[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.