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Shifting Online & Growing Opportunities for Commercial Sexual Exploitation in the Era of COVID-19

Posted: May 29, 2020

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.


The shift to online communication has helped many during the COVID-19 pandemic – it has allowed children to stay in school, or white-collar workers to do their jobs while isolating in their own homes. But this new shift comes with a price for disadvantaged populations. Spending more time online poses a risk to individuals vulnerable to or already affected by sexual exploitation. Sex traffickers and buyers are just as much a part of this shift – and they are finding new ways to use modern systems to profit from commercial sexual exploitation. For victims of sex trafficking, relying on electronic communications and technology comes with its own set of consequences and greater opportunities for victimization by traffickers online.

More time spent on the internet can mean greater chances for sex traffickers – and even sex buyers – to contact and coerce victims. Due to the current economic circumstances, it is more likely that traffickers will target individuals who cannot financially support themselves in a time of financial crisis. Sudden increases in national unemployment rates can lead to “increased vulnerability” for people who are “becoming desperate” – in other words, they can become “easy targets for traffickers and trafficking online schemes.” Sex traffickers rely on exploiting these vulnerabilities in their victims; and in an era of increased isolation and desperation for normalcy and stability, the opportunities seem infinite for traffickers and buyers to do exactly that.

Even for children, the risks are incredibly high to be sexually exploited online. Children are now spending more of their time online than they would normally. Many children, while practicing social distancing and isolation for COVID-19, are “online for learning and socializing.” As a result, children are accessing online platforms and networks more than they would during school and other related activities. With this time spent online to finish the academic year or talk to friends, the opportunities are nearly endless for traffickers to exploit these vulnerabilities, now widespread and rampant. The FBI has reported that at any given moment, 750,000 child predators are online. While moving online has its benefits for students, unmonitored time spent online could provide opportunities for predators to victimize anyone they can find – especially children.

For those already in the sex trade, the push towards digital forms of exploitation has happened implicitly – and unfortunately, explicitly at times. Some states and cities, like New York City, issued guidelines at the start of the COVID-19 crisis on managing sex while navigating coronavirus concerns. For people who “make a living by having sex,” these guidelines urge them to consider “taking a break from in-person dates” and to use technology for video dates, sexting, or online chat rooms. These guidelines, while well-intentioned to curtail the spread of COVID-19, are misguided. They assume that all commercial sex is not only a choice, but one where the prostituted person has the power to decide on the transaction. For prostituted people forced by their traffickers to continue street sales of sex, buyers are increasing the risks of the situation – people “desperate to make up lost income” and needing to meet quotas will be forced to sell sex to abusive Johns, who are waiting for new victims to appear. While some can claim that they will move their “business” online and continue virtually, most prostituted people will be forced to continue performing commercial sex acts in person.

Meanwhile, for prostituted persons who can use electronic forums, sex buyers now have greater opportunities to victimize them, as well. Even those who have never been involved in the sex trade before are reportedly beginning to use online platforms, such as “OnlyFans”, to make up for lost income. This pandemic has “exacerbated and brought to the forefront the systematic and deeply entrenched” inequalities, especially those concerning race, gender and poverty, that lie at the root causes of commercial sexual exploitation. Economic experts have warned that women will be the hardest hit by COVID-19 related financial issues. Women make up 49% of the US workforce but accounted for 55% of the jobs lost this April. Further, with schools and daycare centers remaining closed, many mothers will be unable to return to work, despite some states reopening businesses. Shifting onto online forums does not eliminate the underlying exploitation at the heart of these transactions and is ultimately exposing users to an increased risk of revenge porn and stalking.

As the world continues to shift in order to best deal with COVID-19, it is important we remain vigilant about the new dangers these shifts expose the most vulnerable to. Having frank discussions with our children about online safety is key. But continuing to encourage dialogue about the harms inherit in the sex trade is vital to driving down the demand for commercial sex. If not for that demand, none of these threats or harms would exist.

Category: News

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