Research: Commercial and online sexual exploitation

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Commercial sexual exploitation, enslavement, "sex trafficking" or juvenile/child prostitution have long been a source of panic, used by governments to maintain control over young people. Usually, these panics are forgotten or (belatedly) discredited. Modern day claims about sex trafficking of youth are invariably based upon suspicion (reports) of exploitation, most probably arising from the mere presence of minors or suspected minors online.

Mainstream media often promote the idea of online communities as a gateway to abuse of minors. However, research indicates that sexual solicitation is extremely rare and nearly always consensual. It should be understood that the scaremongers have a vested interest in generating moral panic and establishing control over new communication media.

Commercial sexual exploitation

For effects, see Double-Taboo CSA.

In its generalized form, the sex trafficking panic represents a reframing of consensual sex trade and migration patterns by moral entrepreneurs. Academics such as Laura Agustin have criticized savior organizations to this end.[1] The trafficking/prostitution panics of the 1970s have been largely discredited or forgotten, but could be used to urge moderation of present day concerns.

  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2021). Child Sex Trafficking Overview.
    NewgonWiki: It is worth looking at the NCMEC's own overbroad definition of Child Sex Trafficking as "a form of child abuse that occurs when a child under 18 is advertised, solicited or exploited through a commercial sex act". NCMEC's stated figures are based on reports of suspected trafficking alone, which might arise from minors or young-looking legal adults online. It is also important to mention that NCMEC encourage reports of suspected trafficking by advertising their CyberTipline service to all routine reporters of missing children, encouraging them to consider a set of vague "warning signs".
  • Baker, C. (2018). "Racialized Rescue Narratives in Public Discourseson Youth Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in the United States," Smith ScholarWorks.
    "Echoing a deeply entrenched historical narrative of dangerous black masculinity and white female vulnerability, juvenile prostitution was framed as an “urban” problem that was invading white, middle-class communities in suburban and rural areas—black men from cities luring young, innocent and naïve white girls to the city and then forcing them to become prostitutes. News articles often focused on white, middle-class runaway girls from suburban and rural areas, who were portrayed as sexually innocent and naïve girls duped by black pimps. This framing obscured the fact that black and brown girls, including trans girls, were disproportionately involved in the sex trade (Swaner et al. 2016; Curtis et al. 2008). Through the media and political discourse, the problem of juvenile prostitution was socially constructed using racist, sexist, and heterosexist stereotypes to stoke moral outrage. The media and anti-prostitution activists argued that pimps were forcibly transporting girls from the Midwest to New York City to be sold in sex trade—a narrative dubbed the “Minnesota pipeline.” The racialized framing of juvenile prostitution was explicit in many articles in the 1970s. A 1972 front-page article in the Tribune, for example, quoted a local police officer commenting on shifts in the composition of prostitutes in Minneapolis over time: “In 1967, a negligible percentage of those arrested for prostitution were minors. So far this year more than 25 percent of the prostitutes arrested have been juveniles....Young, white runaways may have become a bigger target for pimps, most of whom are black, because fewer black women are going into prostitution....the racial composition of prostitutes in Minneapolis has gone from being 60 to 70 percent black to being 80 percent white” (Schmidt, 1972)."
"Contrary to the claims of the “Minnesota pipeline” narrative, research at the time concluded that the issue was overblown and that there was little evidence of the transportation of girls from Midwest to New York City (The Enablers, 1978; Illinois Legislative Investigating Committee, 1980). Activists, policymakers and the media in the 1970s sometimes used the explicitly racialized language of “white slavery” from the early twentieth century. For example, a 1972 Time magazine article was titled “White Slavery, 1972.” In a 1979 press release announcing the creation of a shelter for prostituted youth, the New York City-based Odyssey Institute, quoted its founder Judianne Densen-Gerber describing the men who exploit children in prostitution as “true white slavers.”"
  • Gearon, Alinka. (2019) Child Trafficking: Young People’s Experiences of Front-Line Services in England in The British Journal of Criminology, 59, 481-500
    NewgonWiki: Gearon explains that the voices and viewpoints of those who cross borders to engage in sex work have remained largely absent from the discussions of policy and law makers. Her article illustrates why: gesturing to the risk of iatrogenic harm (harm through intervention), some young people want and choose to engage in sex work, and resent the authorities for "saving" them from earning money while doing what they enjoy.
[Abstract Excerpt] "This article reports findings from an innovative qualitative study with 20 young people who were trafficked into and within England and their experiences of front-line services. In practice, concepts of consent and coercion are problematized as inadequate determinants of child trafficking. Young people reported experiencing front-line practice as victim-blaming and punitive. [...] The findings support the depoliticizing of child trafficking policy, away from a criminal justice approach, and abandoning labelling children as ‘smuggled’ and ‘trafficked’."

