While women are predominantly portrayed in the media as survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and the illegal sex trade predominantly impacts women and girls, identities within the LGBTQ+ community often go unnoticed. Instances of LGBTQ commercial sexual exploitation are even more underreported than instances of heterosexual commercial sexual exploitation, yet a 2016 national study found that almost one-third of young people in the commercial sex industry are boys and young men.
The dating app Grindr, used predominantly by males seeking males, is one of the few places that young gay men recognize as an online forum to meet other gay people. This is especially alluring for young men and boys who do not have people in their social circles or families with LGBTQ identities. Often, this leads to boys lying about their age online in order to meet others, putting them at risk for sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. A 2018 Northwestern study found that more than half of sexually active gay and bisexual adolescent boys had used Grindr to find a sexual partner.
Grindr, the largest purported dating app for gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender people, requires users to be 18 years or older, but like many apps, does nothing to verify identity. And it doesn’t have to. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields companies like Grindr from liability for what people post on their platforms. While this law allows many online platforms to function without facing legal claims against them, many people are calling for reform, as they claim that Section 230 allows for sex trafficking to occur online.
German Chavez was 13 when he first downloaded Grindr to connect with other gay men. His family was unaccepting of his sexuality, so he turned to the app for empathy and community. Chavez started selling sex on the app to support his family at 14 years old, knowing that men would seek him out. Now 25, Chavez warns other young gay men to stay away from the app due to the dangerous situations that can arise from using Grindr. He says “the scary part about Grindr, that it can be, like, literally a guy who doesn’t identify as gay and just likes kids.”
This is not the first time that Grindr has been in the news. Since 2015, more than 100 men in this country have been charged with assaulting or attempting to assault minors, stemming from use of the app. In 2017, a man in Colorado was convicted for luring boys from the app into sexual servitude and human trafficking. A Massachusetts police officer is facing charges for allegedly raping a 13-year-old boy in 2018. In 2019, a City Council President in a Massachusetts town was convicted for raping a 15-year-old he met on the app.
Where should the line be drawn? Due to the stigma surrounding LGBTQ identities, instances of sexual exploitation of minors often go unreported. Yet, the app provides a forum for LGBTQ people to connect – sometimes in beneficial ways. The CSE Institute condemns those that misuse the app and applauds the work of law enforcement to target such exploitation. We encourage Grindr and similar dating apps to verify the identities of those who use their platforms in order to protect children and reduce opportunities for abuse. We will continue to research and report on this issue in the coming months.