Tara Birl tried advertising on Craigslist, but found it utterly useless as a means to increase her business as a Santa Cruz sex worker.
"I got no calls," says Birl, a professional name she uses for her business.
Birl, a member of Santa Cruz's chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project says last week's closure of Craigslist's Adult Services section will have little effect on the business of local providers.
Sex in Santa Cruz, and in the the Greater Bay Area, has always been a lucrative business. In Santa Cruz, much of that has to do with the tourism industry. Although estimates of the size of the industry are hard to come by due to the illicit nature of the profession, some guess that prostitution in the Bay Area accounts for tens of millions of dollars per year.
It's also hard to guess the number of people involved in sex work in Santa Cruz. The National Task Force on Prostitution estimates one in every 100 women has worked as a protitute at some point in their lives.
What's clear when walking in the lower Ocean Street area of Santa Cruz is that business seems to be booming on Friday and Saturday nights. A local convenience store confirms some of the activity — the most popular items are cigarettes and condoms.
This year, there have been 20 prostitution-related arrests. Zach Friend, spokesman for the Santa Cruz Police Dept, said the arrests were for solicitation, loitering and conducting a lewd act.
Since June, there have been seven sex crime incidents, according to Crime Mapping in Santa Cruz. But those figures are not restricted to prostitution incidents and included other sex crimes.
Last week, Craigslist, the popular San Francisco-based advertising site, pulled its adult services section, a decision that's generated a lot of chatter all over the country. The change was even discussed in a U.S. House Judiciary Committee. William Powell, Craigslist's director of law enforcement relations, testified: "Those who formerly posted ads in the adult services category will now have to advertise at countless other venues."
Locally, Birl said there was a bigger problem associated with advertising on the site: local police use Craigslist in their investigations.
"Most local (providers) don't advertise on Craigslist, it's full of cops, " she said. "The local police were targeting Craigslist directly."
Friend confirmed the suspicions of sex workers like Birl.
"Our detectives used Craigslist before during sex stings," he said.
The loss of the Adult Services section could have a greater effect on the way Santa Cruz detectives pursue prostitution cases in Santa Cruz. But the Santa Cruz Police's efforts to reduce prostitution in the area are also tied to input from the community.
"A lot of the prostitution enforcement is complaint-based," Friend said. "We've found that prostitution increases in cycles and residents living near areas impacted will contact us to note an increase in activity. We generally run operations in response to those increases."
The end to adult services on Craigslist might cause a slight dip in local prostitution, but it is likely to be short term, Friend said.
"By no means was Craigslist the only site that individuals utilize to solicit sex or engage in sexual activity. We would assume that there will be a temporary drop off in the number of cases of sex solicitation while people search out the other sites or new sites arise," he said. "Ultimately, we figure it will normalize and be at levels seen prior to the site coming down."
Friend said Santa Cruz has been a frequent destination of traveling sex workers who will visit the area and work a few days, something many sex workers refer to as "touring."
"We've found that a lot of people engaging in prostitution are from out of town - generally the greater Bay Area or the Sacramento region," Friend said. "They will come down here for a weekend or a few days."
Others may look for work online, but Birl plans to stick with street work that she finds safer and more lucrative to advertising online.
"I work outside on the street in front of normal every day stores that nice middle class people go into all the time; ones with an accessible restroom close by. I sit there reading a book and looking cute, and wait for them to approach me," she said. "My advertising money is spent in library fines, when I forget to return a book in time."