Blaming the Phone Book

Local Conservative Greg Patterson blames the death of several sex workers in Detroit on the Backpage, because the killer may have targeted them based on their ads in that periodical.

The killers are the ones who should be held responsible, but what about parties whose negligent actions facilitate the killing?  How about the example of a school with poor lighting, or the business with lots of bushes in which bad guys can hide?  There are plenty of cases that show the property owner would be liable for the intentional torts of others.

So New Times knows that Adult ads are used by bad guys...even to the point of murder.  Craigslist stopped accepting these ads after a similar incident and New Times picked up the a considrable profit.  So can they be held accountable for the deaths in Detroit?  I would argue that they can be.  What about future deaths?  What happens if New Times continues to accept adult advertising and someone else gets killed?  Actionable?  I would say yes.

This is exactly the sort of spurious liability logic Conservatives tend to mock, except of course when it involves a target it does not like.  In this case free market Conservatives really hate Backpage for accepting freely placed ads for free exchange involving consensual sex.  I responded in the comments:

Why do you cast so far afield for an analogy in your third to last paragraph [the one above about schools with poor lighting]? Why not take a directly parallel example - what if some killer were stalking Starbucks barristas whose work places he identified through ads in the Republic or via Google Maps? Would you really run around in circles blaming Google? This is like saying that a serial killer is facilitated by the phone companies because they publish the phone book the killer used.

We are talking about ads placed via free exchange for consensual sex. Yes, in our bizarre society, Conservatives who nominally support all other types of free exchange have had this one sort banned. But it is ironically the very fact that this sort of consensual commerce is illegal that makes this work so dangerous. Escorts/hookers are vulnerable to abuse, crime, fraud etc. precisely because they have less ability to access the legal system for redress.

If you want to discuss who facilitated the death of these women, let's talk about those who drove their profession underground.


  1. Matthew Walker:

    Right, this one moron (and maybe a few idiots in his comment section) says something dumb, so therefore all "free market Conservatives" said it. All of 'em, every darned one.

  2. Jon:

    You can be held liable for having bushes? Wow, that's pretty bad.

  3. Dan:

    Excellent post. The laws against the sex industry are absurd, and remind me of Prohibition. I've never understood why consensual sex between adults is illegal if a payment is involved. Someday, people will look back and shake their heads.

    And to blame a newspaper for a poor outcome after someone responded to one of its ads is equally absurd. Maybe I should sue the paper if I go to a restaurant it advertises and contract food poisoning, by the same logic.

  4. Maureen:

    Whenever consensual sex between two consenting adults is regarded as something that can be bought and sold, it is saying that people's most intimate acts and feelings are not worth any more than a monetary price -- much like buying hamburger or a movie ticket. This is an attack on the personhood of those involved.

    Anywhere that people are treated as not fully people, it is an announcement that every type of crime is allowed to flourish there, including murder. If people don't matter, nothing matters.

    So yes, if you want to live a safe life in a safe society, you have to fight the buying and selling of sex just as you have to fight outright slavery. If you're okay with every man's hand against another, go right ahead and support "the sex industry".

  5. Bob Agard:

    "Escorts/hookers are vulnerable to abuse, crime, fraud etc. precisely because they have less ability to access the legal system for redress."
    You are right, and thanks for writing it!

  6. Dan:


    I understand your sentiment and respect it, but I think we're talking past each other, and perhaps it reflects the fact that my name is Dan and yours is Maureen.

    I've been married for many years, so I'm very familiar with how women (well, my wife, anyway) view the sexual act. Indeed, with an intimate partner, sex is like you said, an intimate act involving complex feelings between the two people. However, there's another side to sex, and not many women see it, perhaps because it's a "man thing." In other words, men (and I suppose some women), can see sex as just a fun pastime that doesn't need to involve intimate feelings between the partners. And men (and many women), have physical desires for sex that sometimes aren't going to be satisfied with an intimate partner, perhaps because the man is divorced, widowed, single, what have you, and in that case a physical act with a stranger satisfies that man's needs, and he doesn't feel a need for intimacy, nor does he feel that he's cheapened the other person.

  7. Not Sure:

    "This is an attack on the personhood of those involved."

    Unless you redefine the word "consensual" to mean something it does not, how can "consensual sex between two consenting adults" be considered an attack?

  8. Rob:

    I'll weaken your argument by attacking some flawed assumptions. Just as Dan has said, sex does not necessarily involve intimate feelings. People decide to have sex for pleasure just like those who derive pleasure from watching a movie or eating a hamburger.

    Secondly, even if your first point were true, an attack implies force but you already said that this was a consensual act. Furthermore, if there was an attack, who would be the victim and who is the perpetrator? Are both people the hunter/prey at the same time - this would mean it is some sort of self punishment. Even then, why do you get to decide what one person is allowed to do to one's self?

