Guest Blog: To Fight the Spread of Cybersex Trafficking, Anti-trafficking Organizations Need to Innovate

Colleen O'Day, writer and anti-trafficking advocate

Colleen O’Day

Controlling the spread of human trafficking is a monumental challenge. Traffickers are innovating in the tactics that they use to exploit millions of victims, underscoring the difficulty of responding to an international epidemic that can look completely different from case to case and country to country. The rapid expansion of internet access across the globe, for example, has enabled people who would otherwise have limited ability to engage in exploitation to participate in the victimization of child trafficking victims from the convenience of their home.

A recent investigation by The Associated Press highlights the nature of cybersex trafficking and those who profit from this exploitation. Chronicling the bust of David Deakin, an Illinois native who relocated to the Philippines, the AP piece exposes not only the means that many of these perpetrators use to exploit children, but also the mentality of many traffickers and the customers who engage in this specific form of trafficking.

Similar to victims of other forms of trafficking, cybersex trafficking victims often come from impoverished communities, with children in particularly vulnerable positions. Where there is a great deal of sex trafficking in general, such as in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, there is likely to be a great deal of cybersex trafficking.

In many instances, parents or older family members exploit children and force them to perform sex acts for predators living in other countries. Families who need money rationalize their actions by pointing to the barrier of the internet.

“There seems to be this notion of morality; people splicing the definition of sex,” says Annalisa Enrile, an expert in human trafficking and professor at the University of Southern California’s online MSW program. “They rationalize their behavior by thinking, ‘It’s not really sex because it’s happening via the internet.’ This simply isn’t true.”

Likewise, those paying to watch the sexual exploitation of children find similar ways to minimize their participation in this abuse.

“They may think that they are less responsible because they are not there in person doing the exploitation,” Enrile adds. “But just because this is not direct intercourse with a ‘john’ does not make the acts that children are being forced to perform any less traumatic.”

The FBI estimates that there are 750,000 child predators online at any given moment. And as far as a common profile among the perpetrators, Enrile says that the similarities are probably not what most people suspect.

“The normalness of some of these profiles is startling. These are business men and married men with families,” she says.

However, as traffickers use technology to spread exploitation, the anti-trafficking community is also innovating in its methods to fight back. The Traffickcam App, for example, encourages guests at hotels to take various pictures of their rooms and upload them to a database. Law enforcement officials can then compare photos and videos of trafficking victims with the pictures snapped by guests to help locate exploited children.

Similarly, Thorn, an international anti-human trafficking organization, has made it their mission to develop innovative and disruptive technology and use data and research to push back against the proliferation of child sex trafficking online. For example, in collaboration with the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the organization created a text messaging code — BEFREE (233733) — that enables victims to have conversations with service providers who can help address their situations. In 2016, messages sent to this code led to thousands of conversations with potential victims and reports of potential victims. The effort also resulted in 18 potential victims being removed from situations that may have been related to trafficking.

Enrile says she wants to see more resources devoted to creating technology to counter the efforts of traffickers. She emphasizes that it’s especially important to address online trafficking, because although both forms of exploitation lead to trauma, the bridge from online trafficking to in-person trafficking is closer than many people think.

“People like to believe the internet is fully anonymous. It isn’t,” says Enrile. “If you get a john who becomes obsessed with a particular child, he’s only a few clicks away before he can find where that child really is.”

To learn more about cybersex trafficking and how to assist in efforts to end the practice, visit www.wearethorn.org. Individuals who are interested in learning about other forms of human trafficking or who are searching for resources to help victims are encouraged to visit polarisproject.org.

Colleen O’Day, Senior Digital PR Coordinator. Colleen supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and speech pathology programs.

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