The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the way in which the world operates. While we are still grappling with the effects the pandemic has had on those who are sold for sex, we know the inequalities at the heart of commercial sexual exploitation have only been intensified by this public health crisis. We are publishing a series of articles aimed at providing a glimpse into how COVID-19 is impacting various areas of the commercial sex trade. We hope this series is informative and will inspire our readers to continue advocating for those who are commercially sexually exploited, especially during this trying time.
While social distancing is an effective tool in combatting the spread of coronavirus, it comes with consequences. The emotional consequences of self-quarantining have garnered significant media attention and public outcry. Rightfully so, as the toll on individuals’ mental health, especially those who suffer from depression and anxiety, is indescribable. People have been cut off from public services and spaces, like libraries – meaning less access to free internet resources. Academic institutions, including schools and college campuses, have shut down for the academic year and have sent students home. This crisis has revealed the significant disparity in accessing stable internet or adequate technology to survive while isolated in peoples’ own homes. However, individuals lying at the intersection of these issues will suffer the most.
Social distancing’s impact is depriving those experiencing interpersonal violence access to resources and safety. Vulnerable persons are now being further separated from any service provider who would normally intervene in the event of suspected abuse or provide services to assist them. For current victims of domestic and interpersonal violence, including sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, social distancing makes it harder to leave abusive partners and forces a wedge between them and their family or friends, upon whom they could otherwise rely for help. Many services may be deemed inessential due to ignorance or lack of awareness of the critical roles they play in the lives of those being forced to prostitute. Many domestic violence services have moved to assistance by phone “to maintain social distancing strategies” and abide by local and state orders to close their doors to the public. However, due to isolation with abusive partners and family members, victims no longer have ample freedom or opportunities to call these services. Social workers and non-profit services are reporting widespread difficulties contacting their clients or providing much help from a distance, being unable to intervene in dangerous living situations.
Those being trafficked for sex will bear the brunt of this hardship, as isolation places them at greater risks of violence with even less access to help.
Gone are the days when a bystander can see something and say something – social distancing has cut off time spent in public spaces where victims could ask for help or separate themselves from their trafficker. For people experiencing intense physical violence, the “demands of social distancing mean the most vulnerable in our society might be distanced right out of existence.”
Encouragement to stay home and practice social distancing means that victims are now spending more time with abusers and traffickers – and are now even more vulnerable. “Abusers don’t do well with stress,” meaning that this crisis will escalate “the chance of violence in the home.” Traffickers are resorting to more violent means of imposing authority in captivity – across the country, fears of isolation during this crisis have caused a spike in purchases for guns and tactical body armor. School closures have children in their homes, exposing them to greater violence without access to intervening adults, such as teachers or pediatricians. This will ultimately lead to higher rates of domestic violence and child abuse, increased exposure to familial violence – and is creating more opportunities for traffickers to prey on vulnerable populations.
In Scotland, there have already been fears for victims who, when they fail to “bring in a profit” for their abusers due to health concerns, will be abandoned on the streets. It is not hard to imagine the same scenario occurring in the United States. While experiencing greater financial hardship and victimization by traffickers, victims will be subjected to greater violence and opportunities for exposure to contract COVID-19, or forms of violence from traffickers and sex buyers alike.
More than two months into this crisis, senators have started demanding more help for victims and survivors of domestic violence in the coming legislation for coronavirus relief. These efforts focus on funding for anti-sexual violence programs, greater protections for indigenous women and children during isolation, and increased funding for sexual assault response centers – all vital protections for people experiencing intense sexual violence. However, these efforts need to explicitly include victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Victims and survivors need to be protected in their push for greater safety and stability as they try to practice social distancing. Human trafficking poses a large threat to vulnerable people, looking for stability in a time of constant change and crisis. All in all, the increased risk of victimization for vulnerable populations caused by this pandemic means that greater protections must be in place.
The CSE Institute encourages both policy makers and community members to recognize the distinct vulnerabilities that victims and survivors of CSE face during times of great economic instability. While the demand for commercial sex continues during the pandemic, it is critical that the most vulnerable are given opportunities and resources to protect themselves from victimization. Policies and resources must focus on access to healthcare, proper housing and income stability that will benefit potential victims and survivors who are struggling during these uncertain times. Despite the substantial impact the pandemic continues to have on access to beneficial resources, there are still providers dedicated to helping those affected by sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.