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In the two weeks after the U.S. Congress passed a package of anti-sex trafficking bills on March 21, 2018, two of the largest online commercial sex advertising platforms ceased operation. On March 23, Craigslist voluntarily removed their personals section, which had been dominated by advertisements for commercial sex. And on April 6, the Department of Justice seized, the largest online platform for commercial sex advertisements. Our research examines the impact of these shutdowns on a variety of important outcome variables, notably prostitution arrests and violence against women— variables that the prior literature has shown were impacted by the introduction of commercial sex advertising platforms.We employ a generalized difference-in-differences model by exploiting cross-city variation in the preshutdown usage of the two shuttered sites. We find no causal effect of the shutdowns on any of the outcome variables we measure. Further analysis suggests that these null results are likely due to the fluidity of online markets. Our data show that the majority of advertisers and users of Backpage and Craigslist’s personals quickly moved to other (often off-shore) commercial sex advertising portals. Our results highlight the challenges that governments face in reducing online sex trafficking, as the market for commercial sex advertising appears agile enough to quickly disperse to offshore sites after a few popular domestic sites are shut down. Our results have general implications for the governance of other illegal activities online.


This article was originally published in Management Science in 2022.

The replication files for this article are available HERE.

mnsc.2022.4498.sm1.pdf (359 kB)
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



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