Technology has helped position the sex trafficking industry as a lucrative market since the first sex website launched online in 1994. Since then, the online sex trafficking industry has grown, offering more options for buying and selling people into sex slavery and a smorgasbord of illicit, sexual services to clients all over the globe. The process is simple and streamlined with its transactions, leaving those involved virtually untraceable. Sex traffickers can easily generate revenue by posting services and enticing clients with a variety of digital content to meet specific requests—all at the expense and damage of those involuntarily expected to perform.
The Online Market for Traffickers
Conducting business online is a quick way to manage trafficking with less of a chance of being caught. It’s the ideal marketing playground for sex; sellers can reach specific target audiences with online advertising, and buyers can search for sexual services as a match for their needs. For sellers, posting online sex trafficking ads is an inexpensive way to find women and children to be bought and sold for sex services. For buyers, it is impossible to distinguish between online ads offering services they seek and those which involve unwilling trafficked women and children as participants. Exploding with an exploitation of minors, 100,000 websites exist that are dedicated to child pornography. In addition to advertising minors for sex, Backpage.com, which has since been shut down, was netting $150 million in revenue per year from adult service ads and was the source of 73% of child trafficking cases (Equality Now, 2020). Craigslist also ranks high as a way for online sex traffickers to remain anonymous while soliciting business. Fortunately, as sites use more advanced methods of artificial intelligence and laws are enforced, online advertisements have a greater chance of being detected and removed.
Footage and Footprints of Live-Streamed Sessions
Responding to ads posted online, buyers find sellers online who offer live-streamed sessions. Chat sessions using webcams are used to build a virtual relationship between the performer and client. An online relationship is established, enticing continual business with promises of eventually meeting the person. Victims who are exploited are forced to be on camera to put on a “show,” which brings in $20–$150 on average to the seller. Even children are offered a small amount of money to be part of nightly “shows” (International Observatory Human Rights, 2019). Buyers search online for children within a certain age range or who have a certain appearance. The seller provides live footage for them to view based on what they are looking for. Sex trafficking is a global issue, but in the United States alone, 21% of those who are victim to sex exploitation are children, with 63% of videos containing children under the age of 8 years old (Nuix, 2019). The ease of digital platforms has opened up ways for online advertising, marketing and communication to help bring in more sales and deliver content to buyers.
The Dangers of Other Online Sexual Content
Feeding addictions, curiosity and loneliness, cybersex trafficking provides sexual content and views to buyers for their visual pleasure, satiating their sexual perversions. Women and children who are used as slaves for the business are exploited, forced to engage in cybersex activities out of fear of abuse or other threats by sex traffickers. Online content and interactions include chat sessions, photos, recorded videos, live-streamed webcam videos and sex camming, where the buyer watches in real time and can request performances (Fight the New Drug, 2019). Selling sexual content can be highly profitable for sellers. It is not unusual for a live sex video to bring in $400 in 45 minutes. The victims, while of high value to the sellers, are treated as worthless. Young women who have been coerced into this sex business seldom receive money for sexual services but are used for traffickers to make money received by clients. Many are beaten if they do not cooperate and some are forced to have sex 20–48 times per day (Trafficked No More). Sex trafficking is a global concern as the Internet is used to transfer sexual content worldwide.
A Focus on Sex Camming and Trafficking Using Remote Drones
Another method for traffickers is using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to record live video of involuntary victims (Brookings, 2014). Thanks to aerial surveillance and remote applications, the target is able to be accessed live from anywhere. Even indoors within their own home, victims’ privacy is compromised while showering, undressing, using the toilet, having sex or just existing and the feed is streamed in full color with the ability for buyers to hear and speak to the victim. There is a limitless range to the accessibility of victims because they can be reached in any building and even outdoors in tents or at parks—anywhere electricity can be conducted, even through poles or trees outdoors. Friends or family members select the victim as the target without the victim’s permission. Additional recorded views are available online for purchase. Likewise, technology offers buyers the ability to X-ray the victim remotely to see through clothing and view inside the body to watch organs function and even interact with laser radiation to buzz them or pinpoint intimate body parts with a laser as they sleep. This form of sexual abuse and exploitation is nearly impossible to trace, and anyone can be made victim to this pervasive surveillance—anywhere and at any time—all for the benefit of those who have a device to invade others’ privacy for income and views. Although legislation is passed regulating the use of drones by the government, the general public being able to use drones as a means for trafficking is a concern that is overlooked.
Aperture With Legislation and Restrictions
In 2017, the government began to place a greater emphasis on online sex trafficking by passing the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). This marked significant progress in establishing legislation for social networks, causing them to have a greater responsibility to censor content posted and sex trafficking advertisements. Victims can find hope for justice as social network providers face tighter restrictions and heightened accountability.
Brookings. McNeal, G. (2014, November). Drones and aerial surveillance: Considerations for legislatures. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/drones-and-aerial-surveillance-considerations-for-legislatures/amp
Equality Now. (2020). Human Trafficking & Online Prostitution Advertising. Retrieved from https://www.equalitynow.org/interrupting_the_vicious_cycle_of_online_sex_trafficking
Equality Now. (2020). Interrupting the Vicious Cycle of Online Sex Trafficking. Retrieved from https://www.equalitynow.org/interrupting_the_vicious_cycle_of_online_sex_trafficking
Fight the New Drug. (2019, April 11). Uncovering the Dark World of Trafficking in the Webcamming Industry. Retrieved from https://fightthenewdrug.org/uncovering-secret-world-trafficking-camming-industry
International Observatory Human Rights. Allen, C. (2019, March 7). The Role of the Internet on Sex Trafficking. Retrieved from https://observatoryihr.org/blog/the-role-of-the-internet-on-sex-trafficking
Nuix. (2019, July 16). Pogue, C. Continuing the Fight Against Cybersex Trafficking. Retrieved from https://www.nuix.com/blog/continuing-fight-against-cybersex-trafficking
Trafficked No More. Sex Trafficking States. Retrieved from http://traffickednomore.org//warning-signs/sex-trafficking-stats
Written for One Bread Foundation, Inc., June 2020
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Sex Trafficking in the United States: Theory, Research, Policy, and Practice
by Andrea Nichols
Social Work Practice with Survivors of Sex Trafficking and
Commercial Sexual Exploitation