Social media like Facebook and Myspace, among others, have officially overtaken pornography as the No. 1 activity on the Web. Obviously, people have not lost an interest in sex, but clearly the marketplace is moving, growing and operating with relative impunity in the United States via social networks.
This kind of global social change has implications for Costa Rica, and it could mean that the problem of sex tourism will come to an end. However, on the other hand it could make it much worse. When living in Costa Rica, it is easy to lose touch with what is happening in the United States and other parts of the world. The fact that cities like Houston, Chicago, Dallas and Miami have been turned into virtual brothels is something that an expat might have missed if they have failed to keep up with technology.
The issue is spotlighted by a big federal lawsuit brought by Thomas Dart, the Illinois sheriff who has accused Craigslist — Alexa.com now rates the site No. 7 in the United States — of being the world’s biggest pimp. His case was originally dismissed in October of last year and, the reason is, ironically, due to a federal child protection law.
The history may be unclear to many people, but can be summed up simply by thinking back to the late 1990s when the U.S. Congress took up the issue of protecting children from online pornography. A compromise was brokered into the 1996 Communications Decency Act that provides broad immunity for “interactive computer service(s).” Section 230 of the Act states that any “interactive computer service” is not a publisher of the content posted by third parties and they are immune from lawsuits or prosecution based on the material users post.
The bottom line is that under U.S. federal law Craigslist along with any social network or “interactive computer service” is not responsible for criminal activity perpetrated by its advertisers. It is worth pointing out the print media, such as the infamous Las Vegas telephone book or a “free newspaper,” enjoys no such protection under federal law.
The difference is the “electronic” element.
Sheriff Dart has filed a new federal case that attempts to prove that Craigslist is complicit in the act of prostitution, and this will prove to be a difficult argument.
His point is supported by the fact that in Cook County, Illinois, a girl can for just $5 publish semi-nude or explicit photos and receive phone calls in under an hour. Some girls ask for as little as $50, and even the more professional ladies charge under $200. The question to ask is why would an American use vacation time and pay the cost of airfare and daily hotel lodging just to seek prostitutes in Costa Rica?
Perhaps there is some allure in that Costa Rica does offer some anonymity from friends and relatives back home, and that prostitution is not illegal in Costa Rica. While sex tourists in Costa Rica are able to enjoy their party in a relatively open environment, this is likely to have less appeal as the culture of prostitution becomes more commonplace among younger Americans.
Remember there is a generation of Americans who will never buy a newspaper and are more likely to meet a spouse online than in person. It also stands to reason they will date prostitutes online despite the potential outcome of the Illinois federal case. Mainstream social media sites like Facebook and the Internet in general is a magical place where something can be concealed from public view and promoted at the same time.
Once a culture truly changes, it is usually impossible to go back. The phrase to know is media convergence, and it is the reason why 24 out of 25 of the largest newspapers are experiencing record declines in circulation. Once a generation of consumers is lost, the only possible solution is to evolve, and sex tourism is no exception.
Prostitution in Costa Rica is not going to go away, but the face of it will change. The effects are already noticeable when you take a look at the male, aged 20 to 30 who frequent the bars popular with English-speaking tourists in downtown San Jose. This young crowd of consumers are more Costa Rican than international tourists.
The late Pat Dunn predicted early in his career as a local bar pioneer that the business in downtown San José would not be able to rely on tourists alone. We are seeing his prediction come to fruition, and the local market is becoming a vital part of the downtown entertainment business. Social networking is the key to reach this audience and the tourists at the same time.
The Costa Rican government has proposed a law to curb sex tourism promotion. However, the fact may be that they are way behind the worldwide Internet culture. If a sheriff in Illinois cannot stop sex promotion in his hometown by a company located on U.S. soil, how does the Costa Rican government plan to tackle the problem?