Tag Archives: Facebook

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.

Digital Replacements?

The latest edition of Digital Campus is now up and ready for your listening pleasure. On the podcast, Dan, Tom, and I (along with irregulars Amanda French and Bryan Alexander) discuss a variety of possible digital replacements for things we hold near and dear such as textbooks, university presses, and even — shudder — Facebook. I tried to convince everyone that Facebook was doomed and that that long awaited IPO from Facebook should happen sooner rather than later, but I’m afraid none of the others on the podcast were buying what I was selling. Do you agree with me (of course you do) or with them? Listen, decide, and leave a comment on the DC website explaining why I was right all along.

Happy Birthday Digital Campus

Digital Campus, the podcast I do with Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, is officially one year-old this week. Our 23rd episode is up and available for your listening pleasure and all three of us are pretty happy to have made it through a whole year of podcasting. Given how busy we all are, I’m particularly impressed that we managed to do 23 podcasts, which means we held pretty tightly to our every two weeks schedule. Allowing for holidays and vacations, we only missed three possible podcasts.

This episode is devoted to podcasting and what we’ve learned from the year’s work. But it’s also devoted to asking listeners for feedback on the podcast–what we could do better, what we shouldn’t change.

In the news segment, we discuss the new campus gossip craze, what happens when students create study groups on Facebook, and reasons why Apple should be giving my students iPhones to use in my classrooms.

The Open Professor

Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote a very interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times titled “The Professor as Open Book.” In the article, Rosenbloom neatly captures the tension between a desire by college and university faculty members to be more open to their students and the desire by those same faculty members to maintain some semblance of professional distance from their students.

Reading the piece I was reminded of an excellent book by Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called The Advancement of Learning. In the book, Mary and Pat argue for something they call “the teaching commons” which is a “a conceptual space in which communities of educators committed to inquiry and innovation come together to exchange ideas about teaching and learning and use them to meet the challenges of educating students for personal, professional, and civic life.”

My one critique of this book is that it seems to me that their definition of a “teaching commons” is too restrictive, because it specifically excludes students from that conceptual space. Instead, it is a place (once upon a time a faculty lounge or club, but now anything from the blogosphere to the campus coffee shop) where teaching scholars talk about their students rather than with their students.

New technologies have begun to break down this version of the teaching commons in a variety of ways. Already it is easy for our students to learn a lot about us. As one person quoted by Rosenbloom points out, all they have to do is come to our office to see the personal photographs and books that adorn our cramped professional spaces. And, if we work for a state university such things as our salaries are also matters of public record.

But we and our students also now live in a world where technology is helping to break down all sorts of boundaries–including the boundary between faculty members and their students. Some professors quoted in the Times piece evinced a nostalgia for the good old days when professors and students maintained an often strained distance from one another. But these days it is more and more common for faculty members to involve students in their research projects, to meet them for coffee in a campus coffee shop, or even to be “friends” on Facebook.

I can think of dozens of reasons why the erosion of the old boundaries between faculty members and students can be a bad idea. But I can also think of dozens more why that erosion holds the potential for positive change in the way we educate our students. The point that some in the Rosenbloom piece seem to miss is that as the professor, faculty members are and will remain in control of the terms of that relationship. If connecting with students in ways that students are comfortable with helps build learning commons (rather than teaching commons) on our campuses, all the better say I.