By Terri Galvan, professor at American Public University
The Internet is rapidly changing all aspects of our lives, including one of the oldest professions in the world – prostitution. For an industry that was once largely confined to well-known “strolls,” truck stops, and seedy brothels, technology has allowed for a level of growth that might be admirable if the consequences weren’t so devastating for the victims of sexual exploitation.
Currently, sex trafficking is the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. Far from being just a global problem, it has become a very real local problem. A quick search of popular Internet prostitution sites shows thousands of ads for service. Some of these ads are for children and teens, as Internet advertising enjoys a certain level of protection through the Communication Decency Act of 1996, designed to protect children from indecent material. As it is currently interpreted, state and local law enforcement agencies have no authority to prosecute companies responsible for these ads. This limits the ability of law enforcement to protect sex-trafficked victims sold through the Internet.
Unfortunately, the use of the Internet, and the protection it currently provides, not only complicates law enforcement efforts, it also adds additional barriers to service providers trying to assist victims of sex trafficking. Many victims are forced to stay in motel rooms, invisible to the outside world, with the expectation that they earn between $200 – $1,000 per day.Money is given to the trafficker or possibly used in support of a drug habit that keeps victims ensnared in this violent and cruel industry. Because victims are now dispersed throughout a city and largely hidden, it has become more difficult to track this crime, contributing to its growth.
Of course, the Internet is not only used by traffickers, it is also becoming the preferred method of advertising for men and women who are not being forced into prostitution. Many perceive a level of control when posting online and scheduling “dates.” Unfortunately, this provides a false sense of security. Internet prostitution can be even more dangerous than street-walking.
While buyers are offered more discretion and access, prostitutes lose the ability to react to their gut instinct, a survival tool many credit with keeping them safe. Technology has done little to ease the violent nature of prostitution that includes physical violence and rape. Removing the public nature of street prostitution in favor of arranged meetings in motels, residential brothels, and massage parlors reduces the ability for escape or public intervention.
Another serious, but less discussed, aspect of Internet prostitution is the legitimacy it is providing to buyers that often demand young prostitutes and risky sex acts. YELP-type reviews reinforce the mentality that purchasing children or exploited men and women is a common, legitimate purchase. This further feeds the sex-trafficking industry as it adjusts to consumer demand.
Ultimately, to halt the growth of this industry, legislation and enforcement will need to keep pace with technology.
Due to opposition, a recommended amendment to the Communication Decency Act put forth by the National Association of Attorney Generals may not be forthcoming. Therefore, new ideas are needed to address the challenges of Internet prostitution, without triggering free speech or Internet growth arguments. In addition, business owners must be educated on the methods of traffickers and the serious harm inflicted on the community. Finally, when caught, buyers of trafficked children should meet swift and severe punishment.
About the Author: Terri Galvan is an adjunct instructor at American Public University System, teaching courses in government and public policy. She has worked extensively in the non-profit sector and has developed successful programs to increase positive housing outcomes and the financial literacy of homeless women. In addition to teaching, she currently serves as the executive director of A Community Against Sexual Harm (CASH), a non-profit organization in Sacramento, Calif. that works with victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Terri received her B.A. from Chapman University where she majored in Social Science and her Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Southern California, specializing in urban and social policy. Her graduate research focused on developing community capacity in impoverished neighborhoods. Terri is a Pi Alpha Alpha Honor Society Member.