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] Organizations such as GAATW produce advocacy and peer-reviewed literature to challenge the prevailing narrative of trafficking. 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.
    Editor: 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".
  • Tiffany, K. (2021). The Great (Fake) Child-Sex-Trafficking Epidemic in The Atlantic.
    [Editor: The article also draws links with the Q-Anon conspiracy theory and discusses the history of trafficking panics thru Adam and John Walsh. See also: Vice.[2]] "To raise awareness, and funds, for Operation Underground Railroad, Pamatian helped organize a statewide motorcycling event. “It’s about saving children who are being raped and abused by pedophiles 10, 20, 30 times a day!” she wrote. “And I don’t say that to sensationalize the topic, I say it because it’s TRUE and it’s happening and NO ONE is talking about it!” Her volunteer chapter claimed that “upwards of 300,000” children are victims of sex trafficking in the United States every year." (...)
"Statistically, however, it is hard to get a handle on: The data are often misleading, when they exist at all. Whatever the incidence, sex trafficking does not involve Tom Hanks or hundreds of thousands of American children. When today’s activists talk about the problem of trafficking, knowing exactly what they’re referring to can be difficult. They cite statistics that actually offer global estimates of all forms of labor trafficking. Or they mention outdated and hard-to-parse figures about the number of children who go “missing” in the United States every year—most of whom are never in any immediate danger—and then start talking about children who are abducted by strangers and sold into sex slavery. While stereotypical kidnappings—what you picture when you hear the word—do occur, the annual number hovers around 100. Sex trafficking also occurs in the United States. The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline has been operated by the anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris Project and overseen and partially funded by the Department of Health and Human Services since 2007. In 2019, it recorded direct contacts with 14,597 likely victims of sex trafficking of all ages. (The average age at which these likely victims were first trafficked—“age of entry,” as the statistic is called—was 17.)" (...)
"The Denver Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1985 story laboriously debunking the statistics that had caused such widespread alarm. The actual number of children kidnapped by strangers, according to FBI documentation, turned out to be 67 in 1983, up from 49 in 1982. A two-part PBS special explained the statistics and addressed the role that made-for-TV movies and media coverage had played in stoking the fire; a study conducted in 1987 by Altheide and the crime analyst Noah Fritz found that three-quarters of viewers who had previously considered “missing children” a serious problem changed their minds immediately after watching it. With the arrival of better information, the missing-children panic faded. (...)
While no one doubts Ballard’s [Operation Underground Railroad founder - ed] enthusiasm for the work, critics have questioned the efficacy of OUR’s “raid and rescue” approach, which was popularized in the 1990s by various anti-trafficking NGOs, notably the Christian nonprofit International Justice Mission. Trafficking experts note that, while dramatic, such operations fail to address the complex social and economic problems that create the conditions for trafficking. If the goal is to stamp out international child trafficking, they argue, the raids are of little value. As OUR’s own footage demonstrates, the group’s strategy involves asking targets to bring it the youngest children possible in exchange for large amounts of cash—in other words, potentially provoking the very behavior the group is ostensibly attempting to curb." (...)
"In the United States, OUR does not conduct “missions”—it is careful to avoid coming off as a vigilante group—but it does donate money to police departments. The funds are earmarked for child-trafficking-related resources, including dogs trained to sniff out hidden portable hard drives (because they might contain child-sex-abuse material). But as Vice’s Tim Marchman and Anna Merlan detailed in a recent investigation, police departments have not found OUR’s contributions particularly useful. Many of the donations are insubstantial, and one state law-enforcement agency told the reporters that the money wasn’t worth the trouble of being associated with OUR. A more significant challenge to OUR’s reputation: The district attorney of Davis County, Utah, opened a criminal investigation into the organization last year; according to a source close to the investigation, one focus of the probe is on potentially misleading statements made in OUR fundraising materials, including exaggerations about the group’s involvement in arrests made by law enforcement. The Utah attorney general’s office—which had received $950,000 over four years from OUR for a wellness program for personnel in its Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force—cut all ties to the group when it learned of the Davis County investigation." (...)
"Another key to OUR’s appeal is its capacious attitude toward truth. After the Wayfair conspiracy theory surfaced, dozens of anti-trafficking organizations signed an open letter stating that “anybody—political committee, public office holder, candidate, or media outlet—who lends any credibility to QAnon conspiracies related to human trafficking actively harms the fight against human trafficking.” Operation Underground Railroad was conspicuously not among the signatories. Rather than dispel the Wayfair rumor, Ballard flirted with it. In July 2020, he posted an Instagram video in which he spoke directly to the camera while an American flag rippled behind his right shoulder. “Children are sold that way,” he said. “For 17 years, I’ve worked as an undercover operator online. No question about it, children are sold on social-media platforms, on websites, and so forth.” The video has been viewed more than 2.7 million times. [...] A forthcoming Ballard biopic, Sound of Freedom, will star Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. In the spring, Caviezel appeared at a “health and freedom” conference alongside various right-wing figures—including L. Lin Wood, a lawyer and key architect of the 2020 election-fraud conspiracy theories, and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder and a major Trump donor, who famously tried to pitch the former president on a COVID-19 miracle cure made from a highly poisonous shrub. Video of Caviezel’s speech was shared by OUR supporters on YouTube and Facebook. In it, Caviezel told the audience that Ballard had planned to come with him for the interview but was unable to attend, because he was “pulling kids out of the darkest recesses of hell right now.” He then explained how adrenaline can be harvested from children’s bodies as they scream and die."
  • Hobbes, M. (2020). The Futile Quest for Hard Numbers on Child Sex Trafficking in Huffington Post.
    "Where it gets a little harder to separate fact from fiction is in the numerical claims. One of the most circulated social-media statistics is the claim that 800,000 children go missing each year. You may have seen this figure or one of its various offshoots, such as the claim that 22,000 kids go missing per day (that math is wrong, but whatever) or that the annual victims of trafficking could fill a stadium a few times over (as if entire crowds of children were just vanishing at once). This figure is false both specifically and generally. Specifically, 800,000 children do not go missing every year. That figure is from a 2002 survey that asked parents if they had reported their children as runaways in the previous year (the actual figure was 797,500, by the way). A more recent and credible figure, from 2018 FBI data, is 424,066. That’s still a lot of missing kids! But what’s important to know about that number, and every other large estimate of missing children circulating online, is that it refers to reports of missing children, not the actual number of children who disappear each year. This is a crucial difference. The vast majority of children reported missing — most reports put it at over 99% — return home, most within hours or days. (...)
Then there are the numbers that are credible but meaningless. Every major estimate[3] of the profits human trafficking generates (the numbers $32 billion and $150 billion get tossed around a lot) refers to forced labor in dozens of industries, includes both adults and children, and doesn’t differentiate between sex work and forced sex work — which is supposed to be the entire point of citing them. The lack of credible statistics on child sex trafficking is noteworthy. Other threats to children, from gun violence (roughly 3,000 deaths per year) to car crashes (4,000 deaths per year) to sexual abuse (1 in 9 girls; 1 in 53 boys) are backed up by firm, consistent statistics about their prevalence. Most estimates of child sex trafficking, by contrast, use figures from The National Human Trafficking Hotline, a database that collates anonymous reports from phone calls, texts and internet forms. The organization doesn’t make any effort to confirm those reports. As Caroline Diemar, the hotline’s director, told me in February, rising or falling call volumes may simply indicate growing public awareness of trafficking as a social issue, not a change in the prevalence of trafficking itself. [...] According to a Texas Christian University database of every trafficking case in the country, federal prosecutors took on a total of 642 cases involving sex trafficking of minors from 2000 to 2015, an average of about 43 per year"
White Slavery discourse has often been a feature of sex trafficking panics
  • 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’."

