Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Detective John Morgan - Cuyahoga County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force
Felipé Aros-Vera - Ph.D. Ohio University
Wednesday 29th June 2021
Sex trafficking in the United States is not a novel concept. The exploitation of vulnerable populations for commercial benefit has been a part of our societal and economic structures since the founding of this country. While we like to think of ourselves as having evolved from the centuries of servitude that hinder our progress as a nation, the insidiousness of trafficking in humans remains a serious issue, both domestically and globally. Sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, coercion, or age to obtain some type of commercial sex act. Sex trafficking is a criminal enterprise, and is distinguishable from voluntary/independent commercial sex.
The multifaceted efforts to increase awareness about sex trafficking have increased the number of cases reported and prosecuted in the United States. Our ability to identify, rescue and ultimately restore sex trafficking victims as functioning members of our society has benefitted from: (1) enhancements to the laws that define sex trafficking, (2) special court dockets for victims, (3) substantial increases in the number and type of resources dedicated to investigating and prosecuting sex trafficking cases, and (4) increases in the type and number of victims services organizations. Advances in technology have also enhanced our ability to identify potentially suspicious activities, and have also contributed favourably to our ability to contact and locate victims.
For law enforcement specifically, the role of technology in commercial sex trafficking is a double-edged sword. While technology enables individuals to connect with one another, and to connect victims to law enforcement and victims’ services, social media and and the internet are also being used by traffickers at all stages of the crime: from initial contact / identification of potential victims, through grooming, recruitment, and ultimately the exploitation of victims. Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that was founded in 2004 with the goal of competing with craigslist.org, eventually emerged at the center of the commercial sex debate. Following a years’ long and very public battle over its “adult” and “personal” advertising, and the possible linkages to sex trafficking, craigslist.org stopped allowing its users to post such ads, and Backpage.com became the single largest marketplace for buying and selling commercial sex services. While it is irrefutable that platforms such as Backpage.com provided a relatively safer way for those that chose to engage in commercial sex to do business, it became the target of both government agencies’ and victims’ advocates’ ire over concerns that the site was being used to facilitate the exploitation and trafficking of women and children.
Victims’ advocates and others celebrated when Backpage.com was ultimately seized and shut down by federal law enforcement authorities in April 2018, certain in their views that “[s]hutting down the largest online U.S. marketplace for sex trafficking will dramatically reduce the profitability of forcing people into the commercial sex trade...”. Concerns over the free speech implications of shutting down Backpage.com overshadowed other significant concerns by the law enforcement community and by individuals who chose to work in the commercial sex business. Although no one refuted that Backpage.com was being used for nefarious and even criminal purposes, the debate over advertising for commercial sex services was and continues to be inherently muddied by a tendency to conflate prostitution and sex trafficking. This makes identifying and implementing effective solutions that deter exploitation but don’t carry with them unintended consequences that make it less safe for those that voluntarily make their living in the commercial sex trade all the more difficult. Many in the law enforcement community also feared that removing Backpage.com from the picture entirely would only force the more criminal elements in the commercial sex trade even further underground. That is precisely what happened, and unfortunately, good intentions have made the fight against sex trafficking even more difficult.
Despite the egregious nature of some of Backpage.com’s conduct, there was some benefit to having a one-stop shopping site for commercial sex services, particularly given the general feeling among law enforcement that Backpage.com was relatively cooperative (at least initially) with their efforts to disrupt illicit sex trafficking. Following the seizure of Backpage.com, sex traffickers scrambled to find new sites to connect supply and demand, and law enforcement had to similarly scramble to identify meaningful (human) sources who could help them identify other sites where traffickers relocated their commercial sex advertisements. What has emerged is a patchwork of alternative websites such as Chaturbate.com, OnlyFans.com and LiveHDCams.com, each possessing unique technological attributes, privacy and security standards, and having unique ownership, payment options, and in some instances being domiciled and/or having servers located in other countries and out of the reach of US law enforcement. The collective impact of the litany of sites that both commercial sex workers and illicit sex traffickers have available to them has continued to grow exponentially during COVID-19, and has stretched law enforcement resources dedicated to combatting sex trafficking to new limits.
While the unique features of many of these sites prove beneficial to those in the voluntary/independent commercial sex trade by enhancing personal anonymity, physical safety, and the ability to accept payment via various digital platforms such as PayPal and Venmo, the same features have revolutionized the way sex traffickers identify, communicate with, groom, recruit, and exploit their victims. These platforms have made it infinitely more difficult for law enforcement to identify and locate victims due to sophisticated encryption capabilities. This further enables the financial crimes side of sex trafficking, by allowing traffickers to obscure and evade traditional tactics for identifying potentially suspicious activity. Because these platforms also lead to much greater and more diversified revenue opportunities for sex traffickers, the incentive to continuously evolve their approach to sex trafficking while also evading law enforcement is extremely high.
As long as the demand for commercial sex exists, sex traffickers will find new ways to meet that demand via the use of technology and literally any other available means. The ability of criminal sex traffickers to leverage all available technologies to exploit our most vulnerable populations is further exacerbated by a number of other factors, including: a complex and imperfect criminal justice system; a fundamental misunderstanding of the distinctions between voluntary/independent commercial sex and sex trafficking; inadequate staffing, training and technological expertise/resources among law enforcement agencies; lack of communication, cooperation, and information sharing among private and public resources, and at all levels of government; and the very limited availability of meaningful technological tools that law enforcement can use to detect, prevent, investigate and ultimately prosecute sex trafficking crimes. Although a number of initiatives from both the public and private sectors have advanced the use of modern technologies to fight sex trafficking, those initiatives are proving inadequate to keep up with the constantly evolving and increasingly clandestine activities of sex traffickers. A more coordinated and cohesive approach between the public and private sectors, academia, victims’ services, and leaders in technological innovation is necessary to evolve our approach to combatting sex trafficking in the United States.