Facebook and Sex Trafficking

[NB: This post contains content that might not be suitable for all ages.]

Regular readers of this blog will know that this semester I’m teaching a course on the history of human trafficking. One of the students in my class wrote a very good paper on the impact of technological change on the sex trafficking industry and in the paper the student discussed, among other things, the increasing use of social networks to promote prostitution.

Just to be clear, prostitution is not illegal everywhere and reasonable people can come to very different conclusions about whether adults should be allowed to sell or purchase sex to/from other adults. But the realities of the sex global sex market as it exists today are that a substantial majority of the women and men providing sexual services for a price are doing so under duress–they have been trafficked and live in states of complete or almost complete slavery. A very large percentage of these people worldwide are under the age of 18. And in case you were wondering, the average age at which someone becomes a prostitute in the United States hovers around 13, a finding that should disabuse anyone of the notion that most prostitutes are selling sex as a matter of choice.

One of the parts of my student’s paper that caught my attention was the section that dealt with the use of Facebook and other social networks for the buying and selling of sex. Because I’m a historian, I’m a natural skeptic and so I decided to see whether there was good evidence that Facebook has begun to take up some of the slack from Craigslist, now that the latter site has begun to clamp down on the use of its site by those selling sex, many (if not most) of whom are/were under the control of pimps and other traffickers.

Because I have two children, one of whom is already on Facebook and the other of whom is already wanting to know when he can have a page of his own, I also have a personal reason for wanting an answer to this question.

Here’s what I found: If you want an “escort” or a “sensual massage,” Facebook can set you right up. With minimal searching, I found a variety of pages for escorts in Germany, the Persian Gulf, the United Kingdom, and India, and links to massage parlors in the United States as well as around the world. Lest you think these massage parlors are offering sports massage or something similarly benign, a quick scan of their pages (such as the one to the left) indicates that they are most definitely not offering therapeutic massage.

I recently met with some key people at the Polaris Project, one of America’s more important anti-trafficking organizations, and among the things I learned that day is that almost all “massage parlors” in the United States are implicated, not just in prostitution (as you might expect), but in the trafficking and therefore slavery of women for sex, especially women from Asia. And Facebook is giving these sorts of establishments an outlet on the web.

Perhaps even more unsettling are the pages I found, such as the one in this image, that are openly soliciting women for work as prostitutes. Again, it should be noted that prostitution is legal in many countries around the world. But the research on sex trafficking is clear that even where prostitution is legal, many (if not most) of the prostitutes working in a given country are victims of trafficking, meaning they are unfree and are forced to service as many as a dozen or more clients each day. Those seeking to traffick women and men for sex use a variety of strategies to lure them into slavery, so why should we be surprised that Facebook is becoming a tool of choice. After all, if you want to find teenagers, where better to look?

Colleagues regularly ask me whether or not I might consider using Facebook in some way in my teaching. And more and more we see examples of educational software developers coming up with applications that integrate various teaching and learning tools with Facebook. The results of my research on Facebook’s role as a platform for the buying and selling of sex, and therefore likely also the buying and selling of humans against their will, convinces me that it is no place for educators until its policies change.

7 thoughts on “Facebook and Sex Trafficking

  1. Jeff

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this, Prof. Kelly. My high school students are always shocked to find out that human trafficking still exists, so to find out that one of their favorite websites might just be illicit in it will be shocking to them.

    Great read, as always!

  2. Anna

    There’s a terrific book everyone should share with their friends and age-appropriate children: “Sold”, a harrowing first person account of trafficking, rape, and being freed. It’s by Patricia McCormick and it’s the only book of its kind I’ve seen. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a fuller account of stories like these.

  3. Axel Boldt

    Since you are a historian and a natural skeptic, maybe you should first research the evidence for the claims you make here.