"Grooming Gang" Scandals

Investigations into these events are often dominated by the need to tread carefully around racialized langauage and cultural sensitivities. What gets less attention, is the awkward subject of disguising the voluntary nature of girls' sexual relations with men - often within the context of juvenile prostitution. News stories appear to reveal a vast chasm between the political/theoretical side of the child protection bureaucracy and the law enforcers on the ground. From the Rotherham Report itself, it becomes obvious that these teen and tween girls' relations were far more complex than the "child rape" often alleged by right-wing commentators who seek to take advantage of their experiences. From various sources:

"The report cited examples of one child being described as “putting herself at risk” and another as “prostituting herself” in Bristol, for example, while case files in County Durham referred to abuse involving victims who in some cases were not yet 13 and predators in their twenties as “consensual sexual acts between young people”."[4].
"The picture which emerges is one of vulnerable young girls, some as young as 10, who were being targeted for sexual abuse and written off by authorities who believed the girls were "making their own choices". Mr Danczuk said the investigation "confirms this culture within Rochdale council, as case files show social workers believed young girls who were raped were 'making their own choices' and 'engaging in consensual sexual activity'. [...] Jon Brown, sexual abuse lead for the NSPCC, said: "Yet again we see similar concerns and failings coming up in cases of grooming gangs. "The report states that victims were viewed as 'making their own choices' and 'engaging in consensual sexual activity' even though they were below the age of consent. "No one can consent to sexual abuse, whatever their age, and children under 16 can never consent to sex. The adults involved must always be held fully responsible for what happens." [5]
"Janet Foulds, former chair of the British Association of Social Workers, was responding to a report on the Rochdale grooming case which found that some social workers thought the victims were mature enough to make their own decisions about sex. [...] "But the way that the children and young people are groomed may give people the impression that it is consensual, but it absolutely isn't.""[6]

Modern online fears

Finkelhor Investigation
See our article on Child Pornography for details about the nature of pornography and the phenomenon of "child" producers.

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.”"
BBC, 2017 citing a tabloid headline re. a girl in the Asian "Grooming Gang Scandal"
  • 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."