Child Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Online: Escort Websites

child sex trafficking victims

Child sex trafficking statistics are shocking. The Justice Department estimates that each year 200,000 children are at risk for being trafficked for sex in the U.S.

What some people don’t know is that many of these children are bought and sold on some of the same sites others may use to sell their bike, find a roommate or look for a local garage sale.

In a recent Thorn survey, 70% of survivors of child trafficking said they were advertised online at some point while they were being trafficked. In these scenarios, pimps and traffickers, or in some cases the victims themselves, post photos and write classified advertisements on escort sites for buyers to browse. These ads often represent children, some as young as 12-14 years old.

“People are posted and sold online multiple times a day. As far as the ad that was posted up [for me], there was a girl who eerily looked like me … just [like] you can go find a car, there was a picture, and a description, and a price.” -Asia, survivor of sex trafficking

An FBI investigation found that 2,800 ads of prostituted children were posted on Craigslist in 2008 alone. Although the Craigslist Adult Services section has since been removed from Craigslist.org, there are many online escort services websites that remain operational today — some are said to account for more than 70% of the market for prostitution ads. Websites like Backpage.com are ideal for pimps and sex traffickers because as private companies, they aren’t required to disclose the advertisement owners’ names. In these scenarios, the same Internet privacy rights being defended in court are aiding the anonymity of child sex traffickers. The digital black market for sex advertisements is contributing to one component of a growing human trafficking industry that is estimated to generate upward of $32 billion per year. 

It’s time for this to end.

At Thorn, we work on several programs that are directed at preventing children from being advertised and sold online. First, we conduct a national survey of child sex trafficking survivors to give them a voice and ensure that their actual experiences are fueling our program development. Frequently, the survivors’ accounts help us learn about new escort sites and new code words used by pimps and johns. Consequently, we can develop tools and programs that help us better deter offenders’ behavior. In particular, we run online communications programs that target men who may be interested in buying sex, communicating to them the realities of the sex trade and dissolving their illusion that these children may be willing participants in the trade. Second, we target women and children who may be online – forced to post their own ads – and offer them resources and options to reach out for help.  And, third, we work with law enforcement to build tools that helps them make sense of the noise online – fine tuning their investigations to focus on finding child sex trafficking victims.

Ready to join the fight? Sign up for updates if you want to help fight child trafficking, or support Thorn programs that are working to rescue victims by donating to stop child trafficking now.

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