is that lots of women are dying in the prostitution business - and thus, we need to spend more money to crackdown on it.

TA writes:

I'm sure it's dangerous (relatively), but I don't know about the numbers.

You are quoting 2 per 1000. By some estimates there are a million prostitutes in the US. That suggest 2000 homicides of prostitutes.. CDC numbers are 3000 female homicides total.

Don't think this reconciles.

Jon Murphy writes:

@TA

We can reconcile the data in your comment in two ways:

1) Prostitution is extremely dangerous for women, representing approximately 2/3 of female homicide (the literal interpretation).

2) Different definitions and calculations involved in arriving at those numbers. We'd have to compare the Potterat et al 2004 methodology with the CDC's.

Hans writes:

Just another example why prohibition
always fails.

j writes:

I wonder why this most obvious thing was ever doubted. Mario Vargas Llosa's funny novel "Pantaleón y Las Visitadoras" describes the adventures of an officer of the Peruvian Army charged with providing prostitutes to the soldiers stationed in the remote Amazon frontier. Pantaleon succeeded in reducing violations to zero. Every army knows this and therefore provides entertainment to its troops. Even the USA in Vietnam used to know that but lately you Americans lost touch with reality and need "science" to re-learn the most basic human issues.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Jon Murphy- I think you're neglecting a more obvious explanation-that 1 million is a vast overestimate of the number of prostitutes. Of the three numbers involved in this calculation, it is the only one for which no citation was given by TA. Only "by some estimates"

David R Henderson writes:

@Andrew_FL and Jon Murphy,
Jon Murphy- I think you're neglecting a more obvious explanation-that 1 million is a vast overestimate of the number of prostitutes. Of the three numbers involved in this calculation, it is the only one for which no citation was given by TA. Only "by some estimates"
That’s the number I’m most skeptical of. According to some very dated information in Wikipedia, the number of prostitutes per 100,000 population in 1990 was 23. With 320,000,000 people in the United States, that would the total number today about 72,000. That seems a little too low. That same entry in Wikipedia gives a 2012 estimate of 1 million. My guess is that the right number is closer to 72,000 than to 1 million.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Prof. Henderson:

That 23 per 100,000 number is also cited in the study (Potterat et al, 1990).

The 1 million figure comes from Foundation Scelles.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jon Murphy,
Thanks.

jc writes:

@MikeP said:

"...unless you're a politician. In which case the downside is that, in not prohibiting morally questionable behavior, you fear you appear to be condoning it."
Today, there's an upside too.

Ask Kamala Harris what persecuting/prosecuting Craigslist can do for one's career (actually, the CEO and owners of Backpage, since that business had migrated there by that point).

And if they're exonerated on charges related to pimping and/or sex/human trafficking? Prosecute them for money laundering.

It's the gift that keeps giving. You could even become POTUS someday...

Bill writes:

The illegality of prostitution mostly functions as political signaling for government officials to their constituents, to wit: "No decent society permits people to pay for sex."

But paying money for consensual sex is perfectly permissible when it is coupled with other benign, lawful activities:

Paying for sex = prostitution = illegal. See e.g. Va. Code § 18.2-346
Paying for sex + video recording = pornographic filmmaking = legal
Paying for sex, but non contemporaneous exchange of value = typical date night in America = legal

If the harm you're really trying to avoid is the risk of coercion to a vulnerable party when sex is bought with money, criminal and tort law already provide separate remedy. See statute and common law prohibiting rape, sexual battery, sexual assault, indecent liberties with a child.

Phil writes:

TA wrote:

By some estimates there are a million prostitutes in the US. That suggest 2000 homicides of prostitutes.. CDC numbers are 3000 female homicides total. Don't think this reconciles.

You are assuming all prostitutes are female.

Jay writes:

I agree with @Andrew_FL, I think 1,000,000 isn't even a reasonable estimate by multiple orders of magnitude. That's 1 per 160 males in the US....no way.

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