    Thirdly, if I decide to trade pleasure for pain (e.g. drinking for a hangover), that doesn't mean i have welcomed such crime as murder upon myself. You made a logical leap of faith when you said that consensual sex for money is akin not treating people as a full person. It sounds as if you are projecting your own thoughts about the two parties involved, but once again, what you think doesn't matter since these two people decided to have a mutually beneficial engagement. This is hardly indicative of slavery as you try to conclude.

  9. Gil:

    "People will look back . . ."

    Prostitution and drugs were legal up until the 20th century . . . If anything our ancestors are shaking their heads.

  10. Dan:


    It will take a long time to shake off all the Victorian inhibitions. I'm not for legalizing the really hard drugs, but I don't have a problem with pot as long as it's not sold to youngsters. And prostitution should be legalized.

  11. Johnathan:

    Hey Dan--what's a "really hard drug"? How does the distinction from not "really hard drug" change whether one has the right to manufacture, sell, distribute, or ingest them without interference from governments?

    You say you don't have a problem with pot as long as it's not sold to youngsters, so I assume you a) might try pot some day, and b) won't sell it to youngsters.

    Can you explain how your preferences for your own actions extend to those around you?

  12. Jaycee:

    In my city in Australia prostitution is legal as long as it is carried out in brothels in 'light industrial zones', which are scattered throughout the city and somewhat distanced from residential areas.

    Brothels are subject to licencing and health and safety and other forms of regulation, including health tests for escorts and prostitutes. Street solicitation is strictly banned.

    With the activity legal and regulated, there is little or no police or criminal corruption associated with local brothels.

    Contrary to Maureen's suggestion above that "is an announcement that every type of crime is allowed to flourish there, including murder", I'm not aware that my city in Australia is regarded as especially criminal; in fact I think it is regarded as somewhat safe and tame.

    Prostitution has always happened, and probably always will. Trying to ban it only creates crime where none existed, creates the opportunity for corruption and further crime, and criminally influenced prostitution must be worse for both the provider and purchaser.

  13. Me:

    What if an old man buys some pot and gives it to a young prostitute?

  14. PeterPansDad:

    Thanks Dan, Rob and Jaycee for your excellent responses to Maureen. I would add that a community's job is to validate and teach the moral code. Government's job (if any) should be to protect personal property rights and enforce contracts. If we rely on government's monopoly on the legitimate use of force in an attempt to legislate morality we have already surrendered our freedom. Morality can not come from legislation as the Constitution can only govern a moral people.

    Dan, you lost some moral authority on the hard v. soft drug comment. Are you interested in individual expression of individuality and freedom or are you interested in empowering authorities to use force against us? Like prostitution, legislation won't prevent kids from doing bad things. Again, that falls on the shoulders of family and community.

  15. me:


    Actually, drawing clear lines and distinctions between hard and soft drugs is crucial in raising teenagers. If they experience firsthand that those evil drugs their parents warned them about are, in fact, providing a softer high with less hangover than a drink, they end up assuming that all the stuff we told them was BS and that heroin etc. will have a much lower barrier from their vantage point. The dutch and portugese make for excellent case studies in how practical drug policies can have hugely positive impact on societies.

  16. Johnathan:

    There are clearly major differences between various recreational drugs when evaluated with respect to short- and long-term effects on one's mental status and health. These are all factors to be taken into account in deciding whether one should use them oneself.

    Of course, each individual's values, assessment of risks and tradeoffs, desire for a certain type of effect, etc., are different, so only that individual can decide what to put into their own body, just as they already do for food and medicinal drugs. The categorization of hard/soft is unlikely to have an objective, true-for-everyone meaning in this context.

    As @me said, educating children about this type of decision making is indeed crucial to them making sound decisions regarding recreational drug use as they grow independent of us on their way to adulthood. Fear-based, simplistic "drugs are bad and evil" is unlikely to provide them with this wisdom and reduces our credibility when they discover otherwise.

    All the above reasoning applies equally as well to whether and what types of consensual sex one chooses to engage in with others, including for pay or not. In either case, educating children about benefits, risks, and methods of sound decision making is the best thing we as parents can do, then step out of their way and let them grow into their own.

    Governments attempt to legislate this wisdom and impose a uniform decision upon everyone in a geographical region. Not only does one size not fit all here, but it has many unintended consequences.

  17. Dan:

    Let's just say I'm not comfortable with the notion of heroin and needles being available behind the counter at 7-11. I realize alcohol is just as dangerous and ruins just as many lives, and it's legal, but I can't wrap my brain around heroin. Even cocaine is a stretch.

