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Student Blog Series: How the Monetization of Engagement and Attention Boosts the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Women

Posted: March 1, 2024

One cannot examine social media without a sufficient nod to its sister phenom: the social media influencer. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter/X, and TikTok have paved the way for an influx of individuals, known as “influencers”, who leverage their personal brand to promote products, drive profits, and sway public opinion. This is achieved through audience engagement, which does not sound harmful in and of itself, but behind the veil of suggestive poses and seemingly innocent pouts lies a multi-tiered framework of self-commodification through sexualized labor that undeniably affects the lives of women and girls.

The influencer’s power to grasp and retain the attention of followers and their ability to profit off this system is called the “attention economy”. These engagement practices involve the incorporation of a ‘porn chic’ aesthetic– a style that reflects the aesthetics of commercial pornography in Western societies. This development has led to an occurrence known as pornographication, which occurs when social media posts blur the line between pornographic imagery and traditionally non-pornographic forms of popular culture, like Instagram posts. This phenomenon shows how the monetization of a brand can quickly blur into the monetization of the body, normalizing sexualization and, in turn, commercial sexual exploitation.

The pornographication of social media reveals Instagram’s role in advancing the commercial sexual exploitation of women as well as why there is cause for concern. The first alarming instance involves sexualized Instagram shoutout pages; shoutout pages are dedicated to soliciting, compiling, and exhibiting other users’ accounts with tags linking their account to the post, and often include third-party contact with the influencer. These pages exist on large-scale scenes today in a world known as “e-pimping,” where companies have access to influencers’ Instagram and OnlyFans accounts and monetize and profit off their brands. Thus, shoutout pages and companies’ power over influencers reveal the controlling nature of the attention economy and its potential to reinforce and encourage forms of sexualized labor and pornographication.

With the rise of the Internet and social media, the stark lines between the social and the commercial have become increasingly blurred, and those who profit off this shift have taken notice. The exploitation of influencers through the monetization of their body is unfortunately not a new phenomenon; the modeling industry has profited off this exploitation framework for years with impunity. Additionally, new systems of exploitation are materializing in part with the help of social media and the attention economy’s ability to blend the stark reality of commercial sexual exploitation into the influencer illusion. One example is the “atmosphere model”, a model or influencer who accepts an offer from a man in her DMs to fly to a location and party with him or his clients in exchange for money or sexual favors. Other examples include influencers who encourage sugaring or OnlyFans.

The potential for exploitation is apparent and realized on many of these platforms when young women and girls see the opportunities that increased attention may provide, for example, luxury items, travel, or financial freedom. However, in seeking influencer status, the price to pay for attention is most often sexualized labor. The glamorized lifestyle that social media and the attention economy advance exposes those coming from places of vulnerability and seeking the influencer fantasy to commercial sexual exploitation. This population may see an opportunity for success, easy money, or fame, but the reality is a multi-faceted framework of self-commodification that is not controlled by the individuals behind the body.

This reality demonstrates how Instagram facilitates a system that encourages the commercial sexual exploitation of women, where attention is currency, and women are commodities. The issue here lies in who is pushing the brand and who is monetizing off the engagement. According to the Polaris Human Trafficking Survivor Survey, 26% of the victims said they were exploited or advertised through their social media accounts. As the monetization of attention pushes individuals to monetize their brands and increasingly their bodies, a space is growing for the trafficker, the “e-pimp,” or the direct messenger to exploit the victim’s digital position and prey on their individual vulnerabilities. The CSE Institute urges the need to hold platforms like Instagram accountable for the dangerous spaces for commercial sexual exploitation they are allowing to emerge.

Below are several ways in which you can bring awareness to this issue and help to take steps toward positive change:

  1. Listen to survivors’ stories: Hearing first-hand accounts of the impact the sex trade can increase awareness for the best ways to help and support sexually exploited persons.
  2. Volunteer: Ask local or national anti-trafficking organizations how you can best support them. The CSE Institute is one of many organizations that conducts research, educates individuals and groups with the skills and knowledge that they need to improve the legal system’s responses to sexual exploitation, and engages with the survivor community. The institute promotes victim-centered, trauma-informed multidisciplinary collaboration and education and technical assistance to trafficking responders.
  3. Use your voice: Reach out to representatives in your community and ask what they are doing to address these issues.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Julia Snyder on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 

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