James sat at the Sweet Inspiration cafe on Market Street in San Francisco, sipped ginger ginseng tea and talked about his job. He was once a barista in a place like this, but today he works in the oldest profession.
“I think I’m doing something more important for people than making another latte,” he said.
Tall, taut, with bleached blond hair, James, 25, asked to only be identified by his first name only for fear of legal reprisals, but spoke candidly about his life as a sex worker, offering a rare glimpse into a local subculture that has become the subject of much debate: sex workers, including James, who say they have freely chosen this vocation.
James said he was self-employed — no one manages his affairs, hires him out or takes a cut of his earnings. “I run myself — that’s why I do what I do,” he said.
For a $100 fee, he provides “healing erotic touch.” He finds most customers on Craigslist, the online classified service. “It’s how I support myself,” he said.
Using Craigslist to advertise such work has led to protests.
This week the group FAIR Fund, which works to stop child sexual exploitation, called the Web site “the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.” Last month, representatives from dozens of antiprostitution groups gathered outside the company’s headquarters on Ninth Avenue in San Francisco to demand an end to “adult” advertising, which they say has been linked to the selling of people, including children, for sex against their will.
The protest’s organizer, Melissa Farley, founder of the San Francisco nonprofit group Prostitution Research & Education, said, “The Internet is the new street, as far as prostitution is concerned.”
Farley estimated that 98 percent of sex workers who advertised on Craigslist, which has 50 million users a month in the United States, were victims — of abuse, drugs, poverty or circumstance — who desperately wanted out of the profession.
But Carol Queen, a founding director of the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco who regularly interacts with Bay Area sex workers, said there had been no credible scientific surveys to determine how many prostitutes worked voluntarily. Queen described the situation as “complex,” representing a “diversity of experience, from those who say ‘this is my calling’ to those who felt they had no choice.”
Queen, a former call girl, added that “there is a substantial middle class of sex workers” who use Craigslist to temporarily earn extra income.
David Henry Sterry interviewed 50 women who advertised on Craigslist for his best seller “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex.” Sterry said he saw no evidence of abuse or coercion, saying, “Most of these women are just hard-working professionals.”
Sterry, who was a rent boy as a teenager, said Craigslist had allowed prostitutes to work independently, free from organized crime. But he conceded there were some who would never accept the idea that any prostitution was voluntary. “They hold the position that anyone who trades sex for money is a slave,” he said.
The debate has put Craigslist in a difficult spot. The site refers to itself as a community, with free expression as a central tenet. But prostitution is illegal in the United States, except in regulated brothels in Nevada, and there have been incidents of trafficking linked to the listings.
Following complaints and threats of legal action, Craigslist recently hired monitors to review listings and began charging $10 to post an ad in its adult section (most of the site is free). Jim Buckmaster, the company’s chief executive, said the fee created a paper trail for investigations and was designed in partnership with attorneys general from 43 states and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“We added the fee only after numerous pointed requests from law enforcement that we do so,” Buckmaster said.
The fee has created millions of dollars in new revenues, which has led critics to accuse Craigslist of profiting from prostitution. On its Web site, Farley’s group calls Craigslist’s founder, Craig Newmark, Craig NewPimp.
The company said it had a long history of donating to charities.
James, a former student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, said he had never been coerced into the profession. A trained yoga instructor, he could not find a job when he arrived in San Francisco, but said the work he did now fulfilled a different physical demand. “People need to be touched,” he said.
He said he wished protesters would leave Craigslist alone, noting that other Web sites charged as much as $200 to advertise the service he provides.
And what exactly is that service? Having done this work for a few years, James concluded that what he sells is really a dynamic that few outside the profession can understand: providing intimacy without entanglements, relationships or complications.
“They aren’t paying me for sex,” he said. “They are paying me to leave.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.