Blaming the internet, part 57842

In a case that’s been grabbing headlines all over the Northeast, 22 year-old Philip Markoff, a Boston medical student, has been arrested for the murder of Julissa Brisman, an “erotic masseuse” he met through an ad on Craigslist.  Though it’s speculated that Markoff, reportedly a compulsive gambler, was motivated by robbery, this article in the Boston Globe suggests that Craigslist itself is to blame.

In recent years, the online giant has forged close relationships with police agencies cracking down on illegal activity on the Internet. And after pressure from attorneys general in 40 states last November, the company agreed to cooperate with authorities and donate the money it makes from erotic advertising – including blatant prostitution promotions – to charity.

Yet not everyone thinks the company’s dual role promoting sex trade advertising and assisting police helps solve the problem. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, for one, said yesterday that she did not join the attorneys general petition because it left room for the impression that the state sanctions the illegal activity found on Craigslist. As a district attorney, she received Craigslist’s help in the prosecution of some cases, but she said the site also seemed like a good way for “pimps to connect with young girls, runaways.”

“I can’t say they haven’t been helpful. On the other hand, they are the enablers,” Coakley said. “It’s all well and good to say we’ll help when we’re called upon . . . but in light of what’s happened in Boston and around the country, it may be time for a little closer look or oversight.”

It’s a bit of a reach to say that Craigslist had some insidious hand in Julissa Brisman’s murder, though you can bet it’ll be a “ripped from the headlines” plot on the next season of Law and Order.  It’s sort of like blaming a supermarket bulletin board when someone posts an ad to sell a car that turns out to be a lemon.  That’s what Craigslist is, a giant internet bulletin board which virtually everyone has used at some point.  My current apartment was found there.  A quick skim right now reveals ads selling Grateful Dead tickets, rims for a 1968 Mustang, a vintage Brownie 8 movie projector, a woodchipper, a display box for martial arts belts, a wheelchair, a “Kim Kardashian naughty DVD,” a 2/3rds full bottle of Clinique’s Happy perfume, a free audio book version of Marley & Me and something described as the “world’s largest can of tuna.”  You can also find a job, a babysitter, a  new dog, hair extensions and a bass player for your Iron Maiden tribute band, which used to be called Flight of Icarus but is now called Seventh Sons of Seventh Sons.  Short of a human kidney, you can find virtually anything on Craigslist, and even then, while you can’t actually sell a kidney, you can certainly post an ad looking for one.

Indeed, there are also many, many ads either looking for sex or selling it.  The real gems can be found in the ‘Casual Encounters’ section.  Here are just a few examples of actual ads placed in New York City’s Craigslist just today (if you’re reading this and you’re under 18, please close your eyes now):

SUBMISSIVE SLUT WANTED – m4w – 42

Can I lick you – m4w – 29

In need of an ass to pound! – m4w – 22

I’ll rate your boobs – m4w – 29

Dirty Daddy seeks a nasty hot whore

Can’t a guy get a blow job? – m4w – 35

And let me tell you, those are the tamer ones, there are also ads from a man who wants to watch a woman urinate in a Starbucks bathroom (I guess it really is all about location) and another man who wants a woman to step on his balls until he screams.  At least a third of the ads obviously offer money or drugs in exchange for the encounters, using cute little euphemisms like “roses” and “ski,” so yeah, there’s no denying that prostitution is taking place.  It’s not surprising that someone who uses a phrase like “In need of an ass to pound!” would have to pay for sex.  The “erotic services” section is even more obvious, with virtually all the “women seeking men” ads either escort services or someone offering their bodies for cash on their own.  Craigslist allows users to flag ads for questionable, possibly illegal content and also includes the disclaimer “Human trafficking and exploitation of minors are not tolerated–any suspected activity will be reported to law enforcement.”

The flagging function and the disclaimer are where Craigslist’s responsibility ends.  Men have been trolling for prostitutes long before the internet existed, and sadly many of those encounters ended in violence as well.  As a commenter in the Globe story pointed out, Jack the Ripper didn’t need Craigslist.  At best, it makes it slightly easier, being that you can make “dates” by computer or over the phone, rather than having to drive around bad neighborhoods in your sad little car, trying to weed out which of the girls standing on the corners are actually men.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t remove even the tiniest bit of guilt or responsibility from Julissa Brisman’s killer, or anyone else who found and subsequently mistreated in anyway someone they met through Craigslist.  Like blaming Natural Born Killers for a real-life killing spree or Marilyn Manson for the Columbine shootings, insisting that Craigslist is responsible in some way, acting as a conduit for a “casual encounter” or an “erotic service” gone horribly awry is just another example of people not being able to accept the fact that humans are sometimes appalling creatures who sometimes do appalling things, mostly of their own volition.  We desperately try to find reasons for why such things happen, because it’s too scary to believe that there might not be any reason at all.

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