    The often repeated claim that 13 is the average age of entry into prostitution comes from M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines, 1982, “Victimization of street prostitutes”, Victimology: An International Journal, 7: 122-133. So the data is 28 years old, and it only covers street prostitutes, a small minority of all prostitutes. Furthermore it was not a representative survey. Lastly, an *average* age of entry of 13 is highly unlikely for arithmetic reasons alone.

    Further you state “the research on sex trafficking is clear that even where prostitution is legal, many (if not most) of the prostitutes working in a given country are victims of trafficking”. I don’t know what piece of research you are referring to here. Many organizations depend on dramatic trafficking numbers for their financial support, and accordingly publish reports that produce the needed numbers. For a dose of reality: in Germany, where prostitution is completely legal, there are an estimated 400,000 prostitutes, and the German federal police lists for 2009 a grand total of 710 victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation (see http://www.cbss.org/component/option,com_attachments/id,803/lang,en/task,download/ ) Note that the UN considers Germany a top destination for trafficking victims (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6497799.stm). For the meager data on sex trafficking in the US and UK, compare http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/22/AR2007092201401.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/20/government-trafficking-enquiry-fails

    Best regards,
    Axel Boldt

  4. Mills Post author

    Thanks to all who have responded thus far. As for Axel’s critique here, my response is that my statement about the age at which women enter into prostitution comes from the Department of Justice. I’ll admit that the arithmetic does seem problematic. So let’s say that it’s substantially wrong and that the average age it is much higher, say 16-19? Does that change the point that Facebook has become a place to find prostitutes online? With regard to the second question about prostitutes and traffickers, here I rely on recent works by Kara (2008) and Shelly (2010) on the connections between the two. The problem with the low numbers of women listed by police as victims of trafficking is that those numbers are based on arrests and rescues, not on the numbers of women actually under the control of traffickers. As with all data on criminal activity (trafficking, not prostitution in the German case), data will always be poor because criminals don’t fill out surveys that allow social scientists to produce strong estimates of actual activity. So we are left with an argument about counting.

    I’m still not expert enough on the subject of trafficking to participate in that argument in an informed way, so I’ll stick to the larger point of my post. Given that Facebook (and, one would assume, other social networking sites) have become platforms for the buying and selling of sex, these sites are not appropriate sites for educators to develop learning tools for that force their students onto those platforms. I want to emphasize the word force here, because teachers have strong powers of compulsion. If I tell my students that in order to receive a grade in my class they must use an application that runs via Facebook, they really have little choice, short of an appeal to the Dean, but to do what I demand.

    Once on Facebook, they have exposed much of themselves to the data mining skills of the Facebook staff. In effect, I’ve forced them (in this example) to provide data about themselves to marketers. A closed system like Blackboard (which I hate) has the beneficial characteristic of keeping all such data out of the market place.

    As for the appropriateness of pushing students into a system that is also used for the buying and selling of sex, I think we could argue the point that university students are adults and so are responsible for their own choices about which profile pages they view. I’m also writing to K-12 educators here, and I think it’s very clear that given the open market for sex on Facebook, those teaching minors should not be utilizing Facebook or any other open networking platform for educational purposes. Any teacher (at least in the U.S.) who does so , takes a significant risk of parental backlash and I don’t think the benefits could outweigh the risks.

  5. Jude

    As a parent, I encouraged my sons’ high school band teacher to set up a Facebook page for band. I love this page, which provides updated information for our band and is generally just a lot of fun. He also has a website (which I helped him set up) and the Facebook page points to the website, which is useful. His Facebook page builds community for the band program. The more useful approach to the issue is to educate kids about the dangers and privacy implications. What does it mean when you’re all over the internet, commenting on blogs and letting people see your full Facebook profile? Just as I educated them about unsafe sex, drug and alcohol abuse, and keeping their social security cards in a safe place, I educated them about Facebook. The trick is to use it and let it use you as little as possible (see the ACLU blog for their Facebook & other internet site privacy concerns) http://www.facebook.com/pages/RHS-Bands/340502541390

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