Modern online fears

As mentioned earlier, modern claims about the scale of "child sex trafficking" are likely connected to popular fears surrounding young people online, and their relation to reporting numbers. These are rarely ever related to the case of a young person "under the control" of an offender.

Debunking the 1 in 5 figure

According to some fraudulent mainstream media, 1 in 5 children are sexually solicited online, each year.

It originated with a study done in 2000 by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, which surveyed 1,501 Internet-using youth age 10 through 17. The actual relevant findings of the study were as follows:
  • The 1 in 5 figure was the number that had received at least one instance of unwanted sex talk (including from other teenagers), or sex talk from an adult (whether wanted or not), in the past year.
  • The proportion of respondents who received a sexual flirtation from an adult, followed by a request to talk on the phone or meet in person, was about 1%.
  • The number of survey respondents who actually befriended an adult online and then met the adult in person for sexual purposes, was zero.
  • Rendall, Steve (2009). "The Online Predator Scare," Extra! (FAIR).
    "So where did Hansen and others (e.g., ABC News, 5/3/06;, 4/20/06) get the claims that "one in five" minors have been sexually solicited by adults online, or that "50,000 predators" are trolling the Internet right now?
    In the first case, by distorting the findings of a 2000 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. That study, surveying 1,501 minor Internet users (aged 10 to 17), found that 19 percent of them reported “at least one instance of unwanted sex talk (from other teenagers), or sex talk from an adult (whether wanted or not), in the past year.” Eighty-two percent of such contacts came from other minors, so the proportion of minors who had an online sexual episode with an adult was more like 1 in 30 than 1 in 5.
    And the researchers were asking about contacts that fell short of actual sexual solicitation. What the researchers called “aggressive sexual solicitation” accounted for just 3 percent of overall contacts—but, since 66 percent of those approaches were by peers, the actual instance of minors who were aggressively sexually solicited by adults on the Internet was roughly 1 percent."
The study's author, David Finkelhor, denies the "1 in 5" interpretation of his study:
MAGID: "In 2000 you did a study that reported that 1 in 5 youths had received an unwanted sexual solicitation and when you repeated that in 2005 it went down to 1 in 7, which is good. But I've read some reports in the media and from politicians that have used the word predator, that is, 1 in 5 or 1 in 7 young people have been approached by an online predator. Could you put that into some perspective?"
FINKELHOR: "In that survey we did find that 1 out of 7 young people who use the Internet [received] an unwanted sexual solicitation or inquiry from someone online. But those aren't all predators by any stretch of the imagination. I like to say it's more like 1 in 25 kids who encounter what we call an aggressive solicitation, somebody who sent them a kind of sexual message and is trying to follow that up in some way by actually trying to meet them or arranging to contact them offline as well."

