Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Craigslist, Backpage wilt in the ‘Scarlet Spring’

On most of my walks down the main strip of my neighborhood, several men solicit me with shouts of, “I got that loud!” I’ll occasionally support a young entrepreneur in the same spirit as grabbing a box of Girl Scout Cookies, although I hate buying weed off the street.

Cell phones, apps like Square Cash and the darknet have made open-air drug purchases passe, and cruising the streets for a dime bag of bud is one of the rituals from yesteryear that I don’t miss fondly. It’s a degrading conscription into criminal exposure for a product I consider as much a threat to American society and health as Thin Mints.

As much as anyone objects to illegal drug sales, I think most appreciate them being more discreet than in the past, since centralized distribution spots such as street corners drew large numbers of users, and created physical markets over which dealers would war. Dial-and-delivery — or getting “loud” in a quieter way — is better not only for customers and suppliers, but communities.

I thought we would exchange more tolerance for a similar discretion in the sex trade since, for years, the number one complaint among Midtown neighbors about the gay and transgender prostitutes that hustled along Cypress Street or Piedmont Avenue was the criminal element they supposedly attracted to the neighborhood. Presumably, there has been a perceptible decrease in street traffic and strewn condoms in areas that were long known for such activity, as more sex workers recruited clients and made appointments online.

But these days are hard times for hoes, and the world’s oldest profession is succumbing to new age challenges. The last few weeks have represented a Scarlet Spring, as a mix of non-partisan puritanism, corporate self-protection and FBI heat have eliminated sex ads from sites like Reddit, Craigslist and Backpage.

The closings were tangentially the result of efforts against human trafficking, which feels like an endangered species as a cause that is able to unite good-hearted folks across ideological lines. It is impossible to ignore the violent sexual exploitation of the vulnerable, especially children, and difficult to oppose anything that might reduce such suffering.

Still, our national drug policy is illustrative of how crusades undertaken “for the sake of the children” can prohibit swaths of the population from engaging in consensual activity that impacts no one but the parties involved. It’s no coincidence our country started binging on incarceration during the D.A.R.E. campaign.

Just as our knowledge about drugs should be able to discern that there is a difference between aspirin and opiates, we should have the sexual sensibility to know that many people make money from sex without endangering any children. And in the same way our conception of potheads has expanded to include everyone from Olympic athletes to hip grannies, technology has vastly broadened whom we might consider a “sex worker.”

In an era where we’ve learned how to monetize our cars via Uber, our crafts through Etsy and our quinoa recipes on YouTube, thousands of people are discovering how to make money using the internet for what it so long felt it was intended: sex. The growing crackdown on online sexual transactions impacts not only archetypal hookers, but “square” folks — including young professionals, single mothers or couples trying to fund their kitchen renovation — who can generate extra cash by masturbating on camera or posting amateur sex tapes on OnlyFans, Xtube or ConnectPal.

Whether anyone considers such side gigs unseemly, they’re entirely legal, while the platforms, largely anonymous, are just as vulnerable to infestation by pimps and other predators as Craigslist. “If we’re able to save just one child,” is the noblest sentiment, but its shortcomings and imprecision are often as “loud” as the most potent bag of street weed.