    It's never going to happen, anyway, so what's the point of debating it? Legalization of marijuana - now that's something that could eventually happen in the next 20 years or so. I especially would like to see it more widely available for medical use.

  18. PeterPansDad:

    Dan & Me,
    Don't confuse my support of individual freedom to use heroin with a desire to see more people using heroin. Given the option, I stand on the side of personal liberty. People do make bad choices. I agree. As I said above, it falls on families and community groups to validate and teach moral standards. We can not continue to empower our militarized police force at the cost of our own personal freedom. We must not choose security over freedom.

    Teach your kids. Work to influence your community positively. Enable your fellow man to make his own informed choices and to live with the consequences.

    I am a 15 year veteran of marriage to the same woman.
    I have never even seen a prostitute other than on TV, which I rarely watch.
    I have never used drugs other than caffeine...and that just recreationally.
    I didn't drink till I was 30.
    My parents were a stronger positive influence on me in the '80's than Nancy Regan was. Still are.
    You are free to disagree with me but please stand on the side of personal liberty.

  19. Dan:


    I get your point, but I do worry more people would use heroin if it were legal and easy to get, and that would have negative ramifications for the rest of society (ie. more ER visits, more crime, more public costs for drug rehab).

    You know the saying: The freedom of your fist ends where my face begins.

  20. Not Sure:

    "but I do worry more people would use heroin if it were legal and easy to get"

    How many people do you suppose there are, who are saying to themselves right now "I'd really like to try heroin, but it's illegal and so hard to get"?

  21. Gil:

    What are these "Victorian inhibitions" you speak of Dan? Drugs and prostitution were legal. Heck, you could buy cocaine soothes for your children over the counter in those days.

  22. DrTorch:

    "He hates these cans!"

    It needed to be remembered.

  23. Dan:

    Not Sure:

    LOL! Probably none. But making it legal does, to some people, signal that it's safe, and then people who may never have tried it might do so. Stupid people, but all the same, the ripple effect on society would be there.

  24. Not Sure:

    " But making it legal does, to some people, signal that it’s safe, and then people who may never have tried it might do so."

    Making it illegal does, to some people, signal that it's a forbidden fruit, and then people who may never have tried it might do so.

  25. Rob Taylor:

    As a crime blogger that covers stories like this I can tell you that many of the girls traded online are not doing it consensually. Here in SC gangs of pimps 1%ers (specifically the Hell's Angels and warlocks) and Mexican gangs running illegals force women to trick - and most of the "independents" are addicts who probably need an intervention more than soe guy paying them to ejaculate on them. Worse I personally reported an underage girl advertising as an escort to Backpage and the locals. Nothing was done, including by Backpage.

    Opinions of prostitution aside (I don't care if it's legal or not) let's not romanticize what goes on on Backpage as women who love sex making money in a free market. The Village Voice has for years taken ad money from sex slave rings in their paper and no one cared because it meant hipster douches could get a free newspaper. Now they turn a blind eye to pimping and underage prostitution. They deserve some scorn.

  26. Dan:


    I don't think anyone here was promoting forcing underage girls into prostitution, or sexual slavery. I know that stuff goes on, and it should stay illegal. Even the most ardent libertarian, I'm sure, would agree with me on that (or maybe they wouldn't - I've seen some weird views expressed on this site).

  27. Dan:

    Not Sure:

    You make a valid point. I have two school-age kids, and I've always made it a point to offer them sips of wine/beer, just to show it's not some forbidden fruit and hopefully make it less of an attraction when they're older.

  28. Jon:

    I think our society is constantly conflating moral responsibility and legal liability. Whether prostitution should be legal or not, it is illegal. The legal status of prostitution limits the societal protection available to prostitutes. They are an abused underclass. Profiting from the exploitation of the helpless is morally repugnant. Those who do so, should be condemned. However, our society is based on the protection of individual freedom through limited government.

    To quote Paul Spiegel "Not everything which is legally protected as freedom of opinion is morally and ethically justifiable".

  29. caseyboy:

    Rob Taylor, I'm glad someone finally made that point. The sex slave trade is huge. It would blow people away to know how prevalent it is. The estimate for FL is approximately 20,000 under age girls and boys being held captive for the purpose of performing sex for money. Not paid to them, but to their owners. They exist in a drug induced state suffering from physical, sexual and emotional abuse. If they manage to escape they are such damaged people that they rarely if ever lead normal lives.

  30. Chris Ethan:

    Attack implies force but you already said that this was a consensual act. Furthermore, if there was an attack, who would be the victim and who is the perpetrator? Are both people the hunter/prey at the same time - this would mean it is some sort of self punishment. Read More here :Phone book, for short.