Other considerations

  • Brad Stone on The Internet Safety Technical Task Force (2009). "Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown," New York Times. (Full report)
    "A high-profile task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into the problem of sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there really is not a significant problem. The Internet Safety Technical Task Force was charged with examining the extent of the threats children face on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, amid widespread fears that older adults were using these popular Web sites to deceive and prey on children. But the report cited research calling such fears a “moral panic,” and concluded that the problem of child-on-child bullying, both online and offline, poses a far more serious challenge than the sexual solicitation of minors by adults. [...] The report will be released Wednesday, but The New York Times obtained a draft copy. The 39-page document was the result of a year of meetings between dozens of academics, childhood safety experts and executives of 30 companies, including Yahoo, AOL, MySpace, Facebook, Verizon and AT&T. The task force, led by the Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, looked at scientific data on online sexual predators and found that children and teenagers are very unlikely to be propositioned by adults online. In the cases that do exist, the report said, teenagers are typically willing participants and are at risk in other ways — because of poor home environments or substance abuse, for example. [...] The task force’s report criticized previous findings that as many as one in five children are sexually propositioned online, saying that in a strong majority of those situations, a child’s peers are responsible for the proposition, which is typically an act of harassment or teasing. In what social networks may view as something of an exoneration after years of pressure from law enforcement, the report said that sites like MySpace and Facebook “do not appear to have increased the overall risk of solicitation.” [...] A special technology advisory board, comprised of academic computer scientists and forensics experts, was created within the task force to look at these technologies. It asked various companies in the industry to submit their child-protection systems. Among the systems it looked at, the board evaluated so-called age-verification technologies that attempt to authenticate the identities and ages of children and prevent adults from contacting them. But the technology advisory board concluded that such systems “do not appear to offer substantial help in protecting minors from sexual solicitation.”"
  • Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D. (2009). Research that is “Outdated and Inadequate?” An Analysis of the Pennsylvania Child Predator Unit Arrests in Response to Attorney General Criticism of the Berkman Task Force Report, Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.
    "In a press release about the Task Force report by the Pennsylvania Attorney General Corbett stated:3 "I believe this report is incredibly misleading ... "The threat is real," Corbett said. "In the last four years, my office has arrested 183 predators, all of whom have used the Internet for the purpose of contacting minors to engage in sexual activity." (...) As noted by the Attorney General, 183 predators had been arrested. All of these arrests were described in the press releases dated from March 21, 2005 to January 13, 2009 - thus allowing for a full analysis of the arrests of sexual predators in the state Pennsylvania for the last 4 years by the Attorney General’s Child Predator Unit. The analysis of the arrests that involved predatory actions, excluding the arrests for child pornography, revealed the following (...) Only 8 incidents involved actual teen victims with whom the Internet was used to form a relationship. In 4 of these incidents, teens or parents reported the contact. The other 4 cases were discovered in an analysis of the computer files of a predator who had been arrested in a sting operation. Five of the cases had led to inappropriate sexual contact. The other situations were discovered prior to any actual contact. There were 166 arrests as a result of sting activities where the predator contacted an undercover agent who was posing as a 12 - 14 year old, generally a girl. The vast majority of the stings, 144, occurred in chat rooms. Eleven stings occurred through instant messaging. Nine of the arrests failed to specify the location, but the description bore significant similarity to the chat room incidents. One involved an advertisement that had been placed on Craig’s List. There were only 12 reports of predators being deceptive about their age. (...) Despite the fact that for the last 4 years, the Child Predator Unit has 10 staff members diligently pursuing online sexual predators, primarily through sting operations, only 8 reported incidents actually involved actual teen victims. This number should be compared with the 9,934 victims of sexual abuse served by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape during one fiscal year. Clearly, based on its own data, the Internet is not the primary means that predators are using to contact and communicate with child and teen victims."
  • Wolak, Janis; Finkelhor, David; Mitchell, Kimberly J.; and Ybarra, Michele L. (2008). "Online 'predators' and their victims: Myths, realities, and implications for prevention and treatment," American Psychologist, 63(2), 111-128.
    "The research about Internet-initiated sex crimes makes it clear that the stereotype of the Internet child molester who uses trickery and violence to assault children is largely inaccurate. [...] In the great majority of cases, victims are aware they are conversing online with adults. In the N-JOV Study, only 5% of offenders pretended to be teens when they met potential victims online. [...] Also, offenders rarely deceive victims about their sexual interests. Sex is usually broached online, and most victims who meet offenders face to face go to such meetings expecting to engage in sexual activity. Many victims profess love or close feelings for offenders. In the N-JOV Study, 73% of victims who had face-to-face sexual encounters with offenders did so more than once. When deception does occur, it often involves promises of love and romance by offenders whose intentions are primarily sexual. Most offenders are charged with crimes, such as statutory rape, that involve nonforcible sexual activity with victims who are too young to consent to sexual intercourse with adults. [...] "99% of victims of Internet-initiated sex crimes in the N-JOV Study were 13 to 17 years old [...], and none were younger than 12. [...] "Posting personal information online does not, by itself, appear to be a particularly risky behavior. [...] "Social networking sites such as MySpace do not appear to have increased the risk of victimization by online molesters. [...] "Online child molesters are generally not pedophiles. Because online child molesters primarily target adolescents, not young children (Lanning, 2002; Wolak et al., 2004), such offenders do not fit the clinical profile of pedophiles, who are, by definition, sexually attracted to prepubescent children."